Actress Jo Enright talks about how real-life work experience has helped prepare her for a role in new sitcom The Job Lot. Roz Laws reports.
JO Enright lasted just half a day working in McDonald’s before she walked out.
It wasn’t the relentless toil of a fast food joint she had a problem with – it was her height. At 4ft 10in, Jo was just too short.
“Everything was really high up and I just couldn’t reach anything!” laughs the comic actress. “I thought ‘I can’t do this, I’m going to go’.”
But Jo is clearly not workshy, as she’s had a go at a series of low-paid jobs – from cleaning the urinals for Birmingham City Council to sticking 2p pieces on to cigarette packets.
In between jobs she’s also signed on the dole, which means she’s had plenty of first-hand experience of job centres.
She says she’s spent two years preparing for the role of Angela in the new ITV1 sitcom The Job Lot.
Set in the fictional West Midlands town of Brownall, the series began last Monday. It stars Miranda’s Sarah Hadland as neurotic boss Trisha and Being Human star Russell Tovey as disillusioned Karl.
Their claims officer colleague Angela is a real jobsworth, who has previously been sacked for her poor behaviour but is back after winning an industrial tribunal.
She threatens to call her union rep if she’s asked to do anything she doesn’t want to. She won’t start work a couple of minutes early as “I don’t get paid from nearly nine”.
And she fails to help almost anyone sign on, let alone get a job, preferring to bog them down with paperwork and petty rules.
“She is awful, isn’t she?” laughs Jo, last seen as Warwick Davies’ ex-wife in Life’s Too Short as well as starring in Phoenix Nights, Lab Rats and Trollied.
“When I was building the character, I thought about several doctors’ receptionists I’ve met who are officious and have no feeling. They have to deal with the general public when they are vulnerable, but they have very few people skills.
“Angela is so difficult to work with, though I tried every so often to give her a flicker of humanity beneath her hard exterior.”
Jo, 44, grew up in Erdington and went to St Edmund Campion Catholic School and Matthew Boulton College.
She signed on the dole for a year after her A levels while she worked out what she wanted to do.
“I remember going to a miserable job centre in Birmingham where the staff were behind metal grills. That was a tough time, in the 1980s.
“I heard about a drama group in Handsworth they set up for the unemployed, which you could do while signing on. That got me into acting as I decided to do a drama degree.
“I signed on in London after graduating. I started doing stand-up comedy, but I was still on the dole as I wasn’t getting paid.
“I have had lots of jobs, though – while at school I had Saturday jobs and in the holidays.
“At 15 I got a job after school, working in the back room of a newsagents in Erdington. We’d tape 2p pieces to packets of cigarettes, to go in vending machines in pubs. They cost 78p so people put in 80p and they got 2p back.
“That was very exciting!
“I had Saturday jobs in Kwik Save and Woolworths. I think my worst job was cleaning the urinals in a Birmingham City Council office building one summer. That was pretty nasty.”
The Birmingham-based writers of The Job Lot – Claire Downes, Ian Jarvis and Stuart Lane – have dropped in Midland references to places like Nuneaton and Walsall Leather Museum.
Several of the cast are native Midlanders, including Tamla Kari from The Inbetweeners Movie and Cuckoo, and Martin Marquez, both from Coventry.
Sophie McShera, who played kitchen maid Daisy in Downton Abbey, and Benidorm’s Tony Maudsley appear regularly as jobseekers.
Jo says: “They both put on a Brummie accent. Sophie would sometimes ask me how to pronounce a line.
“The writers gave me the freedom to add in the odd word here and there. And I had the idea of making a scene funnier where Angela is eating a boiled egg.
“One of her traits is that she just eats in front of clients. In one scene she peels a hard-boiled egg, which I decided to put in my mouth in one go.
“It worked, but it was disgusting! I couldn’t swallow it and felt sick.”
Unfortunately The Job Lot wasn’t filmed in the Midlands but in an old warehouse in Bethnal Green, East London.
“It was virtually derelict and they literally built a job centre inside, then put a sign up outside,” says Jo.
“That confused some people who genuinely thought it was a real job centre and tried to get in.
“It shows how busy job centres are at the moment and how relevant the show is. They’re right on time with it.”
The Job Lot executive producer Kenton Allen is keen to point out that the series does not set out to mock the unemployed.
“Our intention isn’t to make those seeking work figures of fun,” says Stourbridge-born Kenton.
“We are sympathetic to the unemployed. And the people working in the job centre are constantly under threat of losing their jobs too. We are all in it together!
“It struck us there was something about the script that shone a spotlight on the state of the nation in a warm and funny way.
“And I wanted it to be set in my native Midlands. I have an understanding of how funny that part of the world can be.
“Then I met the smart and funny writers Claire, Stuart and Ian – otherwise known as CSI – who had sent me a script set in a Midlands job centre.
“There has been far too much stuff set in Manchester and the North. For goodness sake, there are other parts of the country!
“It is a shame that we couldn’t film The Job Lot in the Midlands, but there isn’t the infrastructure or enough film crews.”
Kenton’s company, Big Talk Productions, also made the hit film Sightseers, about a couple of Redditch serial killers, and is about to start filming Raised By Wolves for Channel 4, based on Caitlin Moran’s experiences of growing up in Wolverhampton.
“I hope it will be the start of a renaissance for Midlands TV,” says Kenton, who has also produced programmes like The Royle Family and Rev.
“There is a rich seam of comedy here and lots of great characters.”
* The Job Lot is screened on ITV1 on Mondays at 9.30pm.