Is David Frost just another of Nick Leeson's victims?; ESSAY

The executive producer of `Rogue Trader' has been taken in by his subject, says Stephen Fay
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The Independent Culture
Ewan McGregor says he relished the challenge of playing Nick Leeson, the man who at the age of 28 achieved celebrity by bankrupting Barings Bank. "I feel it's the most acting I've done in a long time," says McGregor in the production notes that came with a screening of Rogue Trader last week. He is quite right, because McGregor has to plumb the depths of his formidable charm to reconstruct the character of a liar who was guilty of fraud, forgery and fantasy, each on a large scale. McGregor's Leeson is an ordinary young man, recently married and much in love, who simply got out of his depth.

This is exactly what James Dearden, the director of Rogue Trader, wanted. Dearden freely admits that his script is not an entirely accurate portrait: "I purposely did take the Nick Leeson character sideways a bit so that he could be an Everyman." That was his reason for casting McGregor. Since he is himself such an engaging actor, the audience would be more likely to identify with Leeson. When he sees the film after his return to London on 4 July, Leeson is going to love it.

Towards the end of the film, when Leeson learns that Barings has been wiped out, he says: "It so nearly went the other way, and, if it had, I'd be a hero." But there was never any chance that it would go the other way. I say this confidently, having written a book titled The Collapse of Barings. It is a story of fear, ignorance and greed, but my version differs fundamentally from Leeson's story, which inspires Dearden's film. Like the book, Rogue Trader is a farrago of elisions, omissions, half- truths and exaggerations. But does this mean it is a bad film? Does it matter?

THE FILM is the inspiration of Sir David Frost, who interviewed Leeson when he was in a Frankfurt jail awaiting extradition to Singapore. Leeson is a plausible rogue, and Frost seems to have fallen for his charm. When Ed Victor peddled the Leeson story to Little, Brown (for more than pounds 500,000), Frost acquired the film rights, offering Leeson a share of the profits. I doubt that it will make him rich.

Frost is Rogue Trader's executive producer, and he sells the story hard, as though it were a romantic thriller. "The love story, the class angle, the greed angle and the disintegration of a human being ... There is no doubt in my mind that had Nick's surname been something like Fotheringay- Leeson, he would not be in prison serving time. Rogue Trader is not about a burglary. It's not about sexually-motivated crime. Nor is it brutal. It is a `white-collar' crime." That's all right then. Because no one seems to have suffered in what appears to be a victimless crime, Leeson himself - jailed for six years - is no villain. He becomes the victim.

This is where Rogue Trader sticks in my craw. Leeson claims that he began to defraud Barings to help out a Singapore girl who had made a costly error dealing for a Barings' client on Simex, the exchange dealing with financial derivatives in Singapore. The truth is that Leeson began to prepare the way to mask his own illegitimate dealing some time before the trader erred. Within months of his arrival in Singapore in 1992, he had forged documents to conceal his personal dealing from Simex and his London colleagues. He manipulated his secret accounts for almost three years, using Barings' own money to swell its profits. Big profits meant big bonuses. If the final orgy of misguided trades by Leeson had been delayed by only a couple of weeks, he would have cashed in the bonus he had negotiated for himself of pounds 450,000 - a sum most crooks would regard as a decent return on a criminal gamble.

Frost and Dearden get away with wild assertions because the victims of Leeson's crime worked in the City of London, and it is hard to pity gents who work in the City. John Standing cruelly hoists Peter Baring, the last hereditary boss of Barings Bank, on his own petard. (He really did say: "It is not actually very difficult to make money in the securities business.") The last scene, in which Peter Baring and his wife occupy a box at the opera, is inaccurate in only one small particular: Baring still goes to Covent Garden, but his seat is in the stalls circle. Peter Baring voluntarily relinquished any future role in banking, but others, less well off than him, were no so well cushioned in defeat. Leeson's patron, a man named Ron Baker (played by Nigel Lindsay, who is a remarkable lookalike) and his boss Peter Norris (Simon Shepherd is another lookalike) were both punished by the Department of Trade and Industry. They deserved to be, but punishment did not end with them. Altogether, 10 of Leeson's colleagues at Barings have been banned for varying periods from being company directors; most have been fined by the regulator, the Securities and Futures Authority. One relatively junior employee named Tony Gamby, who tried to defend his reputation in court, has been more harshly punished for doing so. Each of them bears a greater or lesser degree of responsibility for the failure to detect Leeson's fraud, but they are evidence that this was not a victimless crime.

LET'S move on from the chaps. What about Lisa? Her tearful campaign to save her husband from Changi jail in Singapore proved to be one of the most satisfying sub-plots in the real story. Lisa is played pertly by Anna Friel. She and McGregor spend a lot of time in bed in the film - making love on a bed littered with bearer bonds, presumably to symbolise the sexual potency of money - possibly more than in real life. (Leeson was always tired and often drunk.)

I know a specialist Leeson-watcher who believes that Lisa would find Anna a bit brassy, but that is not the principal fault in this strand of the script. Dearden suggests that Leeson eventually confessed to Lisa; in the script, she tells him the collapse would never have happened if she had been working with him. This cannot be true. One fact that spoils Frost's "love story" is that Lisa divorced Nick earlier this year when he was still in Changi.(She did delay her remarriage briefly when Leeson's cancer of the colon was diagnosed last year.) While no one can know all the factors involved, the specialist Leeson-watcher believes that Lisa's disenchantment set in when she read Rogue Trader and finally understood that he had been living a lie all their married life. He never told her a thing.

Does it matter? If you define Rogue Trader as art, facts are not important. But this is not art. It is popular entertainment with a subliminal message. Frost's suggestion that, if he were called Fotheringay-Leeson, he would not have gone to jail tries to reinvent the story by making it a commentary on class. But Frost is captivated by his subject, and his investment. He ignores the hard evidence of fraud and forgery which would have led to a jail sentence no matter what Leeson's name was.

Dearden makes a larger claim: "Rogue Trader is a real slice of social history and it symbolises a turning point when the Barings of this world were finally consigned to history and the Nick Leesons of the world took over." What rubbish. The people who have taken over from the Barings are cleverer and richer investment bankers, mostly from New York City.

The facts do matter in the end. By transforming Leeson into a blander, more likable person whose motive was not to let anyone down, James Dearden and Ewan McGregor make him a less interesting character than he is. The real story would have been a different film, but it might have been a better one.