x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Beware of knee skates - and salesmen in cheap suits

Where do the failed gadgets from Dragons' Den go to die? Why, to housewares shows, of course. Our writer went there, too, but didn't buy the Dh5,000 massage gadget.

One of the most popular programmes on UK television just now is Dragons' Den. Each week a series of fledgling inventors and entrepreneurs are given the chance to unveil embryonic products they've spent their lives (and life savings) developing and patenting, in the hope of persuading a panel of wealthy businessmen to invest in their dreams.

The ordeal is not for the faint-hearted, as their snarling inquisitors are expert at sniffing out and exposing the slightest commercial or design flaw. Occasionally, something will catch their eye, cheque books are produced, deals are struck, and before you know it, the supplicants' humble device is at a high street retailer near you.

But such triumphs are rare indeed. Usually the prototype inventions are dismissed with nothing more than a scornful warning to their creator not to give up his day job.

I'm thinking here of the Drivesafe glove which was supposed to be worn to remind its owner to drive on the correct side of the road. Or the SuperKneeS roller skates you attach to your kneecaps to help you go quickly from one kneeling job to another. Or my particular favourite, the Greet Me Eat Me - edible rawhide greetings cards for posting to friends' pet dogs on their birthdays.

I've always wondered what happened to the inventions that are rejected. Where on earth did these terrible devices end up once their creators were sent packing, trembling and humiliated, from the Den? Well, last weekend, I found out. They all end up at trade shows.

I should have suspected the day would end in tears when my wife told me she'd been given some free tickets to an event called "Home World 2011". According to the accompanying leaflet, it promised five separate arenas crammed with labour-saving devices "you simply can't do without". When I pointed out that whatever they were, we'd been managing quite happily without them for 26 years, my wife reminded me that as I rarely did any housework, I wasn't best qualified to judge.

The arena itself was a huge exhibition centre in East London. When we arrived mid-afternoon last Sunday the arena was already packed to the gunwales. And what things there were to see! Devices for peeling onions without tears, beds that doubled as bookshelves, fish tanks in the shape of famous landmarks of the world. I even spotted some edible greetings cards.

After three hours of trailing behind my spouse I still hadn't parted with a single cent. My mistake was to stop moving. I sat down briefly on a vacant chair to rest my feet, and before I knew it a salesman was demonstrating his special muscle oscillator on them.

Over the next few minutes he applied what appeared to be a giant vibrating hairbrush to virtually every part of my body that could be safely approached without fear of arrest. "Any aches or pains?" he asked as he did so. I admitted my knee was acting up. "I knew it" he continued knowingly. "I could tell by the way you were walking. You'd have needed an operation within five years. Lucky you found me. This will save you thousands in medical fees." High blood pressure, pallid skin, watery eyes… according to him I had them all. And when he finally announced the price for his oscillator - $1,400 (Dh5,138) - he was suddenly, if only for an instant, entirely correct.

Of course the one question I wanted to ask him - and it's the question I always want to ask salesmen who try and flog me their wretched products, whether on my doorstep at home or at such functions as these - is "if your product is so successful, why are you wearing such a cheap suit?" But I never have asked. Which is why I've never made the panel of Dragons' Den.

In the end I escaped from Home World 2011 pretty lightly, having purchased nothing more than a set of special $60 wireless headphones to be worn in bed while watching TV so that my wife might sleep.

We finally tried them this week. In reality the only signal the headphones picked up was not the sound-track to the movie on the TV screen, but instructions from my local minicab firm. Not very helpful.

When I dialed the mobile phone number on my receipt the next morning to ask the retailer for a refund, my call was answered by a carpet fitter in Watford who'd heard of neither the company nor their headphones. Still, my call wasn't entirely wasted. He's coming to fit our new lounge carpet next weekend. I wonder if he needs any SuperKneeS roller skates?

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London