Semi-comic look by Michael O’Neill and Jeremy Seabrook at the effects of American-style corporate culture on a lower-middle-class provincial family. In the opening scene, set in 1958, ostensibly on the 17th floor of Seattle’s Everest Insurance building, the chiarman and various economic advisers of Fontaine Cosmetics (incorporating the Pacific Coast perfume and Toilet Water Company), a downmarket direct sales enterprise clearly modelled on Avon, thrash out plans for expansion into Europe, alighting, by the most haphazard of measures, on the fictional Oxfordshire town of Litchborough (he was stationed there during the war and quite liked it). Fast forward to the present, and Gerry and Doris Muddiman (Donald Pleasence and Sylvia ‘Penny’s mum off Just Good Friends’ Kay) are preparing for their shifts at the Fontaine factory. Doris is bright, cheery, and totally and utterly grateful for the prosperity Fontaine has brought to the area. Gerry, an old school trade unionist, is more sarcastic, and bitter about the lack of union representation within the company.
Their teenage son, Paul, goes to drama workshops organised by Madeleine (Jean ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ Marsh), the wife of regional chairman Robert Walsh (Donand ‘War and Peace’ Douglas), and is in line for a possible sponsored university scholarship, about which Gerry is also scathing. At work, Doris and her fellow workers fill bottles with something called Hint of Hibiscus while merrily cracking bawdy gags, while Gerry, in quality control, smokes, shirks and rants about the days of union strength to an unimpressed junior colleague, before a shifty-eyed production monitor (Colin Jeavons) confronts him, and grasses his TGWU leafleting campaing up to Walsh. The Fontaine Family Fun day, a coach outing to a horse brass and prawn cocktail pub restaurant, gives the workers an opportunity to get obscenely drunk, and Robert and Madeleine Walsh the chance to “mix” with the lower castes, resulting in a scene of fantastically forced awkwardness, although Madeleine and Paul strike up something more akin to a conversation, and she invites him for personal tuition in French at their “ranch house”. The next few scenes cut between Madeleine and Paul, reading Baudelaire and rehearsing a bizarrely awful play called Hot Wind From the Delta, and Gerry and Doris in their kitchen chewing the fat about Fontaine. Paul opens up, relaxed at being able to be himself for once, while Madeleine, for her part, comes on to the lad in no uncertain terms. Paul is awarded the scholarship, and the Muddimans are invited over to a dinner party at the Walshes’ to celebrate, which quickly gets out of hand as Gerry singularly fails to suppress his ill feeling toward Walsh, and he eventually storms out, with Doris following.
Back home, recriminations fly as the pair contemplate mutual redundancy, and Doris threatens to walk out. Meanwhile, Walsh and the visiting company secretary from the first scene, noting falling profits, draw up a scheme of “redeployment” in a cunning way to avoid making actual redundancies. Summarily demoted to the packing department, Gerry plots a slow revolution, though the final scene brilliantly undercuts everything. Back in Seattle, the chairman of Fontaine, exasperated by British labour costs, decides to close the Litchborough operation as casually as it was launched, and hits upon Fez, Morocco as the site for the new plant, because his wife went there once and quite liked it. Thus the struggles of every character in the play are reduced to nothing in a moment of skillful bathos.
O’Neill and Seabrook’s play stands out from other anti-corporate pieces of the time in other ways as well – the Oxfordshire burrs of the workers make a nice change from the standard “up north” idiom usually heard in plays concerning the exploited working man, and the fact that half the workforce is female in this instance helps too – indeed, setting the play in a perfume factory negates any macho romanticism about working class labour. As well as the accents, the bawdy jokes, provincial trimmings, awful play and references to the Rolf Harris Show provide a comic grounding in reality, thus preventing the play taking off into some abstracted, quasi-sci-fi limbo, into which aspects like the serried ducts and pipettes of the factory floor, and the Big Brother aspect of Fontaine propaganda, could easily push it. The result is a well-written indictment of the grandiose, inhuman pretensions of corporatism, which itself manages to avoid the grandiose, inhuman pretensions of bad anti-corporate fiction.