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That’s so yesterday

18 July 2014


"THE organised creation of dissatisfaction" sounds like the governing slogan of several theological colleges; for how is the Church to stay in business unless we can persuade the people of their need of God? Surely, therefore, our task is to develop more effective strategies for sharpening that existential hunger?

I was impressed by the range of theological resonance present in Jacques Peretti's documentary The Men Who Made Us Spend (BBC2, Saturday). It was an exposition of the history of consumerism, and specifically the rise of built-in obsolescence: the desire to replace bits of kit that work perfectly well because this year's model is now on the market.

Peretti traced one crucial element of the syndrome back to a secret compact in the 1930s between manufacturers of light bulbs that deliberately reduced their working life from 2500 hours to 1000 hours. Any company that produced bulbs that lasted longer than agreed was fined; sales doubled in a few years.

When the mid-20th century consumer boom began to saturate the United States in the '50s, a new principle was found: create a desire for this year's model, subtly different in superficial styling, although essentially identical to the car/fridge/washing machine you have already got. Hence the strategy of organised dissatisfaction.

Peretti was willing to admit a problem with wholesale condemnation: it forms the basis of our entire capitalistic manufacturing model, and countless jobs and livelihoods depend on its success. The programme concluded with a surprising volte-face: having built up an inexorable picture of our world subject to the consumer demiurge, an irresistible puppet-master forc-ing us to spend, the peroration reverted to the doctrine of free will - we love being manipulated by advertisers, manufacturers, and fashion.

The Honourable Woman (BBC2, Tuesdays) is painted on a large canvas: the heroine, Nessa, runs an idealistic foundation seeking to build peace between Israel and Palestine, funded by the fortune amassed by her father, whose murder she witnessed as a child. But her altruism is thwarted by unimaginable complexities and secrets and lies on every side. It is stylish, brilliant, exciting - and yet it does not really work for me.

The Jewish/Muslim theme feels more like window-dressing than a genuine motor driving the story. The sickening violence is there to make the plot work: these are cyphers, rather than real people, being bumped off, and no one really mourns the loss. It is a thriller; to its misfortune, it is rather cheapened by the actual events reported on the evening's news.

In Rebels of Oz: Germaine, Clive, Barry and Bob (BBC4, Tuesday) Howard Jacobson traced the significance of four Australians who made a great impact on UK culture from the 1970s onward. Germaine Greer, Clive James, Barry Humphries, and Robert Hughes were certainly significant players, and it was good to be reminded of this.

But, overall, it felt like something of a swoon: Jacobson prostrating himself at the feet of his idols, trying to work out why they wanted to come to cold, repressed London when he couldn't wait to get to Australia.

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