Released in 1987, the low-budget feature film Business as Usual focuses on the character of Babs Flynn, a Liverpool fashion store manager sacked for complaining about the sexual harassment of younger female colleagues by their male boss. The film follows her battle for reinstatement, achieved with the help of family, community and trade union. Business as Usual was scripted and directed by feminist film-maker Lezli-An Barrett, who spent three years raising funds, drawing together an impressive cast that included Glenda Jackson, John Thaw, Cathy Tyson and Craig Charles.
Business as Usual was inspired by the 1983 real life case of Audrey White, whose story in her own words has been recently profiled by the TUC as part of its 150-year history. White’s unfair dismissal case was supported by the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU, now Unite), who organised a daily picket outside the Liverpool fashion store who had employed her and collected 5000 signatures on a petition for her reinstatement. The case was controversial for a number of reasons, including policing methods. Extensively covered in the local press, Audrey White’s case also attracted interest nationally, which was how London-based Barrett came across it.
This post situates White’s 1983 activism and the 1987 film Business as Usual within the broader media context of the 1980s. It argues that both events were important contributions within a slow but gradual shift in the terms of public debate and, thus, in popular understanding of workplace sexual harassment. White and Barrett – in different ways – challenged dominant stereotypes within media discourse by offering a narrative that foregrounded the experience of working-class women.
The popular press
My earlier blog Making Sexual Harassment History – The UK Context showed how the concept of workplace sexual harassment was imported from the USA in the late-1970s and by 1981 had become the subject of a concerted campaign to raise awareness in the UK. Female trade union activists, including the TUC Women’s Committee, played a prominent role in these campaigns given their focus on women’s work-based rights and dignity at work. The media – including the regional and national news press of the 1980s – was an important forum of public debate.
Union surveys (of the extent of sexual harassment) and TUC publications (on how to tackle it) attracted press interest in this period, although rarely on their own terms. In the early 1980s tabloid sub-editors drew on stock phrases for headlines – heralding a ‘war’ on ‘Office Romeos’, ‘Would-Be Casanovas’, ‘Bottom Pinchers’ or ‘Sex Pests’ – to frame sexual harassment as a news story in ways that sensationalised, sexualised and trivialised women’s experience. As commentators Liz Stanley and Sue Wise pointed out at the time, these tropes naturalised and normalised sexual harassment as an extension of legitimate – and even romantic – male heterosexual behaviour. Yet, if readers bothered to read on, they might encounter contradictory content: that the TUC women’s conference deemed it a ‘a very serious problem’, or that a prominent lawyer advised employers they were liable and that complaints might be dealt with under the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. Campaigns such as those initiated by the National and Local Government Association (NALGO) were at least covered – although depicted as ‘women’s lib gimmickry’ that was ‘not welcomed by all female staff’. The press releases of those campaigning around sexual harassment were gaining some traction, and the first industrial tribunal cases to invoke it were coming before the courts: initially within unfair dismissal claims (1981) and then as a form of sex discrimination (1982 and 1983).
The independent feminist press (including Spare Rib, established as the magazine of the Women’s Liberation Movement), as well as features penned by women journalists in broadsheets such as the Guardian, were read by a much smaller readership than the daily tabloids. But they helped the slow spread of more explicitly feminist frameworks that located sexual harassment within a broader pervasive system of gender inequality.
Awareness of sexual harassment was just emerging in public discourse but was not yet fully recognised or taken seriously. As Glenda Jackson’s character, Babs Flynn, states, in a key speech in the film: ‘What do you do when the boss sexually harasses you or your staff? That was a new word for me. I didn’t even know that was what it was. I just thought it was a man misbehaving himself. But why should women workers put up with this sort of treatment?’
Audrey White and the TGWU dispute
It was in this context that Audrey White complained about the behaviour of her area manager, who had sexually harassed other female shop assistants in her team, leading to her dismissal from Lady at Lord John in Liverpool’s Church Street on 24 April 1983. White was assisted by the TGWU, who organised the picket outside the city-centre store for four weeks, with the stages of such a highly public protest covered by the local press. On 14 May eight of the pickets who were collecting petition signatures were arrested and charged with obstruction. One of them, an 18-year old school student, complained she had been strip-searched in a police station cell by a female police officer, ostensibly looking for drugs. At a later court hearing the obstruction charges were thrown out and costs were awarded against the police.
