Why drama loves a family business

A.A. Gill

My son must have been about five when he asked me what a job was. I was driving him to Cornwall for the summer holidays, and I explained briefly the life of toil and fulfilment that lay ahead.

He went very quiet and in the rear-view mirror I could see his face crumple with concern at yet another thing to be frightened of.

Then he said ‘Dad, when I grow up, can I have your job?’ As I opened my mouth to explain the self determination of labour, the civilised physics of markets forces and the meritocracy that is our middle class Mezuzah, the words caught in my throat and I simply said ‘yes, yes of course you can have it, I’ll give it to you’.

A wave of relief passed over him, ‘we can do it together Dad’. I realised that could have been the throat-catch-moment in a Victorian novel, where men toiled and yearned to add ‘and son’ to their letterheads.

But I have no business to pass on, no Satanic mill or teaming office full of cellulosed-cuffed ledger clerks sumptuously and humbly waiting to welcome young Master Gill.

Which is a pity, because a family business is one of the set pieces of our culture. At the turn of the 19th century it literally and figuratively took over from the inheritance of a title and land as a fictional leitmotif.

“I realised that could have been the throat-catch-moment in a Victorian novel, where men toiled and yearned to add ‘and son’ to their letterheads.”

An expansive middle class who read most of the books and went to the theatre and later to the cinema, liked to see the similarities and exaggerations of their own lives reported back to them.

To leave a boy mere wealth and position is in bourgeois terms to offer him turpitude and moral enfeeblement. But to leave him a business, a job, is to give him purpose and a fiscal crusade. A stately home is a solitary curse; a factory, a municipal blessing.

Galsworthy’s Edwardian Forsyte novels explore the snobbery and insecurities of inheriting new money, the obligation to a family business and to an expanding and contracting family. The Forsytes have made their money in trade and are uncomfortably aware of their awkward social position. It is in trying to emulate the aristocracy that things go wrong. It isn’t until the fourth generation that the young and modish heal the family rifts in the most old-fashioned patrician manner with a cousin marriage. This trilogy earned Galsworthy the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was a sign of the times.

But the Forstyes and their ilk drew on an older Victorian tradition. In Dickens’ Dombey and Son a book whose correct title is ‘Dealings with the firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation’, Mr Dombey is blinkered by the desire to pass on his shipping business to his son, a wan and sickly lad who succumbs to the unhealthy fug of boarding school aged 6.

Dombey, in his grief, ignores his dutiful and pitifully-loving daughter as unnecessary and a distraction. Only when he has lost everything, does he realise the terrible injustice and the waste. The book ends with the chronically lachrymose scene of his little granddaughter asking why he cries every time he kisses her, to which he can only reply by repeating her name over and over. That is the sort of indefensible unmanning you pick up a Dickens for. It underlines the fact that a middle class business isn’t hobbled by primogeniture. It’s about ability, not inheriting a penis. You can leave the whole lot to a son or a daughter.

But if Britain flirted with family businesses, it was America, unencumbered by an aristocratic hierarchy, that made of them a New Deal. It was a staple of big sky cowboy movies, like Red River and television dramas like The High Chaparral. The most famous small screen family business was Dallas which spawned Dynasty and was itself a progeny of Giant, a film about the oil business, starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor.

“But if Britain flirted with family businesses, it was America, unencumbered by an aristocratic hierarchy, that made of them a New Deal.”

Dean had made one of the very best family business films, East of Eden about a son who is desperate to gain his father’s love. The title comes from The Bible where East of Eden is the land where Kane is sent off to after killing Abel, protagonists in the very first family business saga.

But family firms were too large a canvas to remain confined to the small screen. The two great movies of inheritance were both made by Orson Wells, The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane – the story of a man who inherits a newspaper and dies alone, without an heir.

Neither would have worked as a plc. Companies that are bought and sold for the sake of their shareholders are merely bigger versions of the grommets and the baubles they make. They are only cash machines.

But a family business is a moral entity with a memory and a will and a purpose that transcends the product and the profit and that is where the drama lies.

There is in the classic family drama an unswerving belief that business is a good thing. That sometimes it is done by bad people and sometimes good people do bad things in its service. But that the model of working hard and handing on the fruits of your tilling and reaping to your children, is innately proper and organic.

“There is in the classic family drama an unswerving belief that business is a good thing.”

More recently, however, this confidence has been tinged with cultural doubt. At the beginning of the 20th century the innate rightness of family businesses and inherited work were questioned by a new sort of novel that rejected all the ‘thumb-in-waistcoat’ generational certainties of steadiness.

DH Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers about a young man who walks away from his predestined fate to follow his father down the mines. There followed a slew of new kitchen sink writing that expressly set about undermining the notion of inheritance and continuity. The journey ends with that most profound of tv sitcoms Steptoe & Son, where a young man with dreams is trapped by his father and the broken rubbish of consumerism. It’s half Ealing comedy, half Samuel Beckett.

But by the Eighties business was back with a pinstriped arrogant flourish. Made in 1987 Wall Street is a film about asset stripping that also has a Lawrencian son using and abusing his father who is a baggage handler and Union representative. He has his Dickensian comeuppance and in the end he realises that greed is not as good as paternalism and fraternity.

Two years later there was a better exploration of the same theme. You may remember Pretty Woman for other reasons but, actually it’s a movie about the morality of commerce. A man who rejects his own father, falls in love with a woman he has purchased and is redeemed to understand that there is a greater morality to business and rolls up his bespoke sleeves to run a shipyard with a father and son and then to make an honest woman of Julia Roberts. The first is admirable, the second was probably a mistake.

In 1972 there was a movie that informed and darkly reflected every family business for the generation that came after it. The Godfather trilogy is a heavyweight Greek tragedy about the obligations and consequences of family loyalty.

Unusually it begins with a father who tries to protect his son from the family business and sends him to do something safer, in this case join the Army and fight a war. But he fails and the son returns to take over the company because incorporation is thicker than water.

Personally if in search of an existential family business parable I prefer Kung-Fu Panda. A Panda, son of a duck, rejects the family noodle business for fundamentalist violence.

My son, who all those years ago asked for my job has just started his first job, making cappuccinos in a restaurant, which coincidentally is pretty much what I started off doing.