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When Britain Fought Against The Tyranny Of Tea Breaks

A tea lady brings round refreshments for British office workers in the 1970s. All over the U.K., the arrival of the tea ladies with trolleys loaded with a steaming tea urn and a tray of cakes or buns was the high point of the workday.
M. Fresco
Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A tea lady brings round refreshments for British office workers in the 1970s. All over the U.K., the arrival of the tea ladies with trolleys loaded with a steaming tea urn and a tray of cakes or buns was the high point of the workday.

News that British tea-drinking is on the decline is stirring a tempest in a teapot across the pond. But U.K. leaders might have welcomed such headlines in the 1970s, when the length of the tea break became a major point of political contention.

So recounts Charles Moore's acclaimed new biography, Margaret Thatcher, which describes the British prime minister's "titanic struggle" against the trade unions — a victory for which she was praised and reviled in equal measure.

During the '70s, as hundreds of labor strikes hobbled the British economy, public frustration with trade unions was summed up in two words: tea break.

Tea breaks, went the popular complaint, had brought the country to its knees.

Tea drinking in the U.K. was and is a sacred institution that cuts across the class divide. But with the sharp rise in what were called "wildcat strikes" over the length of the tea break, the custom became a contentious symbol of trade union truculence.

Even Thatcher's bitter political rival, Jacques Delors, the then-president of the European Commission, admitted to Moore: "She demonstrated a sort of revolt against the old British system with their tea breaks. I had respect for that."

Americans who lived or worked in England remember being baffled by the rigor with which teatime was observed.

When writer and self-confessed "baseball fanatic" Jeff Archer spent his honeymoon in England in 1973, he ended up playing a friendly match for a local team in Croydon, a London borough. Since it was a freezing day, Archer kept his jacket on to keep his arm loose until it was his turn to pitch. "I stepped on the rubber for my windup," he recounted to me, "but there was no umpire. I looked at the backstop and saw him drinking tea with a mate. I'd never seen anything like this before in baseball. I hollered, 'Hey, Ump, let's get going. My arm's going to stiffen up.' He looked at me, and then began talking to his comrade. I ran to the bench and put on my jacket. About five minutes later, he finished his tea and went behind the plate. I took off my jacket and the game resumed."

Archer was no doubt unfamiliar with "Everything Stops for Tea," a song popular in Britain during the 1930s and '40s:

Oh, they may be playing football
And the crowd is yelling, "Kill the referee!"
But no matter what the score, when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

Another American who got a tough taste of tea breaks was a thin, young director on the verge of a nervous breakdown: George Lucas.

In the summer of 1976, Lucas was shooting the first Star Wars in England's EMI-Elstree Studios, chosen for its enormous empty studio space. He had a hellish time, writes J.W. Rinzler in The Making Of Star Wars. The English crew had little respect either for Lucas or his peculiar film involving light sabers that kept breaking. And while Lucas admired the crew's technical skills, he was bewildered by their work habits. Work began at 8:30 a.m., stopped for an hourlong lunch and two tea breaks at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., and ended at 5:30 p.m. sharp, after which the crew promptly went to the pub. When it was break time, filming would stop dead, even if things happened to be mid-scene.

This led to a very funny incident during the 1982 filming of Return of the Jedi, when Lucas returned to EMI. It involved actor Harrison Ford, a loudspeaker and Salacious B. Crumb — known to film fans as a lackey of the evil Jabba the Hutt.

Tim Rose, the puppeteer behind the Crumb character, recalls that during one tea break, the sound man left for tea but forgot to turn off Rose's microphone. Unaware of this, Rose, who was stationed below the set, with his arm stuck up though a hole in the floor to operate his puppet, said in Crumb's cackling voice, "The take went well, but this Harrison guy, is he going to talk during our laugh? Because it's really putting me off." As his words boomed over the speaker, everyone began to laugh — except for Ford, who stormed off and refused to return until "the asshole who said that was fired."

Rose wasn't fired, though Ford was told he was.

The tea break is inextricably intertwined with Britain's industrial history. Beginning in the 1780s, workers (including children) clocked grueling shifts alongside inexhaustible machinery — and drank sugary tea as a stimulant to keep going.

"Cheap, convenient and energizing, tea seemed ideally suited to the short work breaks of 19th-century machine culture," says Tamara Ketabgian, a professor of English at Beloit College and author of The Lives of Machines. "Rather than weak beer, workers began to drink tea."

Ketabgian points out that the more paternalistic factory owners, who were interested in their workers' health, opened canteens and charged a discounted sum for tea and food.

Over the years, workers used the power of collective bargaining to wrest better working conditions — including tea breaks, paid holidays, medical care and fairer wages — from reluctant factory owners. Indeed, in Moore's biography, a Labour Party leader accuses Margaret Thatcher of having the vices of a Victorian mill owner.

But the Britain of the 1970s had been battered by one tea break strike too many. Public frustration was never better expressed than by the eternally enraged Basil Fawlty, from the era's beloved BBC comedy Fawlty Towers, about a hotel where things don't work. In one episode that captured the national mood, Basil rants against the workers of the nationally owned Leyland Motors:

"Another car strike. Marvelous, isn't it? The taxpayers pay them millions each year so they can go on strike. It's called socialism. I mean, if they don't like cars, why don't they get themselves another bloody job designing cathedrals or composing violin concertos? The British Leyland Concerto in four movements, all of 'em slow, with a four-hour tea-break in between."

But in the midst of dysfunction, there was a ray of hope.

As Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson write in The Age of Insecurity, which examines the economic history of postwar Britain, the only person who seemed capable of getting the hotel to work was Basil's "Gorgon of a wife," Sybil. "Like another woman coming to prominence in the 1970s," they write, "she was middle-aged, blonde, shrill, philistine and utterly ruthless."

Nina Martyris is a literary journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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Nina Martyris