Squeaky Dave or Japanese style?

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Smartly-dressed staff present a positive image that reflects well on their employers. Coach and bus drivers are no exception. Coach tourism specialist Stuart Render compares ‘Squeaky Dave’ with the Japanese

In April this year, the industry tuned in to a new BBC2 series. ‘Don’t Forget the Driver’, six half-hour episodes, billed as “an unusually funny drama about small town Britain and the joys of coach travel.” The programme told the story of coach driver and single dad Peter Green, played by actor Toby Jones. Programme notes explained that the story was set against the backdrop of Brexit and migration in the UK.

Stuart says things are changing in Japan

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The choice of Bognor Regis to represent ‘small town Britain’ (the hometown of one of the writers) brought a starring role for local operator Woods Travel. The company had been approached by the production team to understand more about both what it was like to be a coach driver and the day-to-day operation. Woods also supplied one of its coaches for filming.

When the programme was broadcast the response was clear. While Toby Jones’ character would have resonated with many viewers for his matter of fact, be nice to the passengers, get on with the job mentality, it was his colleague ‘Squeaky Dave’, played by Danny Kirrane, who prompted the most criticism. Loud, obnoxious and scruffy, the character delivered a cliché-driven performance more resonant of ‘On the Buses’ than today’s professional drivers.

But while the industry, and Woods Travel, looked on aghast, newspaper reviewers took a different view. Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian and reviewing the first episode, called the show “a fine, fine piece of work.”

And therein lies the challenge we face. The character of ‘Squeaky Dave’, clearly written for comedic effect, was anything but fine.

Among Squeaky Dave’s many clichéd faults, one stood out. His scruffiness, including an inability to wear his uniform tie, harks back to an era long gone. Today, the vast majority of professional coach drivers take a real pride in how they wear their uniforms. They recognise that looking smart reinforces their own professionalism, and that of the company they work for.

Earlier this year, with the image of ‘Squeaky Dave’ still fresh in my mind, I had the opportunity to visit Japan. The Japanese commitment to customer service is renowned. The Japanese also love uniforms. Uniforms are seen as a symbol of professionalism and almost every profession in Japan has one. Uniforms denote rank and position. From school uniforms through to graduates starting work and wearing the same ubiquitous black suit, the Japanese grow up with uniforms.

In the city of Kyoto, I witnessed this cultural phenomenon at first hand. Opposite the city’s railway station there’s a dedicated section for tourist coaches. Coaches operated by a number of different companies were coming and going.

However, while vehicle liveries differed, driver uniforms didn’t. Almost all were wearing a peaked cap, white shirt, often short-sleeved, some with a dark tie, and often a pair of white gloves.

It was almost a scene from a bygone age. But what also seemed clear was the respect given by the passengers to the driver. It was heartening to see.

So, what might we learn from this? Does wearing a uniform mean you do your job any better than wearing less casual attire?

Probably not, but that’s not really the point. In Japan, each driver clearly has a pride in what he or she does. Being anything other than smartly turned out would affect that pride. So, it just doesn’t happen.

In the UK we have a significantly greater degree of choice. Those coach and bus drivers who take pride in their appearance are doing the industry proud. Sadly, we still see too many ‘Squeaky Daves’.

But Japan is changing. During my visit I took a trip on a funicular mountain railway. I was astonished to see the young attendant wearing a baseball cap and what appeared to be leisure clothing. This departure from the usual style was very noticeable. I soon realised that all the railway’s staff were wearing exactly the same, relaxed style. The pride was clearly there, and I had the feeling they rather enjoyed the change.