The recent economic downturn has brought out a bizarre obsession in the British public with the extremes of the class system. At the bottom, Benefits Street and Skint draw criticism and praise in equal measure. Are they true portrayals of the lives of people being left behind the pursuit of economic growth whatever the cost? Or are they merely a conduit for the middle-classes to tut at the participants personal failures?

At the other end of the spectrum is the ever-growing number of programmes dedicated to the lives of the super-rich. How they holiday, where they shop, what they buy – all this and more is up for view. Liberty of London is one such documentary series. On the surface it is about a world-famous London department store as it adapts to a 21st-century economic climate and consumer base. Yet dig deeper and it, perhaps accidentally, reflects contemporary social concerns not only by what is shown to the viewers, but also by what isn’t.

Last night’s episode covered a lot of different issues. There was a short plotline of the store trying to woo Chinese visitors, with a consultant on Chinese shopping habits trying to lead a group of tourists around the store with tales of its heritage and clientele whilst the tourists in question only showed interest in hunting out some Burberry merchandise. Having the right status symbol trumps bowing to past every time.

Meanwhile, Bruce’s semi-independent carpet kingdom was under threat from Liz, the Head of Visual Identity. For her, the handwritten price labels and cluttered displays had to go. Instead, proper themed areas and yellow plinths were deemed the order of the day. Upon returning from his business trip in Morocco quietly assassinated the end result. Liz had left him no space to wrap client purchases. Even worse, the plinths were the same colour as those in Selfridge’s. The horror!

The storyline that most intrigued me though was that of Judy the receptionist’s campaign to revitalise the staff cafeteria. It was eye-opening to see the transition from such luxury on the shop floor to the dull, shabby and dirty staff areas. This raised for me so many questions that were left unanswered. Firstly, how much are the staff paid – minimum wage? A living wage? More? Also, how high is staff morale? For every member of staff that can talk of decades of proud service, there seems to be another leaving before they have even took their coat off.

Perhaps in a way, Liberty of London services our fascination with both ends of the social order. Out front, a world of luxury and nostalgia, tempered with a willingness to try new things that fit right. In the back, hard work being barely rewarded, and a more employment-savvy staff less willing to stand for it. Retail is detail, and that includes what happens behind closed doors.

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