The picketing continued nonetheless, the press reporting White’s comments that ‘the response from the public has been tremendous’ and that local Labour Party politicians had joined the picket line. Impressed by the dedication of the pickets, one reader felt compelled to write to the Liverpool Echo ‘I hope that Audrey White gets her job back and soon’. White was finally reinstated in her managerial role in the Church Street store, with a TGWU spokesman claiming ‘This is not only a complete victory for the trades union movement but for working women’.
The filming of Business as Usual in 1986 and its launch in 1987 led to the re-engagement of the press with Audrey White’s case, presenting it very much as a human interest story this time round – a stark contrast to national coverage in 1983 that had been ‘indifferent’ if not ‘hostile’.
Reading Audrey White’s story was the impetus for the creation of the film as a further feminist intervention by young film-maker Lezli-An Barrett.
Film and video were recognised as useful campaigning, training and consciousness-raising tools by grassroots feminist organisations and women’s networks of the late 1970s, who promoted film-making by women, for women, and that foregrounded women’s perspectives.
The feminist collective Cinema of Women (COW) was set up in 1979 to act as a distributor for international films made by women, enabling them to reach a wider audience. COW began by lending short films to women’s groups, trade unions and educational institutions. This included the film It’s Not Your Imagination (1980) on sexual harassment, produced by the Vancouver-based group Women Against Violence against Women. The audience remained small and targeted.
Public-service broadcaster Channel 4 was launched in 1982, with a specific brief to commission work from independent film-makers catering for minority audiences, creating an important space on terrestrial TV for feminist film-makers (amongst other groups). Indeed, prior to working on Business as Usual, Barrett had been commissioned to make the short film Epic Poem, broadcast in December 1983 on C4’s late-night The Eleventh Hour slot as part of a double bill on female suffrage. The collective Pictures of Women was also commissioned to make a series of six films on sexuality for The Eleventh Hour. Presented by feminist academic Annette Kuhn, the commission included the film Danger! Men at Work on the subject of sexual harassment, broadcast in February 1984. As Kuhn commented, commissioning for The Eleventh Hour enabled experimental feminist film to reach audiences of well over a hundred thousand, way beyond the reach of Spare Rib.
Through collective working and organising, women film-makers were able to make use of the small windows of opportunity that C4 offered in the mid-1980s to create feminist content in less mediated ways. Business as Usual was in fact partly funded by C4 – and it was eventually shown on 28 September 1989 as part of a series of six low-budget productions by new and non-mainstream directors. Yet, for a feature film with an estimated budget of £1M (even at low cost), C4’s financial support was insufficient.
An important break-through for Barrett was enlisting the support of international US-based distributors, Cannon Films, who not only funded it but ensured the film was shown in mainstream as well as independent settings. Business as Usual was previewed at film festivals in Brighton and Edinburgh before its official opening at Cannon cinemas in London and Liverpool in September 1987. It was included in a showcase curated by the women’s film collective, Leeds Animation Workshop, and it won the Grand Prix at the Créteil International Women’s Film Festival in 1988.
Watching Business as Usual
Contrasting de-industrialisation, unemployment and labour militancy on Merseyside with the rise of the brash London ‘yuppie’ in the 1980s, the film offers an overt socialist-feminist framing of sexual harassment: as a function of the systemic exploitation of workers, with working-class solidarity and collective action (involving men and women) as the solution.
