Alan Morrison on
Directed by Dominic Savage
BBC2 14 July 2009
Fee For All
Well this was a rare treat this evening from the normally vacuous halls of BBC drama, a genuinely powerful and gut-wrenching depiction of how the lives of several people – a viscerally driven City trader, a thoroughly amoral ‘discount mortgage’ broker and the old school friend, a struggling security officer, whom he sells a knowingly toxic deal to – are plunged into near ruin by the greed-induced credit crunch and the subsequent catastrophic world recession. Such a drama comes indeed at a poignant moment in the economic downturn, though the BBC’s haste in dramatising a situation still in progress as we watch, describing it as ‘a unique insight into how we came so perilously close to the edge’ when debatably many are still on that edge, and many more still are nearing it day by day, seems somewhat naively optimistic to say the least. It is also with some irony that such a topically astute production hails from a Corporation which is currently under the spotlight for the excessive salaries it pays its top executives and so-called ‘stars’ (anyone who remembers how Jonathan Ross started out, hosting a alternative shoestring show called The Last Resort back in the late Eighties, probably shares my sense of disbelief at just how much of our Licence Fee is thrown at such a frivolous, smutty talent, who – in spite of his crude offensiveness on radio of late – is still inexplicably in receipt of millions of pounds of our money simply because he is quick-witted as an interviewer); somehow the volte-face on executive bonuses at the Beeb is still small fry and a meagre sign of Its recognition of the privations of its modern audience when one considers the astronomical sums these men-in-suits receive at our expense, not to mention enormous pension pots, and for largely producing dumbed down rubbish that pales in comparison to their institution’s historical output of, particularly, the 1970s (showing themselves up again and again with lazy remakes of old classics that simply further highlight how far standards have plummeted over the last twenty years of BBC television). But that rant aside, Freefall was by and large an emotionally gripping, fairly authentic – for once – slice of topical drama, significantly produced by BBC 2, which still occasionally lives up to its heritage, while its cousin channel degenerates further into inanity and drivel year by year.
The contemporary staple of twitchy camera direction aside, what was most striking about this one-off drama was the sheer baldness of its approach, pulling no punches in its focus on sheer unthinking greed at the root of the subsequent economic chaos. Particularly outstanding in terms of acting for me was – the faintly (young) De Niro-esque – Joseph Mawle, as a painfully convincing over-worked, under-paid security officer who is slowly driven to an actually quite reasonable degree of material covetousness through his patrols round the home furniture shops in a sterile mall somewhere in London. He’s subsequently conned into a toxic mortgage deal by an old school friend, a hideously energetic and insincerely tactile property salesman. Only a year on and Mawle’s security officer and his young family are plunged into near-destitution when their mortgage payments suddenly escalate at the beginning of the recession, he loses his job for falling asleep for only 15 minutes when on duty, ends up tracking down his smug betrayer and quite rightly takes out his frustration on him, he and his family then ending up moving out from their new home and scraping by again in what appears to be a highrise apartment. Mawle’s portrayal is utterly heart-wrenching, and he is definitely an actor to look out for in future. Especially powerful is the scene when his wife accuses him of ‘greed’ in having wanted to move into a bigger home in the first place, which is then brilliantly juxtaposed with the downturn in the two brokers’ fortunes, caused by a true unadulterated greed and unscrupulousness towards other peoples’ fortunes, a universe apart from the simple wish for a better quality of domestic life of the security worker for his family. It’s all relative, and typically the more innocent and less ambitious of us blame ourselves far more for our bad fortunes than those avaricious succubus who, in spite of truly only having themselves to blame, throw pathetic tantrums instead because someone’s taken away their toys.
The Irish City trader character is slightly more sympathetic than the mortgage broker, only in that he feels genuine remorse for how he has sold his soul to an ephemeral Vanity Fair, alienating his daughter in the process. He, as I predicted towards the end, ends up committing suicide, by jumping off a road bridge, chillingly only moments after eulogising to an old colleague on his new burst of life-love and plans to start again abroad. This is clearly a cocaine-snorted aberration of mood – earlier on when the crash hits, we see him rather poignantly using a credit card to cut up some cocaine in a toilet.
The sting in the tail of the drama is that the mortgage broker apparently cruises into a new vocation, duplicitously selling ecologically friendly home improvements with a highly dubious new zeal for all things environmental. This brilliantly captures the chameleonic opportunism of the capitalist mentality, one which, like the proverbial spiv’s, never fails to find a new opening in the ever-mutating market by which to bloat itself on profit again.
The fate of the security officer and his family very much hit a personal nerve, reminding me painfully of the mid Eighties, when my father was financially ruined by his best friend, who gave him a job and new home only to suddenly let him go from his employment due to the company’s bankruptcy – which he must have foreseen prior to offering the job – and landing us with a half-renovated cottage which, with unemployment setting in for my dad, meant a continuing threat of repossession due to there being not enough monies to keep up with the mortgage payments. This – at times abjectly impoverished – situation continued for us pretty much through the entire late Eighties. So this part of the drama was particularly close to home for me, and from my own memories of the sheer despair that such crushing financial pressures can put on a family, particularly on its main breadwinner, intermittently out of work through no fault of his own, Freefall was uncomfortably convincing.
Overall, a very well acted and written slice of genuine real life, showing that the BBC – well, BBC 2 at least – can still pull out all the stops dramatically if it really tries. I hope it will also serve as a reality check to the bloated executives at the Beeb. There should be much more of this kind of social drama on television today – forget your insipid chocolate-box Candlefords and puerile Dibleys, Freefall is what we Licence Payers have the right to expect from the self-inflating coffers of the BBC. My only criticism is that it is a little too early in the day – tiny green shoots or not – to be billing such a drama as if its themes are now safely in the past tense. Sadly, for all of us, they’re still far from that.
Alan Morrison © 2009