Review / Laughing all the way to the Bank of England

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The Independent Culture
FOUR years ago, a man carrying a briefcase was mugged in the City of London. Inside the case was pounds 292m. That's an awful lot of money to be carrying around. 'It was a crime waiting to happen,' said David Strahan, reporting excitedly for The Biggest Robbery in the World (ITV).

The money was in the form of 300 Government bonds and the man was from Sheppards Moneybrokers Ltd. Evidently it was quite common for brokers to walk around on business with the entire defence budget in their cases - at least until this mugging happened. Directly after the theft, the Bank of England's people fed the Press some propaganda about how the bonds were worthless to whoever had stolen them. And then they closed their doors and began jumping up and down on their desks and making high whining noises.

In fact, the bonds were useless pieces of paper only in the sense that the Crown Jewels are just bits of old rock.

Cashing in a Government bond is not quite as simple as redeeming a gift voucher at Boots, but it's not far off. You may need to present your driving licence or some proof of identity, but after that the pounds 292m is yours.

Think what you could buy with it. More importantly, think what a terrorist could buy with it. CID instantly organised a 40- officer task-force - a kind of Bond Aid, ready for the moment someone pushed one over the counter at a branch of the Midland somewhere and asked, 'Can I have that in tens and twenties please?'

The operation was an amazing success. Many of the bonds were recovered in various stings at airports. Not one of them has been cashed - though not for want of trying. It was these attempts to launder the money that the programme was interested in, and in places the story became harder to follow than the instructions on a building society's automatic deposit machine. Somehow the bonds were the link between a murder in America, a man now living in Cyprus in fear of his life (and perhaps unwisely appearing on camera to say so) and Irish terrorism. Both the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries seemed to be dealing together at one stage, which an insider said was not unusual. 'It's business,' he explained. 'Business is business.'

There wasn't much in the way of glamour here: no tunnels, no train hijacks, no bags of swag even - just paperwork, phone calls and hypothetical money. In a world in which it's possible to do your banking by phone, it's also possible to do your bank robbery by phone and who knows what will happen to the good old crime story under these circumstances.

But the programme kept lively by taking advice on the business in general from a self-declared fraudster called Keith Cheeseman. Cheeseman spoke to us from jail in Florida and explained his fraud's philosophy, whereby acquiring money from major corporations isn't stealing: it's setting up an extended profit-sharing scheme. You couldn't fault the scale of his ambition. He recalled how he used to stare out of his flat in the Barbican across to the NatWest tower thinking, 'Great, I'll have you one day,' a kind of wishfulness most of us manage to restrict to cars or hi-fi equipment.

Cheeseman also had some amusing, if not entirely relevant, tales about computer fraud. He recounted a plan to lift sums of money electronically from an account belonging to the astronomer and sage, Russell Grant. 'If he was that clever,' Cheeseman suggested, 'he would know I was into his account.' Strahan asked Cheeseman if he was going to go straight when he got out. Cheesman said on the contrary; he was looking for the big one: a place in The Guinness Book of Records. Let's hope his parole board wasn't tuning in.

In Dusty (BBC 1), the great and the good gathered to praise the life and times of the fabulous singer Dusty Springfield, whose influence endures. Sensibly, no one attempted a critical re-evaluation of her more recent shaggy hairstyle. It was a crimp waiting to happen.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away

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