Monday’s TV: The Ascent of Money

November 17, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

For a skint numerophobe like me, a program which is ostensibly about money was not something I was looking forward to. However, I girded my loins, drank a strong cup of coffee and sat down to the Ascent of Money, Channel 4’s inspection of the rise of the money markets and how they have been brought to the brink of collapse.

I needn’t have worried. Niall Ferguson, backed up by his impressive credentials as both a specialist in economic history at Harvard, presents the Ascent of Money with remarkable sensitivity to the average Joe’s obliviousness to the inner workings of finance. Rather than becoming mired down in the technicalities and seemingly unending jargon of the bankers and money men, he attempts to make money something we can relate to more substantially than the familiar sinking feeling of dread when a bank statement hits our welcome mat. In this first episode Ferguson covers 500 years of financial history, showing how money, and money lending in particular, has been the backboneto some of the most remarkable artistic and social developments of the period. To do all that in an hour might seem a stretch, but Ferguson doesn’t sacrifice comprehensiveness for brevity. Instead, he is concise, sparing us some of the more arduous details in order to keep his coverage interesting to those of us who have little interest in the exact exchange rates between Renaissance currencies.

One does feel that Ferguson might have taken on a little more than he can chew. In those moments when he did venture into more narrow financial territory, I found my attention wandering back to earlier fascinating statements on the intertwined nature of money and trust. It’s good to see that he doesn’t, however, take the easy route of showing only the unsavoury side of banking and nor does he glorify the persistent pursuit of wealth. Instead, the Ascent of Money is an impressively even-handed examination of the equally numerous pros and cons of the rise of capitalism and credit which not only generally holds the attention but is also easy enough to understand – which is saying something, coming from someone who couldn’t tell you the difference between one ISA and the next.

By Chris Harding