When Deborah Meaden waltzed onto (and off) this year’s Strictly Come Dancing it was a telling moment. Is there anywhere else in the world you’d find a hard-nosed businesswoman starring in the country’s top shiny-floor TV show?
In Britain, no one bats an eyelid. A caravan park multimillionaire is perfectly at home in light entertainment because television has spritzed the business world with a showbiz makeover.
Commerce is (almost) cool. Programmes like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice have smuggled the body language of business and the jargon of brands and margins onto peak-time television in a way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.
Is that a good thing? Captains of industry complain these reality/talent shows offer a simplistic view of business, reducing it to sweaty pitches, backstabbing and BS. Still, there are alternatives: recent programmes about John Lewis, Claridge’s and Iceland supermarkets have spiced up high-street stories with human drama. An upcoming Channel 4 series attempts the same trick with Liberty, the so-posh-it’s-half-timbered London department store.
But in all this, one sector always dodges the limelight: the City. After the maelstrom of the financial crisis, programme-makers and news editors went on a mission to explain. BBC correspondents Robert Peston and Stephanie Flanders became familiar faces in living rooms across the country as they probed the entrails of the credit crunch, the Euro crisis and a string of banking scandals. If Meaden appearing on Strictly is symbolic in one way, Flanders leaving her post as BBC economics editor to work at a bank shows how the City’s gravitational pull is inescapable: it’s where the money lives.
Yet for all the post-mortems and Newsnight discussions, the Square Mile remains, to most Brits, a mystery. Its culture and inner workings are the great untold story. Financial services make up ten per cent of our economy, a big, pulsating part of our national life, but you’d never know it from British TV.
The obvious defence for the lack of dramas and docs about the City is that it’s simply not a sexy world – or televisual. Who wants to watch people in suits poring over balance sheets or gazing at computers? But there are ways. Some excellent programmes have tried to crack the nut, notably Channel 4’s Bank of Dave, which told the deceptively simple story of a van-hire entrepreneur trying to start his own local bank. The obstacles he encountered spoke volumes about entrenched attitudes and vested interests. And if you don’t think finance can make for engaging drama, remember Dominic Savage’s 2009 drama Freefall, which did a moving job of showing the human cost of mis-selling.
Nobody would pretend any of this is easy subject matter or an obvious ratings winner. Banks and corporations aren’t keen to welcome in camera crews. Access is hard. The issues in 21st-century finance are so complex even many professionals don’t understand them.
Which is all the more reason for television to bring its unrivalled explaining power to the biggest story around. Whatever your feelings about Russell Brand, his recent outburst spoke for a growing sense that financiers and corporate bosses hold the instruments of power and politicians dance to their tune. If television can’t find ways to get at that story, it’s letting us all down.