Last night's viewing - Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good, BBC2; John Steinbeck: Voice of America, BBC4; Storyville: Deadline – The New York Times, BBC4

 

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The Independent Culture

Ian Hislop now seems to have graduated to above-the-title billing, earning himself what you might call Colon Status in the schedules. This is where the name of the presenter comes first and the programme is just an afterthought, as in Ian Hislop: When Bankers Were Good. In the scheduling honours system, it's a signal mark of distinction, though it falls just short of the top rung of celeb presenter honorifics, which is Apostrophe Status (as in "Ian Hislop's When Bankers Were Good"). Perhaps the most telling thing about that title, though, was its confident prejudice, the assumption that nobody would mind the implication that all bankers are now bad. I suppose bankers might feel wounded by this assumption, but then who cares about bankers' feelings these days?

Hislop's subject was the philanthropic capitalism of the Victorians, and the pointed contrast between captains of credit nowadays and their socially conscious predecessors. And he rather neatly demonstrated our historical ignorance about this matter with an act of qualified munificence himself. Standing in a Norwich street, he offered to give away fivers to passers-by, on condition that they could tell him the name of the woman featured on the note (not the Queen, obviously, though a couple of people had a crack at that, anyway). Barely any of them knew it was Elizabeth Fry, daughter of Norwich, prison reformer and one beneficiary of the vast wealth of Gurney's Bank.

The Quaker Gurneys had gone into business, like a lot of non-conformists, because other professions were barred to them. And they brought with them an anxious sense that great wealth was the root of all evil, only to be appeased by charitable giving and good works. This didn't entirely insulate them from financial catastrophe. After the 1825 stock market crash, 80 banks went bust, but they weren't bailed out by ordinary taxpayers, and the CEOs of the time appeared to have some sense of shame. When the Tipperary Joint Stock Bank collapsed, its chairman, John Sadleir, took himself off to Hampstead Heath and killed himself: "As a sign of repentance, it is fairly impressive," said Hislop, "Certainly a lot more convincing than giving yourself a bonus and saying, 'It's time to move on'."

Hislop also looked at the life of George Peabody, who took a packed lunch to work and spent virtually all of his fortune on building homes for the "virtuous poor", and the scatter-gun philanthropy of Angela Burdett-Coutts, who couldn't see a charity without chucking some money in its direction. Even ordinary Britons dug a bit deeper into their pockets than they do now, with the average British household spending 10 per cent of its income on charitable giving. Hislop might have made more of the fact that the average British household had to pay virtually no income tax at the time, but even allowing for that the contrast between then and now was stark and freshly infuriating.

Melvyn Bragg also offered historical perspective on current tribulations in John Steinbeck: Voice of America, a profile of a writer who counted himself with the 99 per cent rather than the one. And he didn't much care for bankers either, identifying them, in The Grapes of Wrath, as the conscienceless force that had provoked the biggest internal migration the US had ever seen. "When the monster stops growing it dies," he wrote sarcastically, about the imperative of ever-expanding profits, "It can't stay one size." Sound at all familiar?

Storyville: Deadline – The New York Times was a grimly watchable account of the travails of print publishing. It also contained, for any British journalist, one jaw-dropping scene in which a journalist called David Carr told his section editor how he was doing on his latest piece. "I'm doing two more weeks of reporting on it," he said, "then I'm going to take a week to write it and then I'll show it to you." Hmmm... wonder why it's haemorrhaging cash.

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