Like White’s 1983 case, the film showed that young low-paid female workers on short-term contracts, unlikely to be unionised, were particularly vulnerable. Barrett’s film also made indirect reference to the dynamics of race – as intersecting with age, gender, and class – in the depiction of Josie (played by Tyson) who comments ‘Who does he think I am, a slave or something?’. The scene in which the character Paula is strip-searched by white female police officers is difficult and uncomfortable to watch, even when we know this relates to the original case on which the film was based. Press interviews conducted at the time suggested that actress Buki Armstrong (who played Paula) drew directly on black women’s experiences of being strip-searched (for drugs) at airports. The scene resonates with feminist campaigns of the time against the use of strip-searching of female political prisoners in Northern Ireland, and it is important in connecting harassment to other forms of physical intimidation and its racialisation. Ultimately, however, the film has a ‘feel good’ quality to it as Babs wins her case, and goes back to her old job with the support of those around her and a new-found confidence gained from her transformation into activist. In real life, returning to a job under these circumstances was never likely to be easy.
Given its subject matter, message and packaging, it is unsurprising that Business as Usual attracted criticism from contrasting quarters. The conservative historian and controversialist Norman Stone dismissed it as one of six recent films that were dominated by a ‘flat two-dimensional ideology’ of ‘left-wing orthodoxy’ (with Derek Jarman’s Last of England of 1987 the main focus of his attack). A Spare Rib reviewer praised it for the strong performances by Jackson, Tyson and Armstrong, and for its important portrayal of sexual harassment as part of a continuum of sexual violence – but criticised its Hollywood-style happy ending as insufficiently ‘subversive’. It was difficult to tread the line between alternative and commercial viewing.
Drawing on one real-life case, the film provides a very positive take on the supportive attitudes of male trade unionists and recourse to collective action. Other examples from the period show this was far from typical. Women in NALGO (a union that had a sizeable female membership) had faced the ridicule of some union men when they began campaigning around sexual harassment in 1981. In a notorious case of 1984-5 the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) sought the reinstatement of a London male firefighter dismissed for sexual harassment of a female colleague (even though she was a union member too). Within traditionally male occupations, women’s presence was sometimes resented, with sexual harassment used as a tool of intimidation by male peers (and not necessarily by bosses), raising perceived conflicts of interest for trade unions. Moreover, it was very unusual for cases of sexual harassment to lead to collective action (and they remained highly individualised). The power dynamics of sexual harassment were complex and multifaceted.
Breaking the mould
For viewers now, Business as Usual is an intriguing 1980s time-capsule. It presents a very particular perspective on the issue of sexual harassment. But it also deserves attention for the contribution it made at the time: for challenging the dominant narrative about sexual harassment and attempting to highlight women’s diverse voices and experiences.
Many thanks to the ‘Gender Equalities at Work’ project team for their suggestions and conversations.
 Liverpool Echo, 18 May 1983, 9 and 10 Aug 1983, 3; Guardian, 11 Aug 1983, 5; Spare Rib, July 1983, 14.
 S. Wise and L. Stanley, Georgie Peorgie. Sexual Harassment in Everyday Life (Pandora, 1987), 32.
 Examples from stories in the Daily Mirror: ‘Hands off sex pests’, 19 March 1983; ‘Bottom pinchers beware’, 5 October 1981.
 Examples from Liverpool Echo, 1 Aug 1980, 6; 3 July 1981, 3; 27 March 1982, 5.
 Liverpool Echo, 18 May 1983, 9 and 10 Aug 1983, 3; Guardian, 11 Aug 1983, 5; Spare Rib July 1983, 14.
 Liverpool Echo, 18 May 1983, 9; 21 May 1983, 1; 3 June 1983, 11; 2 June 1983, 11.
 Liverpool Echo, 10 Sept 1987, 7.
 Spare Rib, Jan 1982, 18-19.
 H. Andrews, ‘On the grey box: broadcasting experimental film and video on Channel 4’s The Eleventh Hour’, Visual Culture in Britain, 12, 2 (2011) 203-218.
 A. Kuhn, ‘Dear Linda’, Feminist Review 18 (1984), 112-120.
 Liverpool Echo, 14 August 1987, 6.
 N. Stone, ‘Through a Lens Darkly’, Sunday Times, 10 January 1988.
 Spare Rib, Sept 1987, 32.
 Guardian, 22 July 1981, 11.
 H. Harman, A Woman’s Work (Penguin, 2018), 74.