What’s a Freeman? With Stephen Fry

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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.

In this ITV documentary, he uses his freeman status to find out what really makes The City tick.

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.

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.

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.

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