Making a Scene in the Office ... A New Series of the Office-Based Comedy Perfect World Starts on TV Tonight. Stephen Overell Looks Back at How the Workplace Has Starred on Both the Big and Small Screen

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Byline: STEPHEN OVERELL

WORK has never really hit the big-time. Sure, it gets walk-ons: it furnishes a background for romance, as in Frankie and Johnny (1991), in which chef Al Pacino and waitress Michelle Pfeiffer celebrate bacon as the food of love.

Or it offers something to rebel against for the likes of Benjamin in The Graduate (1967), who decided his future wasn't in plastics; or it backlights silly narratives, as in The Eyes Of Laura Mars (1978), when Faye Dunaway's fashion photographer starts seeing murders as they happen; or it provides a device for linking a plot as in, um, Confessions Of A Window Cleaner (1974).

But cinematic super-stardom? Only sometimes.

Work destroys souls and blights the drinking classes, but as a subject for creative endeavour it was never going to have the emotional pull of love or war.

That is not to say it has not had its day in the limelight.

It has - and found the word "gritty" generously applied to it for its trouble.

Ken Loach's fine film Riff-Raff (1990) offers the authentic building site experience, thanks to Bill Jesse, the former labourer who wrote the script.

Countless other films have sought to capture the grimness of work. Norma Rae (1979) saw Sally Field in an Alabama textile factory forced by intolerable working conditions to form a union. More recently, Michael Radford's as-yet-unreleased movie about an LA strip club, Dancing At The Blue Iguana (2001), also casts work as something people suffer.

But for many films in which work figures prominently, the point is not the work per se, but rather the shortcomings of a profession.

Law and journalism are often portrayed as morally bankrupt occupations, within which one or two upstanding individuals manage to wage quixotic wars for virtue (The Firm, 1993; Broadcast News, 1987; The Insider, 1999), and so re-establish the reason why the profession deserved a respectable reputation.

Other jobs seem to have curious associations for directors. Films that involve driving for a living, whether taxis (Taxi Driver, 1976; DC Cab,1983) or ambulances (Bringing Out The Dead, 2000), are all about mental illness.

That crazy dysfunctional place called the office has, inevitably, long figured prominently. In Metropolis (1927), Fritz Lang had the office as an urban dystopia with workers shuffling about in smocks with bowed heads, sedated by repetition.

But by the Fifties, it had taken on the homely form of Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1958), full of chirruping banter and clattering typewriters. The 1980s found cinema increasingly using the office to stage socially concerned morality tales on a variety of subjects.

Wall Street (1987) was Hollywood's great statement on the easy-money boom, cleverly managing to make Gordon Gekko's famous "greed is good" speech seem plausible, while ending on a singularly dumb message: there is the bad work of corporate raiders and the good work of manufacturing. …