Real Liffe

Television - Andrew Billen follows the mixed fortunes of the London Futures Exchange

"Derek has not been to work either today," said the voice-over glumly, "for it's getting harder and harder to make money in life as the pits close."

Five years ago we would have known what this was all about and prepared ourselves for the usual sentimentality engendered in television producers by the scent of coal dust. But "life" is actually "Liffe", the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange, and the pits are the tiny stadia on which futures are frenetically bought and sold by wide boys in multicoloured blazers (bear pits on bad days, I suppose).

Richard Parry and John Williams's compulsive documentary series, City Stories (Channel 4 ,Thursdays, straight after Sopranos), thus has the much harder job of finding a tone for the story of the hated traders and brokers of the City of London who are themselves now being rationalised out of existence. As Brian Williamson, the toff i/c of the death of the old Liffe, explained, the old trading floors are like ocean liners in an age when everyone crosses the Atlantic by aeroplane. He stared mock-myopically as the computer screens that would make his colleagues redundant were finessed and wished all survivors good eyesight. When a pit closes, they apparently sing "Rule Britannia".

One of the problems for City Stories is that the harder it attempts to rub away at the stereotype of a Square Mile ruled by public school wallies and barrow boys, the more the cliche comes up burnished. They are a weird yet familiar breed, these money men, their idiolect dangerously high on testosterone. "Oh, dreamy, dreamy, that's immense, you're spanking it," they'll say, or "My money clip is struggling to hold it". Their actual chat-up lines, however, are discursive, indicative, perhaps, of too much time spent in male-dominated habitats. "I'm a piece of bread, he's a piece of bread, you're a piece of meat," one lad told a prospective sandwich filling.

By this Thursday's third episode, however, I was growing rather fond of "Bomber", "Donkey" and their friends. I found myself wishing the Best of British to Nick Tye, the self-styled feminist about to leave his job as an analyst at the Bankers' Trust and set up a lap-dancing club with his terminal £350,000 bonus. ("The concept," Nick explained a little redundantly, "is sex.") Derek Baker, a local (freelance) Liffe trader whose firm went down thanks to someone else's rogue trading, had become a sympathetic loser: divorced, depressed, off work with an ulcer and allowed to see his son only every other weekend. When "The Spaniard", a boozy dinosaur of a trader, went to the races on his day off, I almost cheered his horse on.

Fearful of missing an easy killing, at the race track City Stories intercut the on-course bookies' tic-tac with the almost identical hand signals used on the City trading floor. That these guys are all candidates for Gamblers Anonymous was, however, a point too commonplace to be worth making. A more original case could be extracted that the City attracts overgrown children or else infantilises grown men. "Bomber" (aka Jamie Ellison) is only 22, but even that should have been enough summers for him to have grown out of his James Bond fixation, a mania manifested not only in his £100,000 Aston Martin but a home lined with portraits of the actors who have played him (except, "of course", George Lazenby). "The Spaniard" (aka Nigel Howe) lost £5,000 on the gee-gees but, zipping himself up, declared his surreptitious pee behind the course kitchens "a joy". In a priceless few seconds of CCTV footage, an anonymous trader was spotted mid- tantrum, smashing up his computer and storming from his cubicle.

The other inference is that, actually, you don't need all that much in the way of brains to hold down one of these jobs. Trading the future may sound metaphysically complicated but close-up it looks more like a knack or facility, much like learning a language or unicycling. When, this week, "The Spaniard" was accused by his bosses of insider dealing, it had to be explained very slowly to him by a pal that offering to cancel the deal just might be taken as an admission of guilt. And you should have seen them flail when asked to define what a "future" actually was.

My wish for City Stories is that from now on it invests more faith in its subjects and lets us know them better, rather than flit about interviewing window-cleaners, refuse collectors and grander mop-up men such as Williamson and the Lord Mayor. The directors' reluctance to produce yet another docusoap is laudable, but actually these City stories demanded to be told narratively. Most stories do. Instead, their lives are presented in frantic montage, often to that most currently overused of soundtracks, Fat Boy Slim's "Right Here, Right Now", and at a pace that makes Ibiza Uncovered seem lethargic. As a weekly tailpiece to that other fable of a money-making racket in decline, however, City Stories is neatly simpatico.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.