Last Night's TV - Business Nightmares with Evan Davis, BBC2; Strangeways, ITV1; The Night Shift, BBC4
The masters of disaster
Tuesday 10 May 2011
In 1985 I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, studying at Emory University, a seat of learning that owed its splendid campus to the benevolence 70-odd years earlier of one Asa Griggs Candler, a drugstore owner who in Atlanta in 1887 had very percipiently bought the formula for Coca-Cola from John Pemberton. Pemberton, a chemist, had invented it a year earlier as a patent medicine; indeed, Sunday was the drink's official 125th anniversary.
The Coca-Cola company made Candler as rich as Croesus, and Emory was one of the principal beneficiaries of his fortune. As a devout Methodist, however, Candler made one stipulation in return for his largesse: there was to be no alcohol sold on the Emory campus. And in 1985, long after his death, this policy was still strictly observed. In the bars just off campus we glugged our body weight in beer, but on campus Coca-Cola was king. To supplement my student income, I worked in the university shop, selling enough Coke to sink a fleet of battleships.
You will understand, then, why I have such a strong recollection of the seismic decision, in April 1985, to change the taste of Coke. At Emory, where we felt we owed our education to the original Coca-Cola formula, people stopped short of rioting, but there was still considerable disquiet. Big things were happening in the world in the spring of 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev had just become leader of the Soviet Union. But at Emory, the sweeter New Coke, as the company called it, was at the top of everybody's agenda. One of our visiting professors was former US President Jimmy Carter, and I can remember a Q&A session with him a week after the introduction of New Coke. Of all the things to ask Carter, the first question was about Coca-Cola. And nobody, including him, thought that odd.
All of which brings me to Business Nightmares with Evan Davis, a new series that, like the cleverly marketed Ronseal, does exactly what it says on the tin, chronicling stories of spreadsheet disasters. The Coca-Cola tale alone would have sustained the whole programme, and perhaps should have done, for there was a magaziney feel to the thing that at times felt as though too much was being squeezed in. Still, it worked nicely as an exercise in perfectly acceptable schadenfreude. After all, what could be more satisfying than hearing how some of the world's corporate giants fell, with a reverberating thump, on their backsides.
Another of them was Unilever, which in 1994 decided to increase the potency of its mighty soap powder, Persil. Like most other reckless business decisions, this was prompted by the disconcerting success of the opposition. Just as the Coca-Cola board had overreacted to the canny Pepsi Challenge, so Unilever jumped too high in its response to the growing popularity of Ariel.
Manufactured by Procter & Gamble, the Barcelona to Unilever's Real Madrid, Ariel had been wiping out Persil's market dominance, consumers increasingly seduced by the advertising message that it was highly scientific. Unilever's response was to introduce Persil Power, which P&G executives warned would be too strong, and would shred the clothes it was meant to wash. It was, and it did. A former Unilever man popped up, sorrow still etched on his face, to recall warehouses full of clothes that disgruntled consumers had sent in, some of them capitalising on the company's discomfort by despatching underpants that were "on their last legs" anyway.
All this gave Davis the opportunity to talk about Unilever being sent into a spin, and dirty laundry being washed in public, and he did not resist. But for my own reasons I much preferred the story of the New Coke campaign losing its fizz. Just 79 days after the launch, Coca-Cola executives conceded the error, and re-introduced the formula that had made theirs the best-selling drink in 156 countries. It's hard to think of a better corporate example of the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", which I might as well tell you had been coined by Jimmy Carter's adviser Bert Lance, another good ol' boy from Georgia.
Just as colossal commercial mistakes fuelled Business Nightmares, so did similarly disastrous personal mistakes loom large in Strangeways, the first of a new three-part documentary series about the inmates of Britain's biggest high-security prison.
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais long ago recognised that the vicissitudes of prison life might appeal to a TV audience, only they squeezed comedy out of it with Porridge. As with last year's Wormwood Scrubs, there's not much to laugh at here, although I did enjoy the sequence in which a female prison officer vetted the mildly pornographic photographs an inmate's girlfriend – "a very quiet girl, wouldn't say boo to a goose" – had sent to him. The topless shots were allowed through, but not the bottomless ones. "If they decide to show their jack-and-danny, definitely not," she said.
Turns of phrase, and language generally, tend to be pivotal in what makes us laugh, so The Night Shift, an Icelandic comedy with subtitles, is something of a risk. It is set in a petrol station, and if you come from Reykjavik it's probably very funny indeed. But I don't. Incidentally, it took me five minutes to work out that it was an import, there being so many impenetrable foreign languages behind the tills of our petrol stations these days that at first I assumed it was set in Woking.
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