television review

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The Independent Culture
The Sears Roebuck catalogue, according to various contributors to BBC2's Shopping, was a "wish book", "the Rosetta Stone of popular culture", an immigrants' primer in the American way and, perhaps most crucially of all, a masturbatory aid to farm-boys, for whom the quaint Victorian etchings of women in their underwear provided the only fantasy fodder for 100 miles around. While the winter winds moaned across the prairies, tugging at weathered clapboard, they could enjoy an erotic reverie in which Montgomery's Patented Hook-and-Eye fixings yielded to their calloused fingers.

You could buy virtually anything from a catalogue, from live chicks to gravestones, pianos to bust-enlarging cream, wood screws to sewing-machines - they were Bibles of desire, bringing the good news of industrial capitalism to isolated rural communities across America. You could even buy your own house from the catalogue, complete with two trees to plant on the front lawn. Sears Roebuck's largest ever order came in 1918, when a mining company ordered 156 houses for its employees.

Renee Knight's enjoyable film visited Carlinville ("Welcome to Carlinville: Attend the Church of Your Choice") to find all but four of the houses still standing, the trees now towering over the gables. She also found the wonderfully named Laurie Flori, proud occupier of one of the Sears houses and a woman in whom the decorative instinct had turned pathological. Her home, a riot of swags, bows, stencilled flowers and frills (even the bathroom sink was wearing a little gingham kilt) was so startling that the documentary momentarily forgot what it was supposed to be doing and went for a quick tour. (The director's eye was generally better than her sense of structure - later in the film you returned for a word-for-word reprise of the "catalogue as cultural time capsule" theme, as if we too might have been having difficulty concentrating).

In Britain, catalogue culture was never quite as aspirational, more a means of keeping your chin above water than a way of ballasting your life with goods. Poor families took advantage of the 20-weeks-to-pay arrangement (an evolutionary residue of the old shilling clubs) policed by local agents, mostly women, who knew their clients personally and could judge their creditworthiness with curtain-twitching exactitude. A good agent was so valuable that poaching wars started: Hazel Paget was offered a car if she changed allegiances. "He says, 'Now then, when 'ave I to deliver it and what colour do ye want?'... I said 'Oh no', it takes some considering that." Hazel stayed with Grattan, loyal to her clients (whom she often bailed out in bad weeks) and was rewarded for her constancy, many years later, with a colour television. She seemed perfectly content with the deal.

Comedy First (ITV) continues to offer a sampler of British sitcoms, allowing Carlton to browse through the goods on offer before coughing up for a full series. Last week you had Griff Rhys Jones in Sardines, a comedy about life in a Royal Navy submarine (basically Bilko-In-A-Can, even down to the trademark vocal yapping with which Phil Silvers used to fade out of scenes). This week Jim Hitchmough offered Waiting, a comedy about a local health centre which mostly served to remind you how very good A Very Peculiar Practice had been. This had jokes about people confusing impotence and impetigo, jokes about laboured Freudian slips and a grimly extended joke about a man being given misleading advice for an interview. It also contained a joke first told in Idaho in 1886 and in constant use by professional mirth-makers ever since. "Dead is she?" asks one man, "I hope so. They buried her six months ago." Guaranteed weather-proof - available in galvanized zinc only.

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