Can't buy you love

Gary Day is disturbed by a dramatisation of the financial crisis and a portrayal of society's decline

July 23, 2009

Economists couldn't do it, so now dramatists are having a go. Can they explain why Britain is on the verge of bankruptcy? A group of financiers huddled round a computer screen in Dominic Savage's unsettling and finely acted Freefall (BBC Two, Tuesday 14 July, 9pm). "Estate 82!" shouted one striped shirt. "Double Es 52!" shrieked another. Were they speaking in tongues?

Suddenly the room erupted. The spirit was upon them. Suits were jumping up and down, striped shirts were shouting "confirm spread, confirm spread". What had happened? Gus (Aidan Gillen), who led the chorus of suits, explained it to his daughter in terms we could all understand. "We buy up debt and sell it on." They were in a cafe. She twirled her straw round in her drink. "That sounds really rubbish," was her response.

Gus lives for the moment when a deal is closed. "There is nothing else," he tells a colleague later. "It's all I do." Presumably that's why his marriage failed. He was filmed in his office. He was filmed in the street. He was filmed in car parks and underpasses, but not once was he filmed at home. Even sex had to be on a desk at work. You'd think with all that money he could have afforded a hotel.

Storm clouds over London warned of the coming disaster. "Somebody get on to Asia." "We've just lost another ten billion." Gus met his daughter again. He asked questions about his ex-wife because he didn't know how to talk to his child. Suddenly he began to cry. "Stop it, Dad. It's embarrassing." There was nothing left but to throw himself in front of the cars he counted every morning on his way to work. In the midst of life we are in debt.

At the other end of the social scale is Jim (Joseph Mawle), a security guard; a man who watches over goods he cannot afford himself. But Jim is happy. He has a wife, two children and doesn't owe a penny. Then he runs into an old schoolfriend, Dave (Dominic Cooper). Imagine asset-stripping a human being. Dave would be the result. If he had a heart, he would lend it out at a high rate of interest. If he'd ever encountered the word conscience, it would have been the first three letters that attracted his attention.

They used to believe in the Renaissance that speech was one of the "fairest and rarest gifts that God doth give to man", but it was surely not for the purpose of selling discounted mortgages to low-income earners. The devil tried to tempt Jesus in the desert. If "Diamond" Dave had been on the case, the history of Christianity would have looked very different.

He lost no time in setting to work on Jim. "You can turn this flat into cash. All this can be yours. I will protect you. Sign. Sign." I avoid his exact words lest they lead you astray. Jim put pen to paper. He put his family in a big house. He put them in big trouble. "I never wanted any of this," said his wife, Mandy (Anna Maxwell Martin). "We were happy as we were."

Was this a coded message that the poor must stick to their station? A drama that showed the causes of the credit crisis came dangerously close to justifying inequality. It is one of the things that made Freefall such disturbing viewing. The character of Dave could almost be seen as an attack on social mobility. But he was also a symbol of capitalism's unfailing ability to reinvent itself. The final scene showed him selling solar panels with the same ruthlessness that he'd once sold mortgages. Greed, like swine flu, returns in a more virulent form.

A less gloomy conclusion was that in showing how individual actions have social consequences, this powerful play reminded us that there is such a thing as society. But, according to John Ware (The Death of Respect, BBC Two, Thursday 16 July, 11.20pm), it is in a pretty bad way. Obesity, teenage pregnancy, drunkenness, family breakdown, rudeness and mental illness are just some of the problems afflicting contemporary Britain. How has this happened?

The finger was pointed first at the 1960s and then at the 1980s. In both decades the freedom of the individual, whether social or economic, was seen to be more important than the good of society. You were left wondering what happened in, say, the 1990s. Did we take a break from self-indulgence? Personally, I spent my youth looking for the permissive society, but never found it. Most of the antisocial behaviour documented in the film was committed by an impoverished underclass. Which suggests that lack of money, as well as too much of the stuff, is the root of all evil.

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