Growing up, Konrad Kay was “obsessed” with the culture of high finance. Wall Street was among his favourite films. So, when time came after university to find a job — his mother, having fled Communist Poland, would not accept him lazing about — he looked no further than the City.
But the reality was not quite what he imagined. He found pitching shares to Dutch fund managers terrifying. He became too anxious to pick up the phone. His boss labelled him the worst salesman in the world, and fired him. “One of my friends said to me, ‘You discovered a year and a half into your career that you didn’t like finance — you liked finance movies.’”
Kay and his Oxford university friend Mickey Down, who had worked in investment banking, set out to close the gap between art and reality — to write a TV series that depicted the City as it actually is. Their creation, Industry, is brilliant television. It is also credible. The banter, the micro-stresses, the hierarchy of traders, salespeople and research analysts — it is all here.
Bank workers I have spoken to recognise parts of their existence — from the morning meetings in which salespeople moan about analysts’ uninspiring recommendations, to the minutiae of producing pitch-books (“For fuck’s sake, make sure the font’s Helvetica 12 or the MD will freak”). “This is the closest to reality I’ve seen,” says Bilal Hafeez, a former research analyst at JPMorgan, Deutsche Bank and Nomura.
Unlike films such as The Wolf of Wall Street or Margin Call, Industry is not about fantastical risk-taking or market mayhem. And unlike Showtime series Billions, it is not about the alpha players. It follows a graduate intake at a fictional bank, Pierpoint, in London, and finds meaning in their hyper-competitive mundanity.
Myha'la Herrold is perfect as the American sales trainee, whose educational qualifications are in doubt but whose drive is not; Ken Leung is equally good as her paternal yet terse mentor (“If I wanted a story, I’d read Moby-Dick”, “Don’t say ‘canary in the coal mine’ — you sound like a fuckin’ financial journalist”). I could have watched more of almost all the cast.
Much of the dialogue is mined from lived experience. “Every moment on the trading floor was racked with anxiety of who was judging me, do I have to pick up the phone, how shall I speak to this guy, shall I get this guy a salad, is he going to bawl me out? We wanted to honour all of those really small moments,” says Kay.
“The stress test we had for everything was, even if we push this a little bit, was there some world in which this could happen to someone of this level, and there always was,” says Down.
Of course, it’s still TV. One FT colleague commented that the Hunger Games-style competition is overdone, as is the prospect of grads spending time with clients. Would a trainee really sleep on the toilet floor? Personally, the bit I found most unbelievable was the frequency of drugs and sex (the first episode is directed by Girls creator Lena Dunham). The City workers I know are too exhausted.
Kay insists that, in his early 20s, he had the stamina. “I lost count of the amount of times I came to work hungover, or on barely any sleep . . . On the trading floor you could literally walk down the row and smell who had been out. When people have had a really heavy night, their skin gives out this vodka-y tang.”
What’s more, “every single sex scene in the show has a story point to it. It’s either about power or release, or someone who doesn’t have power trying to find it, or someone trying to express power through sexuality, or finding a valve to switch off from work.”
He would say that. But Industry is also poignant in depicting young people trying to define themselves by their work and finding something unnatural about the process — in Kay’s words, “how difficult it is to establish those true connections in a workplace where you’re always being quantified.” (The writers were influenced by This Life, the 1990s BBC drama about young lawyers.)
A running theme of the eight-part series is the bank culture — whether the acclimatisation of young recruits tips into indoctrination or bullying. Down and Kay, who are now 31 and 32, left the financial industry seven and eight years ago respectively. Although they have kept things current, they recognise that banks are changing, and that some things taken from personal experience “would not fly today.”
What drew them to work in the City was partly the prestige — this is where the most competitive people went. In Industry, the graduate intake includes some from moneyless upbringings and some riding on their Etonian education. Today, with the rise of quants, hard science is becoming more important than connections; banks are keen to recruit women and black and Asian staff. But the question lingers whether the City is as meritocratic as it would like to appear.
“The clearest snobbery was private school versus state school,” says Kay, of his time. “There would be schemes [to hire state-school interns] and there was incredible lip-service that they might end up being hired, but it comes down to the fact a lot of these vice-presidents and MDs wouldn’t want to take a person like that into a meeting with a very senior client.”
So many shows that are meant to “expose” a piece of life end up glamorising it. The Sopranos makes you think that organised crime at least involves some decent cured meats and cheeses. Succession makes you think it’d be nice to go on a big yacht. Sure enough, watching Industry was the first time I ever wished I’d been on a bank graduate scheme. Whatever your industry, the show may well bring back a period in your life where the office was a foreign country where you didn't understand the customs or much of the language.
Is the show pro or anti-finance? Probably neither. It certainly doesn’t lionise excess and illegality, like Wolf of Wall Street. Arguably its most unappealing characters are not the bankers, but the layabouts in cameo roles who look down on them from the safety of financial privilege.
Kay insists that the nuances of individuals “were far more important to us than any kind of huge, didactic statement about the financial industry.” (As a salesman, he found his colleagues ranged from “totally bland” to “psychotic”.)
Although he and Down realised quickly that the City was not for them, “the corporate finance mentality” is something they retain. “We treat our job like a job, we do really long hours, we stay up very late sometimes, we expect results in the same way that someone in finance expects results,” says Down. “TV is a much nicer, more collegiate business.” (“On the surface,” adds Kay.)
Other industries create competition and alienation in different ways. But it is finance that has sucked up much of the most talented graduates over the past two decades. Even at a time of regulation, Brexit and automation, the City dream remains. It deserved a show like Industry that does it justice.
Industry is on BBC2 and iPlayer in the UK and on HBO in the US
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