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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?