TV review - Robert Peston Goes Shopping, BBC2
Jamie's Money Saving Meals, Channel 4
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Tuesday 03 September 2013
When, exactly, did we turn from a nation of stiff-upper-lipped shopkeepers into stark-raving shopaholics? What tipped us into a frenzy of consumerism that ended in triple dip? What better time to address such sorry, sordid questions, now that the economy is broken and the awful hour of sombre self-reflection is upon us. Given the self-loathing it could have induced, the hour-long romp through Britain's retail culture in Robert Peston Goes Shopping was surprisingly upbeat, and, in its own way, feel-good. Then again, Peston, the BBC's business editor, reminded us that shopping helped to make the economy, before it broke it.
We travelled from postwar parsimony to Noughties over-spend, when shopping was hedonistically driven by want, not need, and from the birth of self-service shopping brought over from America by Sainsbury to superstores and the inspired idea to buy cheap goods from abroad by the boss of Dixons and sell them as an own brand, which hailed the beginning of the end of British manufacturing.
Peston seemed tacitly to connect the feminist revolution with the consumer revolution, showing how the former impacted the latter: as white goods became the norm, women were freed from arduous household chores not just to work but also to spend, thus driving the earn-spend cycle that helps economies boom (and bust). This was at its most visible in the 1980s, an era that had as its prime ministerial totem its very own working woman (and the daughter of a shopkeeper) who, in one archival snippet, frothed about the glories of shopping at M&S ("This is an M&S coat").
Entertaining archive footage and an infectious soundtrack (Blondie, The Pretenders, Wayne Shanklin's "Chanson d'Amour") accompanied Peston's narrative about the entrepreneurs who transformed Britain's high street. The majority were Eastern European Jews who did not bow to the status quo. Cue Simon Marks (of M&S fame), who circumvented the "fixed price" rule that enabled manufactures to control retail by making his own clothes and selling them at any price he chose. He also coined the phrase, "The customer is always (and completely) right", which has given us such a bloated sense of self-importance.
The story of such a firebrand, single-handedly engineering a retail revolution, surely deserves its own drama series (if Mr Selfridge got one, why not Mr Marks?). A further judder came as Alan Sainsbury brought in self-service and had a wire basket thrown at him by a woman who liked the days of being waited on behind counters. The Asquith brothers' superstores gave us the discount bug, Chelsea Girl stores gave women an unquenchable desire for cheap fashion wear and bang!, here we are, bloated and hung-over at the other end of it all.
Oh Jamie, do poor people with bad eating habits really have to be castigated for owning large-screen TVs? Thankfully, Jamie Oliver didn't rehearse this contentious argument in Jamie's Money Saving Meals. Much of the Jamie bashing last week left him exposed in this first episode, but it must be said, even grudgingly, that the three meals he made – a brisket of beef (plus Korean stir-fried rice with its remains), fish pie and hot Chicago pizza pie – were quick, easy and seemingly cheap (all apparently came in at up to £1.80 per portion).
What's more, he gave thrift tips: how to use old herbs instead of throwing them out, how buying frozen fish can sometimes be wiser, and cheaper, how to use leftovers and how making food in bulk (and freezing it) can reduce cost. Still, good cooking and good advice didn't take away from the eternally irritating Jamie-isms, those "cheeky little" money-saving tips he spoke of and the spinach balls that he called "those little bad boys". Worse still, his finger-lickin' good face is now possibly even more arch than Nigella's.
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