Last night's viewing - Richard Wilson On Hold, BBC2; Coppers, Channel 4


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The Independent Culture

The problem with self-service tills in supermarkets, I realised the other day, is that most of them are manned by idiots. I don't exempt myself from this charge, by the way, and I don't mean to be insulting.

It's not our fault we're clueless and become paralysed when that maddeningly equable voice warns us about an "unexpected item in the bagging area". The whole point of robotic check-out operatives, after all, is to save supermarkets the money it costs to train up (and employ) human ones. So they don't really care if we're driven to apoplexy as we stumble our way towards some kind of proficiency with the damn things, because they can claim it's all for our convenience anyway and pocket the cash. The halfway good news, though, is that you can eventually get the hang of them if you persist for long enough, and you had better because there are almost certainly more on the way.

They tell the most whopping lies about our "convenience", big companies, but in Richard Wilson On Hold, some of those claims were challenged. They'd run four tests on self-service tills and in every case, the mystery shopper who checked out through a human got out of the store in half the time, and with a fraction of the aggravation. They also put automatic call centres on the clock (average waiting times of more than 10 minutes, as opposed to one company's claim of just under a minute) and got Wilson to put himself through the peerless agony of using pay-by-phone parking, a system I'm convinced was developed by the North Korean secret service to drive us all insane one driver at a time. In every case, the customer experience was worse, there was a big saving for the company (notionally passed on to us) and the whole package was framed as an "improvement" in service.

It was fine as far as it went, but you were left feeling it perhaps hadn't gone quite far enough. You hardly need to prove to an audience that automated call centres are an infuriating time-suck, after all, and some of that effort might have been better employed digging into the details of "retargeting companies" (who make millions out of data-mining our shopping habits) or into finding out what actually constitutes "very high call volumes" (more than three people at once, you sometimes suspect). I would have been curious too, to have some psychological explanation as to why those ostentatiously caring voices leave you feeling so murderous. My own guess is that it's something about the disconnect between ersatz concern and a system that we know to be utterly indifferent to our distress. "Your call is important to us." Bad enough to be lied to, but couldn't you have the decency to get a human to do it?

Why is Coppers so different to bog-standard blue-light schedule fillers? The raw material is pretty much the same – the grinding daily collision of law-enforcers and law-breakers. I think it's because the policemen supply the commentary here in post-mortem interviews, rather than some ex-newsreader full of gung-ho law'n'order boosterism. And in their rueful grins when asked some question they're aware they can't answer entirely candidly, the truth about real policing leaks out. It's not always a flattering truth either. Last night's episode showed how often the appearance of the police can end up aggravating a situation or even creating one from scratch. When you see what they have to deal with on a daily basis you can entirely understand why they sometimes use the letter of the law to get back at those who taunt them. But there's no mistaking the fact that winning a fight rather than preventing one sometimes becomes the goal. As one policeman revealingly put it, complete with rueful smile, "It's always going to be our gang that's going to win."