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The City of London is more rich and powerful than any other ‘borough’ in the UK, yet is a mere square mile. Stephen Fry lives just a few miles away in London’s West End, but, in some ways The City feels like a foreign country to him.
When Stephen was given The Freedom Of The City, he admits he didn’t quite know what it meant. Now, in this one-off documentary for ITV, the actor sets out to explore the square mile of The City, and to use his new status as a freeman to gain access to all areas.
One minute Stephen is standing in the heart of the Bank of England, surrounded by banknotes worth billions, the next he’s perched on the roof of Mansion House, surrounded by hives of bees.
The programme sees Stephen head below the Thames into the bowels of Tower Bridge where he meets the Bridge Master, who gives him the thrilling task of raising the bridge himself, which he executes like a pro.
At the London Metal Exchange – the only trading floor that is not computerised - Stephen witnesses high drama when he sees dealers screaming and shouting at each other as they buy and sell stocks of metal.
Stephen says: “It was absolutely incomprehensible to me, but, as theatre, it was one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen.”
The programme also sees Stephen meet the City Beadles, who are going to The Guildhall for a silent ceremony to mark the inauguration of the new lord mayor. They also tell Stephen to get a haircut.
Stephen says of the ceremony: “It’s an extraordinary, mysterious, 35 minutes of silent ceremony. It’s all done by symbols. At the moment when power passes, you put on the funny hat and the job’s yours.”
Each mayor is in office for a year, and The Mayor and his wife move into an apartment at the top of Mansion House. On the day they welcome the Queen to The City, the Mayor's wife gives Stephen an exclusive tour of their home. Stephen is very admiring of the Lord Mayor’s extensive wardrobe space.
Next Stephen visits the Old Bailey, which is topped by the 22-tonne Figure of Justice. He sees the infamous Newgate prison where criminals such as Dick Turpin and Casanova were incarcerated. And he walks in the footsteps of these criminals gone by, all the way down Dead Man’s Walk.
Four hundred thousand people work in The City each day, but only 8,000 actually live there. Stephen visits octogenarian Doris, who has lived in The City her whole life and has also been granted The Freedom of the City. Over a cup of ‘Rosie Lee’, the two discover that The Freedom Of The City gives them the right to drive sheep over London Bridge. They decide that they should do just that…
Stephen also visits Lloyd’s of London, which has been selling insurance in The City for 325 years. Stephen meets the brokers who insure everything from satellites to David Beckham’s toes.
And, Stephen meets up with Lord Levene, the former Lord Mayor and the former chairman of Lloyd’s insurance, to talk about the banking crisis. Stephen asks him if he believes The City has become contaminated and whether or not there are now systems in place to stop another banking crisis in the future.
Stephen says: “The City is a controversial place, that everyone, including me, wags their finger at. But the thing that drew me to The City in the first place is the apparent contrast between the cutting edges of modern existence and the roots in ancient ritual.”
For Stephen’s final engagement he accepts an invite to a white-tie dinner with the Society of Apothecaries. After admiring the elaborate white lace ties, robes and medals the other guests are wearing, Stephen takes part in a mesmerising ritual of passing a silver loving cup around the table for everyone to drink from.
He adds: “Of course you can mock, of course you can say, ‘It’s just a load of old fogeys enjoying themselves with wine and stupid rituals.’ But all these people are professionals in the health world and some of them are initiating new ways of taking medicine and healthcare into the world, which are at the absolute cutting edge, but they’re doing it in an old frock.
“And to me that sums up not only London, but Britain itself. Behind strange layers of silk and tassels there can be some very modern, cutting edge brains. And I think it’s absolutely wonderful because I’m an old sentimentalist at heart and I’m also someone who embraces the modern world. So for me, this is home.”
Stephen Fry’s Key To The City is made by Sprout Pictures for ITV. It is produced and directed by Michael Waldman and Gina Carter is the executive producer.
Stephen Fry interview
What appealed to you about making this documentary?
It’s the most extreme example on earth of the ancient and the modern, I can’t think of anything else without a break in continuity. When the Lord Mayor of London was installed and we filmed the silent ceremony for the first time in which he became Lord Mayor, he came out and I congratulated him on a job that had been going since 1189 unbroken. There was a little cough and the Sheriff said, ‘Well, actually, there have been sheriffs of London since the 700s.’ So five hundred years before that, and it’s unbroken.
So you have this extraordinary British rigmarole of hats, capes, cloaks, sceptres, orbs and maces, ridiculous uniforms and coaches and extraordinary buildings and traditions. Loving cups and livery dinners, Guildhall balls and Mansion Houses. And crowding in on it is the most modern and powerful financial centre of the world imaginable. Somehow they manage to live together. And when I was offered The Freedom of the City, I just thought, ‘Well, it’s very nice to be offered The Freedom of the City but I don’t know what it means.’ I don’t even know what ‘The City’ means. When we use the word city nowadays, it usually just means the financial centre, but it’s a very specific square mile and it has its own governance and way of doing things.
People get confused because they think of London as The City, which it is. But if you’re a member, we call it London town. London town is the capital of Britain, but The City is almost an independent republic and that goes back to the 13th Century when King John needed the money and power of the city. Even back in the 13th Century, the city had enormous power because of its trade. King John, who was a bad King, being the brother of Richard the Lionheart, said, basically, ‘If you help me raise an army and survive as King, I will give you special powers.’ And they have existed ever since. The Lord Mayor has had control of this independent republic that has existed in London.
