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21 August 2019

BBC Two’s Inside the Bank of England is perversely soothing

By Rachel Cooke

Watching Inside the Bank of England (2 July, 9.30pm) is like visiting a spa – unless, of course, you’re the kind of person whose buttocks clench tightly at the thought of a stranger in a white coat quietly placing a couple of slices of cold cucumber on your eyes. Obviously, I’m slightly surprised to find myself thinking of a documentary series whose chief interest is in monetary policy as the televisual equivalent of a massage; the last time I talked to a financial adviser, I took gin afterwards. But these are strange times, and if peace and sanity lie in a long, cool look at low inflation and how to achieve it, then so be it. Flow charts might not smell as good as lavender oil, but they’re far less likely to stain your sofa.

In politics, as we know, facts and expertise are close to defunct. Reality is for wimps. Winging it is the order of the day. Down at the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, however, everyone is a nerd, and everyone is a swot. No one leaks and no one lies. They’re probably not even on Instagram. Ask the men and women who daily stalk the institution’s two and a half miles of corridors about their work, moreover, and they will talk unceasingly of their duty to the British people, whose homes and livelihoods they seek to protect with a stable economy. This isn’t for the camera. They really mean it – even the bloody press officers.

The series was made in 2018, the BBC having gained unprecedented access to the Bank, which was founded – here’s a number for you – in 1694. The first film was shot in the days before the meeting in May when the Monetary Policy Committee made its latest announcement on interest rates. Tick tock, tick tock. It was all strangely nerve-racking, like a heist movie, only in reverse. While specialist after specialist presented their data to the committee, we went down into the vaults to see the Bank’s emergency reserves, among them a stack of “titans”, which are notes worth £100m and are basically backing for the currency issued by commercial banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It was a scene at once both very real and slightly fantastical. I’m also a little ashamed to have noticed that the Bank’s then chief cashier, Victoria Cleland, lines her lids with a blue-green that is the same colour as a new fiver.

One committee member, Ian McCafferty, pointed to a cartoon that hung on the wall of his office, and for a moment I worried – don’t do it, McCafferty! – that he was about to prick the atmosphere of solemnity. But, no. Economists favour somewhat specialist jokes: gags that reinforce their risk aversion even as they take the piss out of it. The camera moved in for a close-up and we saw two men marooned on a desert island. One was saying to the other: “No, no. First, we stabilise the money supply, then we signal to the ship.” McCafferty smiled and nodded, not so much at the cartoonist’s wit and perspicacity, I think, as at the immense wisdom of the first Robinson Crusoe. The next time we saw him, he was at his desk, a bundle of sharpened pencils by his hand. Again, the feeling rose over me: a sudden sense of calm. I might as well have been watching one of those weird, whispery ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos.

At the Bank, past and present seem to co-exist in a way that they do not, currently, at Westminster. If its employees relish certain of its traditions, they’re also entirely nostalgia-free, utterly clear-sighted and smart when it comes to tech. In the Parlours, which is the part of the Bank where its governor Mark Carney has his office, the wallpaper is silk, the furniture is Chippendale and pink-jacketed stewards set long tables for lunch using wooden rulers to make sure each guest is seated precisely the same distance apart. But this doesn’t mean that his staff don’t understand Twitter. No one in the outside world sees the damask tablecloths and the careful continuity they symbolise. Major announcements must be timed to the second, because even the tiniest delay can unnerve the markets. Next week: Carney’s role in what some call Project Fear, and the rest of us think of simply as being straightforwardly honest about the future.

Inside the Bank of England

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This article appears in the 03 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion