Last Night's Viewing: The Ultimate Guide to Penny Pinching, Channel 4 America in Pictures: the Story of Life Magazine, BBC4


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We all love a bargain, don't we? But let's not be weird about it. That, I think, was the message of The Ultimate Guide to Penny Pinching, a Cutting Edge documentary timed to coincide with George Osborne's bleak midwinter budget. This was, though, less of a how-to guide than a fancy-that freakshow. The clue was in the title: penny pinching is by far the least attractive phrase in the lexicon of parsimony. Frugal, thrifty, careful even, are much nicer ways of saying the same thing but then nice doesn't make good television.

And so, we were presented with a cast of extreme bargain-hunters, led by Queen of the Coupon, Judith Wenban. Not a woman you'd like to get stuck behind at the supermarket. Her weekly shop took approximately a week to complete by the time she had counted out her 30 or so discount vouchers at the till, but the results were impressive – a trolley worth £65.06 reduced to £5.50, with a set of checkout girl tuts and grimaces thrown in for free.

Judith's raison d'être was to get things for "better than free", a strange quest that tipped admirable scrimping over into obsession. Her cut-price parenting – stuffing her sons with BOGOF "slop" burgers and two-for-one stuffed-crust pizzas and only allowing them to wash when the sun shone (in the wallet-friendly solar-shower) – was perhaps a good deal too far.

More sympathetic were Jarlaj, who spent his days trawling the supermarket aisles with a price-comparison barcode scanner and his evenings trawling the net for the best deals on pats of butter; and Rebekah and Steve whose wedding cost less than the average bridal gown, thanks to a Wednesday ceremony, a bar stocked with low-cost soft drinks and homemade jellybean table decorations.

All of the case studies made you think twice about the untrammelled spending habits that now pass for ordinary and offered up the odd tip, which, in moderation, could come in quite handy in these austere times. All of them, that is, except Jonathan. A roadkill gourmet who hasn't darkened a butcher's door since 1971, he spent his days cruising country lanes looking for squished rabbits, decapitated pheasants and stiff squirrels to barbecue for his pals. "Instead of one tiny little aisle," said Jonathan smugly, "you've got 30 miles of road." It saves him £1,500 a year, apparently, but it was typical of the documentary's rather lax approach to economics that nobody thought to ask how much he spent on petrol instead.

No expense was spared on America in Pictures: the Story of Life Magazine as the photographer Rankin travelled the USA on a pilgrimage to meet the "gods" of photojournalism who worked on the magazine between 1936 to 1972. At its height, their images would be devoured by some 100 million American readers each week.

Highlights included Bill Eppridge's account of the three frames he took of a dying Bobby Kennedy being cradled by a terrified bus boy, and Harry Benson revealing how he wheedled good shots out of a bad-tempered Bobby Fischer and a resigning Richard Nixon. Somehow, though, the film added up to less than the sum of its parts, perhaps because Rankin appeared a little dumbstruck to be meeting his heroes.

Still, there were plenty of candid snapshots of the personalities behind the lens – macho characters from another era who did one-handed press-ups, ate dogs and lizards in Vietnam or embedded themselves with heroin addicts in New York. There were women, too. Or at least one woman, Margaret Bourke-White, who shot the first Life cover and had a fearsome reputation for being meticulous about the lighting on a shoot. "I don't think she trusted God to handle the Sun properly," recalled her managing editor Ralph Graves. "She was going to do it."