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TV review: The Truth About Amazon

Benjie Goodhart / 19 November 2020

In The Truth About Amazon supershoppers Helen Skelton and Sabrina Grant look at how to get the best deal on Amazon, plus the best of the rest of this week's TV.

The Truth About Amazon: How to Shop Smart 1/3, Tuesday 24th November, 9:15pm, Channel 4

2020 hasn’t been a bumper year, financially. It’s a sad economic reality of the ruddy virus that plenty of businesses have gone under, millions have been furloughed, and many thousands of more have lost their jobs. But luckily – and I know this will come as something of a relief to many of you, allowing you to sleep soundly in your beds tonight – the world’s richest man has made an absolute packet. Around about a cool £50 billion, to be precise. Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, is now the richest man in history.

Basically, Amazon are taking over the world. They were already taking over the world before Covid, but the inability to go shopping, and the desire to sit on the sofa in one’s pyjamas and order little slices of retail happiness, has ensured that their global domination has been accelerated.

I very much suspect that all the current hoo-ha about Trump not conceding to Biden will, in the bigger picture, be made to look completely irrelevant, because by 2022 we will all, regardless of nation, be waking up every morning and pledging allegiance to Supreme Overlord Bezos, Planetary Leader. His catchphrase could be “Putting the Prime into Global Prime Minister.” (You can have that for free, Jeff. Actually, no, you can have it for $2.4 billion).

Anyway, yes, Amazon is taking over. Sales have gone up a whopping 40 per cent this year thanks to restrictions, and the company is making $1.4 billion profit every month. But while we’re all shopping more on Amazon, we aren’t necessarily doing so more smartly. Which is where this new three-part series, presented by Helen Skelton and Sabrina Grant, comes in. The series plans to teach us how to find the best buys on Amazon, and avoid the various pitfalls. Like Martyn Lewis’s show, this is literally entertainment that could save you a small fortune.

For example, there is the ‘Buy Box’. If you were to search for an item on Amazon that is available from multiple different sellers on the site, they would connect you to one, via the ‘Buy Button’, that most of us simply click on there and then. But if you dig a little deeper, and click on some of the other options, you will frequently find exactly the same item available for cheaper. And – this may not come as an absolutely mind-boggling surprise – if said item is available for sale from Amazon itself (as opposed to one of the sellers that the company uses) – there is a high degree of probability that the item on the Buy Button will be Amazon’s own.

Meanwhile, it also emerges that you can’t necessarily trust the reviews on the Amazon site. It turns out that it’s possible to link your product to a totally different item, just to make it look like the thing you are selling is more popular and more highly-rated than it really is. For example, Helen explains, you could be attempting to buy a dog casino from Amazon, only to discover tha… wait a minute. YOU CAN BUY A DOG CASINO????? I have no idea what one is, but if I haven’t got one to open on December 25th, by thunder, someone will pay.

Elsewhere, the programme teaches buyers that sometimes you can buy stuff on Amazon for cheaper than you can from companies’ own websites; that something as simple as changing the colour of a product can allow you to buy it for considerably cheaper; and that Amazon’s fashion section is beset with problems to do with size and pricing. There is also a section on how to shop using Alexa, but I missed most of it, on account of watching the programme in a room with an Alexa. Every time Alexa was mentioned, the device woke up and started talking to me, and I had to switch it off, so I didn’t take it all in, but suffice to say, it’s probably best not to do all your shopping through Alexa.

Right, I’m off to look at dog casinos. Verily, the world is a remarkable place.

Return from ISIS: A Family’s Story, Monday 23rd November, 9pm, BBC One

Being a parent is basically an exercise in worry and guilt. When I’m not worrying about whether my son is addicted to video games, or my daughter is incapable of eating with her mouth closed, I’m feeling guilty that I shout at them too much or don’t listen to them enough. COVID-19 has merely exacerbated these feelings. With the kids effectively spending the six months from March to September at home with us, there was nobody to dilute our input, or to iron out our difficulties. We were on top of each other 24/7.

As a result, I’ve been even more worried than usual about how we’ve totally gone and Philip Larkin-ed the kids right up. Home-schooling, an inability to socialise outside of the family unit, a dog that won’t stop vomiting and a shower that won’t stop noisily dripping is basically on the point of turning me into Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining. It’s not the recipe for a harmonious family.

On the other hand, things could be so much worse. 

