The first season of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983), first released 35 years ago, is often explained as being a response to the unemployment and social unrest brought about by Thatcherism. It may tell us more about Britain’s relationship with “Europe” today.
For a series supposedly about the great changes forced upon Britain in the 1980s by globalisation and Margaret Thatcher, it is surprising how absent historical explanations are from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. The causes of industrial decline, mass unemployment and social unrest, and ultimately why our seven working-class protagonists have found themselves working in Düsseldorf, Germany, are dealt with only briefly in the first episode.
For Barry, the show’s bumbling Brummie, they have ended up in this mess due to “misguided and misconstrued” policies. Thatcherism is to blame but why and how is not relevant. What we do know is that it is nearly impossible to find a job back home in Britain. The unemployed have been offered an ultimatum: either line-up in one of the country’s snaking dole queues or leave home and search for a job elsewhere.
The series opens with Dennis (Tim Healey), Neville (Kevin Whateley) and Oz (Jimmy Nail), three unemployed Geordie bricklayers, opting for the latter course. They are on their way to West Germany in a battered Ford Zephyr. Oz, the owner of the car, has cancelled its insurance to acquire a bit of spending money for the trip. A few hours into their continental adventure, the car breaks down and they find themselves marooned on a German motorway. With no insurance to pay for the repairs, the three Geordies arrive at their destination late, and without a comfortable place to stay.
This chain of events begins what is the series’ main source of conflict and comedy: the British versus “Europe”. The European Economic Community (EEC) – the forerunner to today’s European Union – may offer hope to Britain’s jobless, giving them the right to travel and work in other countries, but the series’ protagonists are abroad not out of choice, but necessity. Any optimism about their future lives in West Germany – “who knows what lies ahead, a better future for us that is my fervent hope”, writes Neville to his wife Brenda back home – is soon stamped out in the series’ first episode. The three Geordies discover that they will have to live in an uncomfortable hut which Oz soon christens “Stalag 17”. This reference to German POW camps is the first of many allusions to the war, with the nationalistic and xenophobic Oz searching for any opportunity to blame the Germans for British misfortune.
Solidarity is found with the hut’s four other inhabitants. They are joined by Moxey (Christopher Fairbank), a Scouse arsonist, Bomber (Pat Roach), a 6’5” Bristolian who refers to himself in the third person, Barry (Timothy Spall), or should I say “Barroi”, an inquisitive and ponderous Brummie, and ladies’ man and Cockney geezer, Wayne (Gary Holton). Regional divisions, and suspicion of Southerners, are soon cast aside; British workers we learn – especially when confronted by humourless and grey German bureaucrats – will always find ways to work together.
The British create their own community within the compound. They sleep together, work together and drink together. The love of drink, the Geordie working man’s right and burden, and the vices of gambling and prostitution, make sure that their wives and girlfriends in England only receive a small percentage of their earnings. They are in Germany to provide for their families back home but rewards are still needed for a job done.
The German bars – sites of Saturday night binge sessions – and Indian curry houses don’t offer much hope for integration for our Brits. Ridicule of foreigners is the preferred course of action. Oz refers to German bartenders as “Adolf”, waiters at Indian restaurants are addressed as “Sabu”, Turkish migrant workers are known as “Ayatollah” and Asian prostitutes invariably carry the name, “Suzie Wong”. Dennis, the father-figure of the show, criticises Oz’s Little Englander mentality, describing it as “ridiculously nationalistic for the country that can’t even employ them”. Oz won’t be swayed. He is positive about only two things in life: drink and his love for Newcastle United. Everything else is criticised and denounced.
By the close of the first series, some of the characters do, however, improve their relationships with the German people. Neville befriends Helmut, a German working on the site, Dennis falls for on-site secretary Dagmar, while Wayne, in the end, decides to stay in Germany with typist Christa. But no acts of German compassion can sway Oz. He is constantly at war with the foreman and drunken brawls are recurring fixtures of the Saturday night session. Following one intense beating, Oz wakes up in hospital to find that he’s been given a blood transfusion. “Are you trying to tell me there’s four pints of German blood swelling about inside of me?” he yells. “You know what this means don’t ya? I’m half bloody German now man!”
It would be a mistake to assume that the Brits have been welcomed to Germany with open arms. The relationship is merely financial. Germany has a booming construction economy, and extra labour is required. The lads have no rights or welfare entitlement. If they are ill or rained off, they go without pay. And they aren’t given any incentives to learn the national language. They have the same status as Turkish Gastarbeiters, guest workers, entitled to nothing from the German state. Their stay is supposed to be temporary but there are some benefits. They don’t pay tax on any of their earnings and they aren’t locked into long contracts.
The season’s final episode brings an end to the lads’ tax-free status, however. They are given a choice: apply for residency in Germany and contribute to the state, or return home to a changing social milieu. “Well I still say we’re being treat like shit,” moans Oz. “I mean Germany takes us on as cheap labour when the going is good. And then what happens? It cuts up a bit rough for them and wallop, they want to dump us over board, don’t they? The words ‘fair’ and ‘German’ don’t go together in my book, pal.”
The subject of British decline, a familiar preoccupation of the period, is echoed in a conversation over who has become the “Irish of Europe”. For Oz, “the English have become the Irish of Europe.” Barry disagrees, the English are more like the “Egyptians of Europe, travelling the lands in search of employment.” Whoever the English are today, however, they are no longer who they once were. Times have changed and the British people have been confronted with a bitter pill to swallow. Nostalgia for a glorious past – one of Oz’s favourite past-times – may just about work to paper over the cracks for now.