The old horror of “talking heads” once prevalent among television directors was always irrational. It depends on what the head has to say. A wide range of experts, insiders and commentators make Bankers, BBC2’s three-part weekly series starting on Wednesday May 8, particularly riveting. The trilogy explores the banking industry’s fall from grace in public opinion and loss of public trust, with stylish direction and striking visual fixes (inventively varied shots of the City or New York) that even include, I swear, a clip of Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The first instalment, Fixing the System, centres on how modern banking has faced its innate paradox. As defined by the FT’s Gillian Tett, in Britain especially banks get the worst of both worlds: the public wants them to make money but public and politicians are horrified when they take risks. The glamorous figure of American Bob Diamond, his rise and fall as head of Barclays, emerges as a tragic sacrifice – brought down by something so boring, as Tett puts it, as the Libor rate-fixing scandal, when he deserves credit for transforming a concern then muddling along into a powerful global institution. He faltered only once at his final appearance before the Treasury select committee, when John Mann MP reminded him of Barclays’ original Quaker principals: honesty, integrity, plain dealing.
It doubtless didn’t bother the traders revelling in rate-fixing “divorced from reality” (as Barclays’ Tim Bond artlessly, if sensationally, revealed on a Bloomberg TV interview). Communications data threw up messages such as “Mate, yur getting bloody good at this Libor game … Think of me when yur on yur yacht in Monaco”. American regulators had cottoned on to something wrong. Their messages to British regulators and the Bank of England went unheeded. When Gary Gensler, a US regulator, observes “I don’t think it’s good to lie to the public … It’s also against the law”, is there the hint of Schadenfreude in his smile?
RBS’s Sir Philip Hampton, Barclays’ self-sacrificial Marcus Agius, the Bank of England’s Andrew Bailey, Lord Turner of the unlamented FSA … A host of the informed, well-placed and articulate speed the saga along. Episode two: Risking It All (May 15) features, but doesn’t show, the shadowy figure of Bruno Iksil, the Paris-London commuter, nicknamed Voldemort (no published photo exists), a lead player in the multibillion loss of JPMorgan’s London office. A more vivid personality brought down MF Global. Jon Corzine is described as both swashbuckling and Rip Van Winkle-ish – a disastrous combination – as befits an old-style operator returning to banking after a decade in politics (governor of New Jersey). A grasp of modern trends failed to equal the self-confidence one might term arrogance. Nor does slavish adherence to an equation guarantee infallibility, as formulated by Till Guldimann, a former head of global research at JPMorgan. In a faintly surreal sequence we glimpse him at an easel among fields, apparently a landscape painter; but it transpires he is at a board, writing out his formula for “value at risk”. The pastoral vegetation also contains some metallic triffid-like growths: one of many small touches that reveal a film-maker’s eye enlivening the documentary with disturbing or ironic detail.
The third instalment (May 22), unavailable at time of writing, is entitled Payback Time. So far the message in this story of public disillusion and trust betrayed is, as Tett points out, that the banks walk a tightrope between utility and profit; and that far from it being a scientific or numerical business, human perception – volatile, unpredictable – is an inescapable ingredient. Episode one ends with the rubbish trucks clearing the City’s glimmering, rainwashed streets. It’s unclear if this is early morning, a new day, or the gloaming and Götterdämmerung. Either way, it’s a cold, grey light.
‘Bankers’ is on BBC2 at 9pm on May 8, 15 and 22