Last Night's Television - How to Be old, BBC4; Freefall, BBC2
When greed's still good
Wednesday 15 July 2009
Freefall everyone was selling. Dave, flashy jack-the-lad, was selling discount mortgages to fiscal innocents who couldn't understand the terms and wouldn't be able to meet them. Gus, smooth city banker, was selling Collateralised Debt Obligations to notionally sophisticated investors who, it turned out, didn't grasp the small print either. Only Jim – a security guard who once went to school with Dave – had nothing to sell, until Dave met him and persuaded him that house prices can only go up. At which point, Jim became a salesman too, pitching the dream of a better life to his wife with such hungry conviction that, against her better judgement, she bought it. Dominic Savage's drama began with a rant – a mortgage-broker boss berating his sales staff for their poor performance. He waved a list of credit-risk customers in their faces: "That isn't a list of names to me or an invite to a gay wedding," he bellowed. "That is saying, '50 grand', '50 grand', '50 grand'." Somehow people like Jim, with not a penny to spare after the bills have been paid, have become a seam of gold, and in the rush to exploit it, nobody is asking how that can possibly be.
If you wanted to understand the precise mechanism of the credit crunch this wasn't the drama to do it. Gus's schoolgirl daughter got a thumbnail sketch of the theory at one point, but for the most part you were the sucker at the table. As Gus closed a big deal, you were in a blizzard of banker's jargon – talk of "senior triple As" and a triumphant shout of "we're priced!" – with not much idea where true north lay. If you wanted some sense of the emotions of the crisis, though, you were in the right place. "Tell those fuckers in risk to stay off our arse," said one of Gus's colleagues, terrified that his bonus might be imperilled by more cautious minds. And Gus had successfully sold himself the notion that this was ethics in operation, delivering a 21st-century version of Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" speech, about the liberating transformations of cheap credit. "If you're wondering why we're doing this," his colleague told a new arrival at their celebration party, "we're doing it for third-world homeowners in Bangladesh."
Most potently, Savage got the corrosive shame of not having enough things in a society where acquisition is the pre-eminent measure of success. Jim was easily the richest of the three men here in intangible assets. He had a family he loved and he had contentment. But then Dave held up a distorting mirror in which he could only see what was missing. Gus, meanwhile, could only share his triumphs with himself, retiring to the executive bathroom after a business coup to demonstrate to us that he was a merchant banker in every sense. And all of this was conveyed in Savage's trademark improvised style – a choppy, realistic dialogue full of overlappings and half sentences. For the most part, it worked marvellously, though there were moments that made you wonder whether it had its drawbacks too, such as the scene in which Dave started coming on to Jim's wife in the middle of negotiating their new mortgage, a scene that seemed to owe more to the excitement of actorly invention ("What will happen if I go here?) than character consistency. I wondered a little too about the glacial emptiness of Gus's home life. However consoling it might be to think that money simply buys you unhappiness, the truth is that there are plenty of ruthless bankers who live perfectly happy lives surrounded by people who adore them. In choosing the archetypal figure of the wretched millionaire, Savage had nudged his drama a little closer to instructive fable than was really necessary, particularly when you discovered that Jim's home life had survived the collapse of his hopes relatively unscathed. Still, these were only minor downturns on a graph that otherwise was pretty much all up. Those who invested their time got a pretty decent return on it.
I would have liked to have invested about a quarter of an hour less in How to Be Old, the latest of Nicholas Craig's spoofs on luvvie affectation, in which he shared his accumulated wisdom about third-age acting. An hour was a long time to sustain the joke – though many of the jokes you got were pretty good – and the implicit satire on the predictable way in which old age is depicted on screen certainly struck home. Craig offered advice on bronchial- wheezing techniques, sudden tumbles and doddering ("standards of limping have improved immeasurably recently"), all illustrated with montages of older actors going through every geriatric cliché in the book. I liked his guide to the casting bible Spotlight too: "There's Young, which is where you'll find all the middle-aged actors, then there's the Leading section, for older actors, and Character... for very old ugly actors."
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