Show caption Fine performances … Aimee-Ffion Edwards (left) and Poppy Lee Friar in Life and Death in the Warehouse. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/BBC TV review Life and Death in the Warehouse review – the terrible true cost of online shopping This shocking drama uses the real experience of hundreds of warehouse ‘pickers’ to tell the grim story of those who enable our internet shopping habits Lucy Mangan @LucyMangan Mon 7 Mar 2022 22.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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It may not turn you full communist by the end of its single hour, but it’s hard to imagine that new screenwriter Helen Black’s punchy fact-based drama Life and Death in the Warehouse (BBC Three) won’t help shift every viewer’s individual dial to walk to an independent shop next time they need something. It’s a grim story of the behind-the-scenes work that provides us consumers with a life of unparalleled convenience.
Our stage is set in an Amazonian warehouse. I use the adjective to mean “massive” only, you understand. Although the online retail giant Amazon has been accused of and associated with many of the practices depicted in Life and Death’s tale of abused and exploited workers, it has rejected all such claims and its name – heaven forfend! – is never mentioned here. A series of opening captions says only that the recent boom in online shopping has created an invisible army of about 1 million warehouse workers, hundreds of whose experiences at various places have been used as the basis for the drama. “Some of these companies you will know, others you won’t have heard of,” it explains. Between the captions, scenes of a woman miscarrying in a toilet cubicle play out, before we move back in time to where this emblematic catastrophe began.
As shift workers queue for entry outside a warehouse that serves as the main employer in a small Welsh town, two old school friends catch sight of each other. Alys (Poppy Lee Friar) is a picker – as the name suggests, it is her job to find and take the orders off the miles upon miles of shelves within as their locations come in on her handset and headphones. Unlike most, she has worked her way up to one of the rare permanent positions – held out as a spur to ambition for all, despite the vast odds against securing one – and she wears one of the coveted green vests to prove it. Megan (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) is waiting to start her first day as a management trainee, under the tutelage of senior manager Danny (Craig Parkinson, in the cold-blooded reptilian mode that brought him to public notice as the Caddy in Line of Duty) and his acolytes Donna (Kimberley Nixon, a dead-eyed mean girl all grown up) and Sean (Sion Daniel Young), who appears to have abstained from the Kool Aid occasionally while the other two drank their fill and more.
In one corner of the screen we are shown the days of Megan’s probation passing. In another, we watch as the increasingly pregnant Alys’s all-important pick rate dwindles, bringing down her team’s average, which Megan now heads. Megan’s instinct to help – to shift Alys temporarily to a less demanding role, cut her the necessary slack in other minor ways – and her assumption that company policy and Danny will allow for this are eroded at every turn. From refusing to accommodate Alys’s physical needs, despite medical confirmation of the problems with her pregnancy to hauling Megan over the coals for calling an ambulance when Alys collapses during a shift (making their statistics look even worse and occasioning an item on the news), the unfolding disaster is a study in what happens when humanity is subordinated to corporate greed, the futility of individual desire or even action in a system immaculately designed to stymie and suppress it, and the true cost of cheap goods and charming convenience.
Yes, it’s agitprop in the sense that it condenses many problems into a single programme and concentrates the mind on them alone, at the expense of wider context and a notional opposing point of view. And, in cramming them all in, it doesn’t have the time or space to go deeply into any of them. But that’s not the point. The point is to showcase as many injustices as powerfully as possible – by individualising systemic wrongs and making concrete intangible violations – of the spirit, of the social contract, of the endlessly unedifying effects of untrammelled capitalism.
Black’s drama does this perfectly, aided by fine performances (including Aled ap Steffan as Alys’s friend, co-worker and brave union rep Devon). It covers a lot of sociopolitical ground without forgetting to make us care about the people – those 1 million and counting – who are suffering as its footsoldiers.
It ends on a half-note of hope, but one that suggests that the answer – and by implication the current blame – lies in individual behaviour and change. That will surely be part of any solution, of course, but it is only collective action that will pressurise the governments that must bring about true change, that will alter society’s view on how much we will tolerate in the name of capitalism. But perhaps I’m going full communist. Perhaps a little bricks-and-mortar shopping will be enough.