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The Last Days of Lehman Brothers

Why make a drama out of a crisis when a documentary captures it better?

One week, two programmes about the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The first was a drama entitled The Last Days of Lehman Brothers (9 September, 9pm), in which James Bolam played Ken Lewis, the chief executive of Bank of America, who comes, I believe, from Mississippi. Naturally, our Jimmy played him with a Geordie accent, which was distracting.

But I digress. The second (10 September, 9pm) was the first part of a documentary series, The Love of Money. Not being a huge reader of the business pages, I expected that the drama would excite and the documentary would be a giant bore. (Having had a superbly patronising run-in with Robert Peston when I interviewed him earlier this year, I have been feeling more than usually sullen in the face of all things financial.) But I was wrong. The Love of Money wiped the floor with The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, such that I now wonder why they bothered to make the latter at all. The only possible explanation is that the BBC's drama department is not on speaking terms with the documentaries wing, and was beavering away in blissful ignorance.

First, I will despatch The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, which was dull and confusing in spite of a cast that included the superb James Cromwell as Hank Paulson, the former US treasury secretary. For one thing, its director had seemingly forgotten that, unless you are Peston, the names of most bank chief execs are unfamiliar. Even Dick Fuld, the creep who ran Lehman Brothers, is not a household name. I spent the first hour thinking: who are all these people? Thank God for Wikipedia. And a bank collapse, however dramatic, is mostly just a matter of meetings. Only rarely are screenplays about meetings exciting. Craig Warner, who wrote this one, did his best. He gave Fuld (Corey Johnson) some socking great bit of Revelation to quote - "Babylon the Great is fallen" - (or is that Jeremiah? My biblical knowledge is not what it was), and there was the obligatory scene in which he curled up in the foetal position in a corner of the office, briny tears dripping from his nose.

But these things, given what we know of Fuld, were hammy and unconvincing. Nor did they alleviate the general boredom. How I longed for someone - anyone! - to enjoy late-night sexual congress on an office photocopier. The trouble was, of course, that there were no women around for that.

Now to the glory that was The Love of Money. Its triumph was twofold. The director, Guy Smith, had bagged an amazing array of talking heads. Among them was John Thain, the last chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, a business he sold to Bank of America beneath the noses of Lehman's, which had hoped that its own institution would be Ken Lewis's sale bargain that fateful day in September 2008. Thain is infamous for two things: the vast bonuses that he pushed through prior to the close of the deal with Bank of America; and that in 2008, even as Merrill Lynch racked up losses, he spent $68,000 on a 19th-century credenza and $400 on a wastebasket for his new office. Yet here he was, polished as mahogany, wryly recalling the heady days of "Ninja" (No Income, No Job or Assets) mortgages.

But Smith had also got hold of the most startling Lehman Brothers company videos, starring the only notable absentee from his film, Dick Fuld. If Fuld had been written into a Tom Wolfe novel, the critics would have cried foul. No, they would have said: not even a Master of the Universe can be this unpleasant, this ruthless. And yet here before us in the flesh he was. There was something sociopathic about the way that he addressed competitors and employees alike.

The financial crisis is now mostly spoken of as a kind of collective madness. Nevertheless, The Love of Money reminded one powerfully of the role individuals can play in global disaster, assuming that those around the person are frightened and dumb enough to allow it. The sight, in old footage, of a grinning Gordon Brown standing next to Fuld for a photo opportunity was, for this reason, more than usually instructive.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide