Mary Portas aims to show us again in her new series Mary’s Bottom Line that you can save the world armed only with a great idea, some fabulous PR, oh, and a TV crew.
Mary is out to rescue British manufacturing by making all-British knickers, and not just big, white, Bridget Jones pants, but undergarments that are lacy, sophisticated and overall good-value. You just know that the series would not have got commissioned if she was making socks.
She is a woman for whom only extreme adjectives apply, and with her iconic red bob and hard-nosed comments, can only inspire love or loathing in those who meet her. What is clear though, is that Mary cares. Mary cares that the Great has fallen out of Britain, and uses retail and fashion to ram that message home.
Manufacturing in this country, particularly clothing and textiles, has all but evaporated according to a blizzard of statistics thrown at the screen, and her tour of Rochdale and its rotting infrastructure and crumbling mills seems to back that up. She points to France and perhaps curiously Austria as paradigms of the manufacturing ideal, certainly when it comes to stretch lace. It might be surprising to note, then, that manufacturing has been going up in the UK for a number of years, and now accounts for 12% of GDP (financial services are 9%), which is more than both France and the US. We don’t always see it because almost half is exported.
What cannot be ignored, and what la Portas plays on, is that youth unemployment is at its highest ever, with over 1 million 16-24 year olds out of work, a staggering 21%. She is showing us a lost generation in the making, on a scale to dwarf Thatcher’s children.
She has 8 paid places for 12 month contracts to learn how to make knickers, and sets up shop in a mothballed garment factory in Middleton, Greater Manchester. The company that owns the factory still design and distribute, but have shifted production abroad. It is, however, getting increasingly expensive with higher wage demands in foreign countries and the increasing cost of transportation. Maybe now is the time to shift manufacturing back?
On interview day, 300 people are standing outside. No doubt some of them want to be on telly, but a lot of them clearly want jobs, to break a cycle of benefit dependency, a cycle that stretches back into families where neither of their parents has ever had a job.
What you see is that behind the glitz, Mary has gathered a good team made up of former garment makers, professional HR people, and the head of the company that owns the factory, and she defers to them in almost all of the job choices. She knows how to delegate, which is a skill if not learnt is the death-knell of any organisation, no matter how successful it is. But she also knows when to shake things up, and deliberately chooses someone who looks like a no-hoper, but who perhaps is hiding some real talent. Or not, if the end credits are to be believed. Of course if makes good TV, but it also shows that you do need to take some calculated risks in order to keep moving forward.
So far, what we are seeing is a reinforcement of stereotypes: Manufacturing is dead, the youth are on the street, and the North is a crumbling wreck of boarded-up shops. But like the best clichés, she is also showing us a truth about ourselves. We spent a whole generation striving for “cheap”, allowing jobs to be offshored, reorganised and just plain lost. It is easy to blame the “global economy” for all of our problems, but Mary is saying that you should take a look at the label in your pants, and think how many fewer unemployed there would be if it said “Made in Britain”, and not “Made in Bangladesh”