Laughs for the credit crunch days

The financial crisis is a serious business. But the comedy duo Bird & Fortune have found plenty to smile about. Rob Sharp reports
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The Independent Online

It is a familiar scene. Comics John Bird and John Fortune – known best for collaborations with Rory Bremner – face each other in suits and engage in intelligent banter. Bird, 71, the stockier one, has assumed the role of fictional investment banker George Parr, and is being gently prodded by interrogator, Fortune, 69.

It is a familiar scene. Comics John Bird and John Fortune – known best for collaborations with Rory Bremner – face each other in suits and engage in intelligent banter. Bird, 71, the stockier one, has assumed the role of fictional investment banker George Parr, and is being gently prodded by interrogator, Fortune, 69. “There are two things you need to remember about the financial markets,” says Bird. “The first thing is, they are made up of very sharp and sophisticated people, who are the greatest brains in the world. The second thing you need to remember is that the market is driven by sentiment. This means that things are going along as normal, and then suddenly, one of these sophisticated people will shout, ‘My God? We’ve lost everything!’”

Like much of the pair’s humour, the sketch pokes gentle fun at the absurdities of society’s “leaders”, many of whom escape accountability. With its analysis of the “packaging of debt” by US mortgage brokers, such humour is a world away from the aggressive style of playground banter making headlines last week. The clip, first broadcast on ITV1’s South Bank Show last year, has since notched up more than 2 million hits on YouTube, and the duo are now following it up with Silly Money, four “documentary-style” comedy programmes, which debuted yesterday on Channel 4.

“It came about because in the credit crunch,” says Fortune. “Channel 4 doesn’t have any money. So they said we’ve only got enough money for you to do two of your normal shows. Our producer said well if we can do it for half the money, can we do four? We realised because we were doing four programmes with no money they could not be particularly topical [on day-to-day news stories] and will have to be much more documentary. So we suggested the banks because that is what is going on.”

Other topics to be discussed include the emerging economy in China and pension funds (Bird has been claiming his for nearly seven years).

“To find out about it we talked to a few people and there are some good articles online,” explains Fortune. “The current financial crisis is not just to do with the greed of a few people, though, it is also to do with status. If they work in a huge building like Lehmans and they are doing deals and getting huge bonuses, they all think ‘fuck me we’re all very clever.’”

Bird then takes up the cudgels. “We’ve been going on for 10 years about these Masters of the Universe and how stupid they are and they have now proved it beyond question,” he says. “What is so wonderful is that they have been brought down by their own ingenuity. Very clever people can do very stupid things. The whole system has crumbled because they have lent money to people who can’t pay it

back. The big risks come if you find a way of lending all the money at once. The point about these financial instruments is… you lend people these mortgages. What happens if a bank lends a mortgage is that over 20 to 30 years you get a dribble of interest. But what happens is, these people package the debt and get a big profit overnight. If they can do that they get a big bonus.”

So what do they make of the BBC scandal that has dragged two of the Corporation’s biggest personalities through the dirt? “There is a culture in which banter is seen as the highest level of social interchange,” concludes Bird. “And banter covers ‘I’ve fucked your granddaughter’. That’s banter. It was not remotely funny. It was just humiliating to the person involved on the most personal level. One newspaper did a few vox pops of people queuing up for Never Mind the Buzzcocks and one girl said it was really funny and people should lighten up. Nothing means anything any more.

“People talk about risk and pushing the envelope of comedy but it’s nothing to do with that,” he continues. “Two people behaved with an incredible lack of taste, to use their position as broadcasters to humiliate and bully somebody. The idea it makes a difference whether young people in their audience approve of it makes no difference whatsoever. There is no principle to be drawn from this, apart from that people have behaved extraordinarily badly on this occasion. It’s absurd.”

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