During my first weeks on a graduate program in investment banking, I spent most of my days unattended on the desk, praying for the phone not to ring. After yet another day of avoiding doing anything in particular, I began to fear that sitting silently might also not be the best way to impress on the trading floor jungle. After stewing and deliberating for some time, I walked past my boss’s empty desk to Amin’s – the next one along – and dispatched my best banal 5pm small talk. The reply? A slow turn around and a “Fuck off”.
Given these friendly beginnings, plenty of the BBC’s new drama Industry, about a group of young bankers on a graduate scheme, rang true. The joy of spending all of your £30 dinner allowance and sneaking some food home. The “banter” (“Did you bring the Evening Standard?” would ring out if you arrived at the office at 7.01am instead of 7am). Interviews where you have to say you like meritocracy not money. The trading desk thinking the sales team just answer the phone. Sales thinking traders are animals that can’t talk to clients. Researchers thinking both don’t know anything at all. Dinners at £150 a head expensed without a blink of an eye. Clients that don’t want to talk about business over lunch for fear of spoiling a nice time. And, just as happens to one of the show’s characters, someone really did tear off my shirt pocket – two days in a row – saying it looked like I was there to fix the lights. I quickly beat the well-worn path to TM Lewin for the city uniform.
That was the early 00s. Despite what you might think, Industry is not real life. Bankers make a 20-year career out of trading the minutiae of the seven-to-11-year-maturity Belgian government bonds. Worrying about tensions in the South China Sea is something you only get to worry about after years of such Belgian graft, not after two weeks on the job pitching a client at Nobu. It’s hard work and longer hours than most comparable professional services jobs. Clubbing until 4am then going straight to the office would be verging on masochism. Few people do it more than once a career, let alone once a week. If there’s cocaine everywhere I must have missed the memo. And as for clients having exclusivity agreements with banks, that would be a fireable offence in most cases – as you would hope for from the people who are largely the steady stewards of your pensions and life insurance. Maybe these things do happen, but they are the exceptions – like a graduate doctor in Holby City spotting a one-in-a-million disease from a 10ft glance.
There are flashes of hyper-realism in the show, though. Despite the tomfoolery that exists, and is portrayed accurately, sometimes the trading floor switches gear and business is taken care of in a collaborative, efficient manner, as when Harper lands her first deal. It’s clearly a well-researched and funded show that captures the zeitgeist of that era, throws around technical terms without babysitting the viewer and exposes some of the excesses (even if they are a bit overplayed).
Even so, much has changed since the crash of 2008. I’m more than a bit tired of the hackneyed “bankers are cowboys” message. And that’s not the only cliche indulged here. Public schoolboys and homosexual activity, check. State school kids that can’t cut the mustard in a restaurant or with the workload, check.
Given the monstrous effect finance has on our lives, the UK economy and our pockets – and how much financial services have changed in the past 10 years – I wanted Industry to do more. Why not dig deeper into the system that controls so much of our lives, rather than trot out the tired idea it’s a boys’ club worthy only of disdain or jealousy. As Harper would say, isn’t it a bit reductive? Besides, there are plenty of fresh vices and problematic cultures to examine.
I bumped into Amin again in the office lobby this year. Suited and booted, he was looking for a job – another victim of banking’s crunched budgets and cruel staffing habits. He thought it would be great to catch up and get a coffee. My reply, albeit quietly, was a slow turn and a “Fuck off”. Maybe Industry is more accurate than I care to admit.
Industry is on Tuesdays at 9.15pm on BBC Two