Crash Test Drama

William Cash talks to William Nicholson, the co-writer of Gladiator, whose new play Crash shines a harsh light on art, ethics and bankers’ greed

WILLIAM NICHOLSON, OSCAR-NOMINATED co-writer of the screenplay for Gladiator and award-winning author of such plays as Shadowlands, first got the the idea to write his play Crash in March 2009, when he was travelling through Oslo airport and saw a headline in the FT: ‘Banker Fury Over Tax “Witch-Hunt”’. Nicholson read on and found himself incensed that bankers were filled with ‘righteous outrage’ over the fact that people had the audacity to question how much they paid themselves. He decided — not having written a play for ten years — to write one that dealt with trying to understand his own anger as much as that of the bankers themselves.

The result is the best play to have been written about bankers’ greed — more interesting than David Hare’s The Power of Yes. Crash deals — head-on — with humour and dark wit how society has become obsessed with the pursuit of money as a value system. Instead of simply vilifying the bankers and churning out the usual stereotypical clichés, Nicholson blames all of us for making the crash happen — yes, People Like You… the audience, the reader, perfectly decent, ordinary people, just because they could.

Our conversation starts by discussing a review in the Guardian which implied that Nicholson had let bankers off the hook by not being savage enough…
Q: The speech at the end of the first act was savage.
A: The speech at the end of the first act was the speech that I initially wrote the play for — to be able to say that. I wanted to stand up in Trafalgar Square and get on top of Nelson’s column and say it in a loud voice for everyone to hear. What happens when you write a play is that when you get going you do find that it’s more complicated. I got around that by thinking, ‘I will allow the full force of moral outrage to peak at the end of act one and then we will go from there.’

Q: It appears that the play you set out to write is not the play you ended up with.
A: What became clear to me was that it wasn’t caused by wicked or greedy or simple-minded people but people who are just doing their job, doing what they are supposed to do within a system that did not require them to know the stuff which blew them out. My conclusion was that they did this not because they are exceptional people but because they are average people like the rest of us.

Q: I refer to those people as the ‘lost generation’. If you wanted to make money you only went into the City, but it was the sort of thing the dumbos did — those who didn’t really know what they wanted to do. A whole generation of talented people who could have become ambassadors or journalists or playwrights — God forbid — actually ended up getting to their mid-forties and thought, ‘What have I done with my life?’
A: Very much so. I came out of Cambridge in 1970 and in those days I wouldn’t say it was the stupid people who went into the City, but it was certainly not the high-flyers. It was people whose families had, you felt, pushed them in that direction — and anybody who was remotely exciting wouldn’t have dreamed of going in to the City. The job just wasn’t interesting enough.

Q: There is this ridiculous notion that if you don’t pay someone £500,000 before bonus they’ll go off and work in Geneva or Singapore.
A: All I can say is go — if you want to be there, then go.

We move on to comparing what bankers and writers earn…
A: There is a certain parallel here — you said in one of your articles that the bankers hate themselves, perhaps, for going into the world of finance, and in a way I regret going into the screenwriting world because what I love is writing books and plays and you can’t really make a living writing books and plays. A part of me feels that although I have gained enormously from working in Hollywood, I have sold my soul for money. I don’t think I hate myself, I think I am wasting my talent. Now, I don’t know if bankers think that. I think some of them might, you know: I have an acquaintance who has a very fine mind, and I’d love to know, is he profoundly satisfied at Goldman Sachs?

Q: The crux of it is in the financial world — money is the only way of keeping score.
A: It is the only way to know what you are worth.

Q: It is also the way that the City and the financial classes have hijacked society.
A: If you have a value system based solely on high-net-worths, you’ve got a problem. In the past it existed — there have been Medicis throughout history — but I think in the past we have had parallel value structures which may have been fairly crude, like, say, class.

Q: Often your self-worth is now not determined by how much you earn but by how much you are seen to give away. How much of that is altruistic?
A: In a sense, whether it is altruistic or not it has a major problem: people feel that, having earned a lot of money, if they are giving away a lot they have done good. My argument is that they should pay much more tax and let the government spend it. When they are saying, ‘No, I don’t want to pay tax, I want to pay philanthropically,’ they are saying, ‘I want the ego buzz, I want something named after me and I want everyone to thank me.’

I believe that you pay tax gladly and the people that you elect then spend that money; if they spend it badly then you must un-elect them if you can. Philanthropists don’t seem to get this: they think it is exactly equivalent for them to determine where the money goes, and guess where it goes? It will go on something that reflects their own ego and needs.

I bring up regulation as a solution to financial crises…
A: Forget regulatory bodies, I am talking about self-regulation — conscience. I find it very hard to believe that they have become a different breed of human being that has no morality at all. What I suggest is that they have perverted their sense of morality. They have managed to convince themselves that although they know what they’re doing is borderline, that’s the game they play with the laws and regulations and if they are smart they’re doing OK. They have also convinced themselves that what they’re doing is moral, that it’s valuable, that yes, they are getting rich but they’re generating wealth, they’re doing something good somewhere down the line. You can only deal with it by going into their consciences.

Q: What, if any, analogies can you draw between ancient gladiators and these financial gladiators?
A: The vast majority of people in the financial world are men, and there is a strong need for men to prove their manhood to other men and women. The question is, what do you do to prove your manhood? You can’t go and throttle wild beasts any more, and I think the way in which we as a society admire masculinity affects the way people do jobs.

We talk about whether Hollywood success changed him…
A: When I went to Hollywood and I was nominated for my first script, that’s when the problems began. When the money began, the problems began, because I truly do believe that if you pursue money, you will get money but lose everything else. Whereas if you pursue the thing you love you will get that thing if you work hard at it, and you might or might not get money. The truth is that you get used to a certain level of earning and I have been saving it hugely, so I am now in the position where I will never be hugely wealthy but I can live for the rest of my life on my savings.

Q: Do you buy art?
A: I have children who go to private school! I’m very cautious with my investments, but I will be writing to the day that I drop. Every morning I get up in a state of excitement about what I am doing, and that is worth everything — it’s almost as if the money is incidental. I know that’s a wrong thing to say, because everyone needs money and you shouldn’t downplay the sacrifices people make for it, but it has come to me by accident working for Hollywood — which is very tough, by the way, very tough on the ego, not a laugh. They are very brutal — but they are entitled to be because they have bought you.

Our interview takes place on the afternoon of the Spear’s Wealth Management Awards, and Nicholson suggests making ethics a criterion in the judging…
A: I’m talking about awards for those in the business who we admire because they are trustworthy, they are good guys. Ideally I’d have a ‘bad sex’ award, as it were, to shame the people about whom everybody says, Don’t touch these guys with a bargepole.’ I wish somebody would do that — nobody ever will, because there’s no money in it.

Photography by Jerry Bauer (top) and Keith Pattison (bottom: Helen Bradbury as Eva in Crash at the West Yorkshire Playhouse)