Why does nothing last? The Men Who Made Us Spend on BBC2

The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturdays, 9pm) is a fascinating, well-researched series but be warned: it will make you want to punch the nearest wall. Plus: Britain’s Poshest Nannies.

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The Men Who Made Us Spend; Britain’s Poshest Nannies
BBC2; ITV

Another morning, another skip into which another virtually new kitchen will shortly be hurled. Your street might not be like this – or not yet – but mine is and it makes me sick. Where did it come from, this relentless pursuit of the new, this complete inability to feel guilty about producing so much needless waste? Jacques Peretti – he’s roughly what you’d get presenter-wise if you put Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis in a blender and whizzed for four minutes – believes that Ikea must take some of the blame, its “Chuck out your chintz” campaign having been so effective. There are other culprits, too: Margaret Thatcher, who believed that the consumer should be sovereign; computer-aided design, which allowed manufacturers to vary their products minutely and at very little cost, the better to increase our lust; consumer credit, which allows us to spend even when we’re broke; and, perhaps most monstrously of all, the German businessman who first came up with the now widely accepted concept of built-in obsolescence by limiting the life of his company’s light bulbs.

The Men Who Made Us Spend (Saturdays, 9pm) is a fascinating, well-researched series but be warned: it will make you want to punch the nearest wall. Cynicism, denial, greed, vested interests . . . All are on display here and it isn’t pretty. The disdain some companies have for the ordinary person! Consumers might be sovereign in western capitalist terms but we’re also suckers and don’t they know it. When Peretti told Benedict Evans, a snooty, San Francisco-based “tech analyst”, that most people who lust for the latest iPhone seem to have no idea how it differs from the previous model, Evans’s contempt seemed absolute. “It’s not the consumer’s job to know how it’s better,” he said. Suddenly it was obvious why Apple, which refused to put up its own representative for interview, had suggested Evans as a proxy. All power to Peretti for having given the man enough fibre-optic cable with which to hang himself.

In California, Peretti visited iFixit, a collective whose members spend their days tearing apart technology to see how it might be mended. The iPhone 4, for instance, is held together with two tiny five-point screws that were seemingly designed by Apple specifically to keep its owner from looking inside and iFixit has created a screwdriver that will fit them (you can buy it online). Inside the handset, the company uses regular screws, which only underlines that Apple would rather you buy a new phone than attempt to replace a fading battery yourself.

Some technology is considered obsolete even before its built-in obsolescence kicks in. Peretti visited a recycling plant full of kit that had not even managed to make it out of the box before being abandoned. He also provided some pretty shocking footage of post-festival fields filled with row upon row of tents that had been used only once. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, this upset me more even than the mountains of printers and phones that had preceded it.

However much I loathe them, I’m now accustomed to the skips and to the four-by-fours that roar in once the makeover is complete. But even my jaw swung when, the other day, I saw a Norland nanny walking by, complete with a silly hat and white gloves. Where had this exotic creature appeared from? It seems she must have legged it to our litter-strewn borough hot from Bath, the home of Norland College, a fact I came by courtesy of Britain’s Poshest Nannies (17 July, 9pm) on ITV.

Will her skills come in useful in these parts? I’m not sure. These days, Norland nannies don’t just learn how to change a nappy; they’re taught how to dodge the paps (celebrity culture has invaded even the talcum-powdered world of the Victorian establishment). I suppose a defensive move with a Silver Cross pram might prove effective down the Turkish greengrocer’s should our heroine find herself fighting for the last punnet of flat peaches – but should she be tempted to kick the local Staffies “like a ninja”, she could quickly find herself in a world of pain.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story