Last Night's Television - Crooked House, BBC 4; The Ascent of Money, Channel 4; Catastrophe, Channel 4
Tuesday 23 December 2008
If only the people who run our economies knew more history, went Niall Ferguson's refrain in the final part of
The Ascent of Money, we wouldn't be in this mess right now. The message may not have sunk in with the City types just yet, but it's clearly making headway elsewhere. Mark Gatiss, formerly of The League of Gentlemen, has got the message, going by the first episode of
Crooked House. Gatiss's loving contribution to the Christmas ghost story genre is a portmanteau tale of eerie happenings at Geap Manor, now demolished, but once a house with "an interesting reputation". Last night's story, "The Wainscoting", set in the late 18th century, was full of knowing lines about stock-market bubbles and ruthless financiers who spread the risk and cling on to the profits - the clear implication being that while superficial things like wigs and stock-market terminology may change, the greed is a constant.
Gatiss's sense of history is apparent in other ways. The story is littered with little doffs of the cap to illustrious predecessors. The framing narrative is set in the store-room of a local museum, where the curator (Gatiss) is gleefully expounding Geap Manor's murky past to a man who has brought in an old door-knocker that turned up in his garden (presumably, his house is on the site of the manor: and presumably, as in all good portmanteau stories, the frame itself will turn out to contain a nasty twist). Behind the curator, tucked away at the back of a cluttered shelf, sits an old sign with the street name "Hob Lane" just visible through the clutter - Hob Lane being, as every wellbrought up child knows, the place where the buried alien spaceship was discovered in Quatermass and the Pit.
The script was rife with antique slang - "blunt" for money, "brain-box" for head. The plot was very MR James: ruthless financier Joseph Bloxham (Philip Jackson), who has brought respectable mento ruinandsuicide, buys and sets about renovating Geap Manor (some nice jokes about the slowness and unreliability of builders), but strange scratching and groaning comes from the walls behind the wainscoting - an uncommonly big rat, perhaps? As the weeks go by, the sceptical Bloxham succumbs to irrational fears. It turns out that the builder has made the panels out of timbers taken from the gallows at Tyburn - timbers that have acquired a thirst for blood.
At this point, MR James would have retreated from the story to allow a decent ambiguity - is it conscience or ghosts that get the better of Bloxham? Instead, we had mysterious inky shadows swallowing Bloxham up. Not bad visually, but far too specific; the best ghost stories let the imagination do the work.
I had a couple of other minor carps about Gatiss's script. The curator's reference to a 17th century palimpsest didn't ring true: palimpsests, parchments that have been scraped and written over, went out with the Middle Ages - exactly the kind of detail that the antiquarian-minded James would delight in getting right. As so often in BBC4's perpetually budget-starved dramas, too, the period setting was threadbare. But it's not often that you see a TV drama so blatantly rubbing its hands with pleasure; you'd have to be trying quite hard to resist its charm.
Earlier, The Ascent of Money brought the story up to the present day - the point at which money seems to have stopped ascending and started rolling down the other side. The theme of this episode was globalisation, the way that the world's economies have become inextricably intertwined. We think of this as something recent, but Niall Ferguson argued that we have been here before, in the era just before the First World War, a catastrophe from which international financial systems took half a century to recover.
Then, the financial superpowers were Britain and Germany; now, it's China and America, a pair of economies so completely in step with one each other that Ferguson likes to talk about a single entity, for which he has coined the term "Chimerica" - a silly word, with which he seemed inordinately pleased.
For all the fascination of the subject and Ferguson's undeniable cleverness, I found this series irritating. Too many of Ferguson's arguments are really rhetorical manoeuvres. He's probably right, for example, to discard conspiracy theories about American financial interests sponsoring the assassination of President Aguilera of Ecuador in 1981; but that doesn't, as he seemed to imply, discredit every argument about American economic imperialism.
Visually, it was restless and distracting - too many shots of glassy buildings, speeded-up footage of people rushing around cities, lots of rapid cuts, conveying a sense of money and panic but not meaning very much. And this final episode had a rather smug pessimism - Ferguson shaking his head wisely at those poor financial fools who don't know their history.
Catastrophe suffers the same problem, Tony Robinson looking too cheerful about the prospects of global annihilation by ice, fire, or hurtling bits of rock. Mind you, having been inured to the prospect of doomsday by old episodes of Horizon, Iimagine my main reaction when the asteroid strikes is going to be boredom. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a yawn.
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