When you are asked for the impossible (or: They asked for the moon, so I turned around and…)

Sometimes a boss asks you to do something you know will be impossible and you feel like turning round, dropping your trousers and showing them your arse while shouting, ‘You asked for the moon, but you’ll just have to have the sun shining out of my arse.’ That approach very rarely works, I’ve found.

And I was reading an excellent book, Stranger Than We Can Imagine; Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by the brilliant writer John Higgs, and in it I came across a reference that reminded me of one of my darkest hours in television. Although it was quite funny.

In his chapter on growth, Higgs writes:

Consumers were made to keep spending through ideas like planned obsolescence, where products were designed to break early and need replacing. An example of this was the light bulb, whose life expectancy was reduced from around 2,500 hours to less than 1,000 by an illegal organisation known as the Phoebus Cartel, whose members included General Electric, Philips and Osram.

The phrase planned obsolescence sent shivers down my spine as I recalled the time I was asked to research an item on what my exec called ‘built-in obsolescence,’ which is the same thing, for the late nineties ITV Westcountry show Mad About Shopping. Remember it? A ten part series on retail in the region. Heady stuff, but ten episodes? I think we were getting pretty desperate for ideas after episode two. Also, I think it would have been a bigger success if they’d used the theme tune I proposed. Imagine a jaunty tune in your head and sing, ‘We’re just hopping, BONKERS, Mad about shopping.’ This was before Dizzy Rascal existed, so, maybe I’ve got a copyright case against him?

Anyhow, this exec had spotted a series in the Western Morning News, a regional paper, about household appliances that were still in use decades after they were first purchased; toasters from the fifties, pre-war kettles, vintage irons and an old lady with a fifty year old vacuum cleaner. Cue sharp intake of breath. The item was pictured with its elderly owner along with a bit of background and a quote that usually included them saying, ‘they don’t make them like they used to.’ And that’s what the exec said to me. Something along the lines of, ‘we know they don’t make them like they used to, it’s built in obsolescence, let’s do an item about it, Matt.’

Unfortunately I could find scant proof. John hadn’t written his book, Wikipedia didn’t exist and being based in Plymouth and working on a low budget multi-item show, I couldn’t hop on a train to visit the British Library. I struggled to remove this obsolete albatross from around my neck. The Phoebus Cartel, if I had found out about it, was consigned to history and in the white heat of nineties technological development, new and improved gadgets were constantly being launched. Does progress depend on obsolescence? I don’t know, although my budget hi-fi separates purchased around the same time from Richer Sounds are still going, while the De Longhi coffee machine bought only a few years ago has already gone for a burton, so who knows what the truth is?

I did find an academic who had done some research, but I recall it skirting around the area and with no hard figures relating specifically to obsolescence. Also he wanted payment and expenses well beyond the Mad About Shopping budget to come down to Plymouth to appear. Meanwhile I spent a great deal of time talking to Peter Carver, then Director General of AMDEA (The Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances) who grew increasingly exasperated at my phone calls, telling me (and this may not be a direct quote), ‘all manufacturers are ace and yes they do make them like they used to, in fact we build them better than they used to, there’s loads of really cool gadgets that do loads of things better than they used to, so stop moaning.’ Essentially I struggled to make the subject work as a feature for an early evening regional television programme, but at least Peter took my ill thought out plans in his stride and with good humour.

The whole affair ended like a Phil Collins marriage…  by fax. It’s my number one favourite fax ever. Faxes used to be exciting but now they’re, for me and most people, a thing of the past — there’s built in obsolescence for you. The age of the fax machine may be over, but I kept that fax and still enjoy reading Peter’s brilliantly sarcastic missive.


Peter refers to the academic, whose name I have redacted lest it cause embarrassment. There’s no point redacting Peter’s. For a start he comes out of this pretty well and also it would be fairly easy to identify him. I love his quoting of my pitiful attempts to persuade him to come on the show.

I can’t remember how my bosses reacted to my failure to find the evidence that would shake the corporate world to its roots. Having worked at the production company, Two Four, for a while at that point, I think I’d maybe earned a small failure. In the end I think I was able to bin the item while perhaps suggesting a load of other impressive yet deliverable ideas for this fun packed television show. Mad About Shopping ran for a total of one series. Peter was right, we didn’t have another fifty years.

I’ve always enjoyed reading this fax as reminds me of the sometimes thankless task of the factual television researcher and how when you try and twist things to work in a TV format, sometimes they break in your hands.

The only advice I can offer from this experience is that when you are asked for the moon, don’t do a moon (unless that’s the kind of moon they asked for, in which case it’s industrial tribunal time) simply promise that you will build a rocket, pop off to space and bring the moon back. And then return some time later with something different, but equally impressive. Saturn, Jupiter or a Milky Way, for example.