This sobering, grimly riveting and quietly disturbing hour-long documentary from BBC’s Panorama strand, looks at just how utterly and completely screwed up some families can become. Well, specifically one family. All families have their foibles, but it takes a pretty peculiar form of twistedness to end up taking your infant kids and heading off to Syria to join the insane Jihadi cult that was ISIS.

Josh Baker spent four years making this film, and his perseverance and dedication has paid off handsomely. In early 2017, Baker was shown messages from an American family living in Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State, that was in the process of being bombed back into the Middle Ages. An Indiana woman, Sam Sally, was stuck there with her children. By the following winter, Baker had ascertained that Syria was safe enough for him to visit (I think his and my definitions of ‘safe’ may differ). He went out there, and tracked Sam down to a Kurdish base where she was being held, with her children, ahead of their return to America.

The bulk of the film consists of Baker interviewing Sam in the winter of 2017 at a Kurdish base in Syria, intercut with archive footage taken from home videos, news footage and more. It is an extraordinary story. Sam explains how she met her husband, Mousa, in August 2013, how they fell in love and were married, and how he took in her son, five-year-old Matthew, from a previous relationship, and were, for a while, happy.

When things started to go awry, in 2015, they made the decision to move to Morocco. But on a stopover in Turkey, they decided to have a holiday. They travelled down to the South, and according to Sam, before she knew it, Mousa had tricked her into crossing the border into Syria. From here, he took them to Raqqa, and they became embroiled in the horrific world of ISIS, with its attendant violence and indiscriminate and vicious system of justice.

The story is, at times, unspeakably barbarous. Matthew, now aged nine, was taught to strip and reassemble an AK 47, and instructed on the best way to carry out a suicide bombing if the Americans ever came to rescue him. He was also used in an ISIS propaganda video.

It all seems a relatively straightforward tale of good and evil, but Baker does not stop digging. Something in him is dubious about whether Sam is telling the truth, so he goes in search of answers. Among those he interviews are Sam’s parents, who haven’t spoken to their daughter for five years, some of the slaves owned by Mousa in Raqqa, and Matthew’s father. Most movingly, there are interviews with Matthew himself, a 13-year-old boy who has seen things – and lived things – no child – no adult – should ever have to experience, and come out the other end. One can only hope the scars can heal with time.

All of a sudden, an enthusiastic video game habit doesn’t seem like quite such a problem.

The best… and the rest:

Sunday 22nd November

Live Tennis: ATP World Tour Finals, 6pm, BBC Two: The final match of the tennis season will also be the final one played at the O2, as the tournament takes its leave of the venue for good.

Kirstie’s Christmas: Quick and Easy Craft, 8pm, Channel 4: The Christmas craft fairy returns with a new series filled with festive creativity. In this opening episode, she is joined by old chum Phil Spencer, who is making cocktails, florist sister Sofie, who is arranging bouquets, and former Bake Off winner Nancy Birtwhistle cooks up a storm.

Kenneth Williams: In His own Words, 8pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary about the troubled British comedy legend, featuring access to his photo albums and an archive of correspondence. Gyles Brandreth narrates.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire: The Million Pound Question, 8pm, ITV: Judith Keppel looks back at her historic win on the show, and reveals that it wasn’t just the money that changed her life.

Small Axe, 9pm, BBC One: The second in Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen’s drama anthology, this one looks at reggae music in 1970s Britain, and what it meant for a generation of black youth.

Monday 23rd November

Is Covid Racist? 9pm, Channel 4: A&E medic Dr Ronx looks at why so many of her NHS colleagues who died of coronavirus were BAME. Interesting subject, dreadful title.

Tuesday 24th November

The Great British Bake Off, 8pm, Channel 4: Peter, Dave and Laura gather in the Bake Off tent for the climax of what has been another delightful series of the gently absorbing competition. Quite how Laura has made it this far is a matter of some debate, and Peter must start the final as strong favourite, but perhaps the real star of this series has been Matt Lucas, who has proved an able successor to Sandi Toksvig.

The Fall of Anne Boleyn 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: The first in a three-part documentary series, showing on consecutive nights, following the downfall of henry VIII’s second wife, as told by historian Tracy Borman.

Friday 27th November

Match of the Day Live: the FA Cup, 7:30pm, BBC Two: Tranmere rovers v Brackley Town. Live coverage of the match literally no-one is talking about.

Walking Britain’s Lost Railways, 8pm, Channel 5: Rob Bell returns with the absorbing and visually gorgeous series that looks at the railways of yesteryear. Tonight, he’s in North Devon, on a line with a surprising military history.

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