On the other hand, it was made sure that there is a yearly ceremony where the Lord Mayor goes out of the city and steps into the Royal Courts of Justice where he signs his homage to the Monarch.
Are there any benefits to being awarded The Freedom of the City that you’ll actually use?
Well, you’ll see in the film, there are supposed benefits, which may or may not be legendary, but let’s just say I push the envelope.
I’m allowed to trade in The City, and I think that means I can put up a trestle table somewhere in The City, without a licence, which would be interesting.
I don’t know what I’d sell, tomatoes or something, I can’t imagine. It wouldn’t be very fair on those who have to pay for their stall.
When you were making the documentary, what was the most surprising thing you discovered?
The most astonishing thing was the London Metal Exchange. It’s the last of the great bear pits. There used to be, in the eighties and early nineties, these places where people in boaters and weird jackets yelled at each other all the time and made strange tic-tac signals with their fingers. None of those are left, all of them are computerised, except the London Metal Exchange. It’s an incredible circle of people, yelling at each other so hard you think they’re going to have apoplexy. They are settling world prices for metal, I think eighty per cent of world metal prices are settled in that small arena, and you see people stretching on phones, yelling to people who yell to people in the pit. Then suddenly a bell rings and everything goes quiet. It’s utterly, utterly weird.
Lloyds is also fascinating. It’s one of the oldest institutions in London, Lloyds insurance. People have some sort of venturesome spirit. They used to sit at tables and merchants said, ‘I’m sending a ship out to Indonesia to pick up some cinnamon and mace.’ It would be worth more than gold in those days. Ships failed, were pirated, they’d sink or whatever and people died. The gentleman would say, ‘Will you underwrite a tenth of the value of this cargo?’ And the insurer would say, ‘It’s a risk, if I underwrite a tenth…’ And he’d settle on a sum that the venture had to pay him. Then he’d get another nine until he was a hundred per cent underwritten, which meant that if the ship did sink, he got his money back from all the different then people. But if it didn’t, then they all kept their premium and they made money.
Now, of course, it’s this new Richard Rogers building, but it’s the same principal. And I went there and sat with someone whose insurance speciality was body parts. So he had to insure the voice of say, Chris Martin, or the right foot of Kaka the footballer or the breasts of Madonna or whoever. And a price would be set and he’d charge accordingly. It’s like a bookies. It’s amazing. Amazing.
The Bank of England was amazing too. I went into a vault containing billions of pounds in twenty pound notes and that’s quite awesome to just see them tucked up in crates like that. Really strange. You’re not allowed to take any money in, so that if they search you on the way out, and you have money on you, it must mean you’ve taken it. You can’t have phones or cameras, and the doors are very solid as you can imagine.
What about the people you met?
Well, it’s a huge variety. Probably the one I was fondest of was Doris, who had lived all her life within the walls of The City of London. Her father had run a pub and her husband had. She stayed during The Blitz. She did lots of charity work, worked amongst children in The City, and got herself given The Freedom of the City. She’s just a fabulous old duck, and we had a lovely tea and the programme ends with the two of us. Only about 80,000 people live within the City of London, but 400,000 go in every day. If you go at the weekend, it’s deserted.
What do you think about living in the city, could you live there?
Not really, to be honest. It’s just not really a residential area. The pavements are so busy, all the shops are gentleman’s suiting and shirts and quick cafes and things. There are only a few fine restaurants there. Where I live is much nicer, I can walk to Soho in five minutes and Piccadilly is two minutes away. And it’s quieter there as well.
Has it ever appealed to you to work there at any point in your life?
Not for a second. I was at university and there were friends of mine who were being interviewed there in their second year by merchant banks and things like that, and within two or three years they were earning six figure sums and then seven figure sums a year. And you could see it in their faces; they went to work incredibly early, partied hard at night but then probably didn’t go to bed because they had to be up at 4am for the Japanese prices. It’s very hard work. And it was that time in the eighties when they thought they were the masters of the universe and they couldn’t go wrong. I think a lot of them regret it. When you’re on your deathbed you wouldn’t think, ‘Oh, I wish I’d spent more time at the bank.’
Did you have a view on city workers before you made the programme?
Well, I didn’t think they were all evil. The trouble is, there’s a huge disconnect between what they do and the effect it has on the rest of the world. I think the problem is not just theirs. The great trade unions of Britain, and other private companies, all have pension funds and ordinary workers put aside some of their money every week for their pension and it’s basically a rule for the pension fund that it must aggressively make as much money as possible and expand. And it’s the pension funds that have the most enormous power in the city and they’re the ones who go round buying up companies and stripping them down and making maximum profit out of it, out of which other people suffer. So it is all connected.
I think there are some very, very decent people out that who believe in ethical trading and ethical banking and who believe that Capitalism in the raw is a bad thing, but that Capitalism regulated can spread the total sum of human happiness. It’s very easy to do bankers down, and they’re human beings under enormous pressure, but some of them are stupid, which is almost worse than being wicked. Some of the worst stories are of people being stupid. They bet and they keep stealing money to cover the bet. You hear these stories and suddenly these people have lost billions of pounds. It all goes to their head in a rush. I suppose regulation should involve absolute openness and transparency with the deals that people make. The problem has been that the heads of the big banks have been satisfied with profit, and not asked where it’s come from.
I had a conversation with Lord Leveson in which I sort of had a go at him. I thought, this is a programme about the institution of the city and its history and its institutions, from Tower Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral to the Old Bailey. They’re all really fascinating and I didn’t want to make a programme for ITV that talked about derivatives.