How primetime TV shone a spotlight on an invisible workforce

Paul Thrupp considers how ITV’s Cleaning Up helped show the public a hidden side of our industry.

Last month The Sun contacted us to see if we had a view on how cleaners were portrayed in the ITV drama Cleaning Up, starring Sheridan Smith.

In case you didn’t see the show, it was based around an office cleaner (Smith) who has an online gambling problem. As it happens,

the offices she cleaned are in the City of London, and this meant she’s tasked with cleaning up after the high-rolling traders have all gone home.

This environment also meant that Sheridan’s character got access to sensitive information about stocks and shares, which lead to her dabbling in a bit of insider trading to try and help clear her debts. As the story unfolded, we saw all kinds of unprofessional behaviour from some cleaners. This included ‘mine-sweeping’ abandoned glasses of champagne from traders’ desks and attempting to fix a carpet stain through the use of a marker pen.

Another scene saw a cleaner tell an office worker she didn’t ‘do desks’ for fear of ‘messing up paperwork’, and eventually the whole thing went very Mission Impossible, with cleaners installing a listening device to enable them to get the inside track on dodgy share dealings.

The Sun were clearly fishing for a comment from us that roundly criticised the portrayal of the cleaners in the show (e.g. ‘Cleaning bosses slam Sheridan’s new drama). What we actually said was it was very unlikely that a professional cleaning operative would neck discarded alcohol while on a shift or try and hide a stain with a felt-tip pen – and that a supervisor would most likely decide on the desk cleaning policy in agreement with client. We also pointed out that undertaking criminal activity was a personal choice, and not a trait based on a certain career choice.

We went on to say what the programme had successfully captured was the ‘invisibility’ of cleaners, and the fact that


hundreds of thousands of people experience a hygienic workplace every day without giving a thought to the army of committed, hardworking people which make that possible.

It was therefore encouraging to read that Sheridan had spent time with cleaners in Canary Wharf in preparation for the part and had picked up on the ‘invisible’ nature of the job. Speaking to the I newspaper, she said: “I met a lot of cleaners. It was interesting when we did the scenes where the stockbrokers are arriving and the cleaners are still there, they didn’t even notice us. They just barge in with their briefcases and you’re unseen to them.”

The Evening Standard’s TV critic Guy Pewsey hit on the same theme in his review of the first episode. He said: “How well do you know your cleaners? The people we pay to come into our homes and offices rarely get more than a passing glance as they hoover our carpets and wipe down our desks. They enter and exit like clockwork, tolerating our mess, largely ignored by the masses and making little in return.”

At the time of writing there’s only been two episodes broadcast (out of six), and in episode two Sheridan’s character got involved in more complex (and somewhat ludicrous) levels of espionage which pushed the whole cleaner’s ‘invisibility’ a bit too far. There was also a sudden, jarring switch from night-time to daytime cleaning in order to advance the plot, and I’m sure some industry colleagues will have views on the various coloured cloths and gloves which were shown being used in different settings throughout the show.

But if Cleaning Up did nothing else regarding the image of the sector, on the evidence so far it has helped to highlight the unsung, unrecognised and very often underappreciated workforce that keep our offices functioning, our buildings safe and our economy moving.

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