The Weekend's Television: This World: The Madoff Hustle, Sun, BBC2
On Thin Ice, Sun, BBC2
Another false profit
Monday 29 June 2009
"He's a petty thief," concluded one of Bernie Madoff's victims bitterly in This World's stylish film about the world's biggest fraudster.
Well, I suppose you could see where he was coming from. It must rankle to have the man who's ruined your life spoken of as a criminal mastermind and prodigy of larceny. But petty? Come on. The estimates of Madoff's haul range between $20 billion to $50 billion, which is a bit more substantial than a hastily pocketed handful of pick'n'mix. And Roger Corke's film – an extended pastiche of the BBC's con-man drama Hustle – sensibly began by pitching the unprecedented magnitude of Madoff's theft: "He's the greatest grifter the world has ever seen," murmured the cashmere tones of Robert Vaughn, "... he ran the longest of long cons." Leaving aside what we've all just been collectively taken for in order to bail out the banks it's hard to deny him the top spot.
In Hustle, of course, the audience always sympathises with the con-men, because the marks are generally so loathsome. As if to prevent that happening Corke had contrived to have his film fronted by Willard Foxton, whose father Bill shot himself in a Southampton park after discovering that his relatively modest life savings had all – unknown to him – been entrusted to Madoff.
And though some of Madoff's surviving victims provoked the occasional twitch of schadenfreude (some of these people could afford to be robbed by him twice over and still not notice), it was also clear that one of the central tenets of the long con – "You can't cheat an honest man" – isn't always true. You can cheat honest ones – because they trust the brokers who advise them. And you can cheat knowing ones too. Step forward the rueful Dr Stephen Greenspan, author of Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It. Dr Greenspan received the first bound copies of his new book on 10 December. On 12 December, he learned that Madoff had stolen $400,000 from him. When I last checked Dr Greenspan's book was ranked number 510,357 on the Amazon sales chart, perhaps because word has got out that he's not exactly a glowing advert for the practical application of his subtitle.
Some sharper New York analysts did spot what Madoff was up to, and they appeared here to explain how even raising an eyebrow about his alluringly consistent returns provoked splenetic attack from Madoff loyalists, many of whom were reassured by the fake share-dealing certificates that Madoff churned out from a sealed floor in his Manhattan office. One analyst had even provided the Securities and Exchange Commission with a detailed dossier on Madoff's Ponzi scheme but had simply been ignored by watchdogs who had already got far too friendly with the fox.
The blind faith of his long-term clients exemplified another central truth of the long con – that there comes a point when you've invested so much trust and money that you can't afford to do anything but continue to believe. And then, when belief finally becomes unsustainable, you discover that you can't afford to do anything at all. Madoff, incidentally, specialised in stealing from charities, since they were far less likely to ask for their initial capital back at short notice and he traded on the trust of the people who knew and liked him to draw in the fresh funds that would keep the ball in the air. Not petty at all really I think. Monstrous would be a better word.
In On Thin Ice, Ben Fogle and James Cracknell – who risked delirium, death and boils to row across the Atlantic – engage in another extended passage of self-mortification, taking part in a race to the South Pole. Last night's opening episode saw them travel to a giant fridge somewhere in England where they could simulate the effects of spending 24 hours in sub-zero temperatures. Not only just sub-zero either, but, with artificial wind-chill added, minus 52 degrees centigrade, a temperature at which your extremities are on a knife edge, possibly a lot more literally than you would like.
The polar doctor supervising their induction warned them that he had encountered at least one case of penile frostbite. "He had to have a trimming procedure, shall we say," he explained coyly. I loved the "shall we say", as if the word "trimming procedure" might actually have euphemistic effect in these particular circumstances. There's only one end you can practically trim from, after all, and it's not a bit any man would feel he could happily spare. Later on, during a four-day expedition on the Nordic plateau, the boys dived naked into the night for a snow bath, the modest pixellation around their crotches suggesting that at least part of them was beginning to think that discretion was the better part of valour. But the rest of them seems hell bent on getting to the South Pole.
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