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Venturers, The (BBC-1 1975, Geoffrey Keen, David Buck)

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Drama series The Venturers told stories of a group of venture capitalists. The series grew out of a Drama Playhouse entry for Wednesday 30 August 1972 shown at 8.10pm with the series itself not emerging until some three years later.

Original publicity… The Power Behind Prince’s – Tuesday’s new series The Venturers is about the drama and intrigue of high finance. Set in a merchant bank in the City, the nerve centre of the financial world, it stars Geoffrey Keen (of The Troubleshooters) as Gerald Lang, managing director of Prince’s. Here, Donald Bull, who devised the series, sets the scene for The Venturers and Tim Heald gives a breakdown on the “Accepting Houses” – merchant banks: Money is fabulous stuff. Not just money as such – but all the things it means to us: power, love, greed, fear, glory, all the basic drives of our lives.

The Venturers is set in and around a great merchant bank of the City of London – “Prince’s”, one of the handful of “Houses” which over the past two hundred years have made the City the key financial centre of the world. It’s no ordinary bank. At Prince’s, millions are everyday figures, for it deals in the money needs of corporations, cities, countries, as well as the huge sums – it could be Arab oil money – seeking investment. Prince’s seven-storey building in the City is a compact power centre whose decisions touch every activity of man in which money plays a part – which is just about everything. The men who make these decisions are men of power – such as Gerald Lang (played by Geoffrey Keen), managing director and executive head of Prince’s.

Lang, fifty-five, is the maker of the modern Prince’s, shaping it from the sleepy family concern it once was into the toughly streamlined organization it has to be to survive. Prince’s has taken on Lang’s own colour, questing, energetic, receptive to new ideas. There is no deadwood, even family deadwood: under Lang you deliver the goods or go. Take David Ayrton (played by James Kerry), who works on Prince’s corporate finance side – the part that deals with mergers, takeovers, major issues of capital. The son of north-country school-teachers, David made it the hard way: through grammar school and Cambridge scholarships, on to Harvard Business School, and now, at thirty-eight, one of the coming men at Prince’s, openly bidding for the top. But behind the assurance, there’s still a chip-on-the-shoulder uncertainty about really belonging to the charmed inner circle. So his attitude to Tom Prince (played by David Buck) contains a hint of challenge. And not without reason.

Tom is a member of the bank’s founding family, and he’s inherited more than a fair share of the family charm and the family money. Yet he was never “intended” for the bank. Tom’s father was an academic, his widowed mother an earl’s daughter. Tom, now thirty-five and unmarried, spent his early years adventuring about the world, in the process becoming a pretty useful mining engineer, flier, sportsman. Persuaded into joining Prince’s, “to keep the family end up,” Tom quickly finds that under Gerald Lang banking can be as dangerously exciting as anything he’s done before. High Priests Of Finance: There are eighteen members of the Accepting Houses Committee, the first division of British Merchant Banks, and their names – or most of them – are synonymous with style, wealth and influence: Rothschild, Baring, Lazard, Guiness, Hambro. Others, such as Brown Shipley, Charterhouse, Japhet, and Singer and Friedlander, may be less well known to the public, but that doesn’t make them any the less powerful.

Most of the banks are cheek by jowl in the City, often on the original sites, though unusually in new buildings where the old portraits and furniture are retained to give an impression of antiquity. The great merchant banks originated mainly in the last century and, as their name suggests, they were often involved in trade. Brandt’s, for instance, now owned by National and Grindlays, set up their first London office in 1805 at Batson’s coffee house in Cornhill as agents for the family’s business at Archangel in Russia. There they owned factories, a rope works, a sailing fleet and timber forests and saw-mills. In all, it was worth thirty million roubles – three million pounds. Today most of the Brandts have left, though one remains as head of the firm’s timber agency, which is still one of the world’s largest. Marcus Samuel, founder of Hill Samuel, began trading with the Far East in 1830. The Kleinworts were the principal original underwriters for Woolworth and Sears Roebuck; the Bensons with whom they later merged financed many of the early American railways. Other nineteenth-century ancestors of today’s great banks were already engaged in more glamorous adventures.

The Barings helped the Americans buy Louisiana from the French; the Hambros financed Cavour in Italy and Rothschilds put up money for our purchase of the Suez Canal. Today, the power they wield is, if anything, greater still. One recent estimate suggested that more than a third of the top one hundred British industrial companies have a senior merchant banker on the board. Every major takeover or merger is fought out by merchant banks and all big companies retain the services of a merchant bank on a permanent basis, just as they would an advertising agency, say. One-Hundred-Thousand Pounds As Minimum: Moreover, the banks’ influence continues to range worldwide. Shortly before we started borrowing money from the Shah, Brandt’s arranged a two-hundred-million-dollar loan to the Iranians, and Kleinwort Benson are financial advisers to the projected Hong Kong underground railway. As well as organizing loans they also manage investments, few nowadays from private individuals, who simply aren’t rich enough to make them worth the bank’s while. A classic banking story tells how a property magnate asked a merchant bank to take charge of one-hundred-thousand-pounds for him. This was the bank’s minimum amount.

Two years later he received a letter. “Dear Sir,” it said, ” You recall that when your first entrusted us with one-hundred-thousand pounds we told you that we could not consider managing smaller sums. Under our management your shares have now fallen to fifty-thousand pounds and we must therefore ask you to find another company to manage them. But, of course, over recent years much of the old-world family atmosphere of the banks has changed. Many banks are now subsidiaries of larger holding companies and relative newcomers like Sir Siegmund Warburg have entered the banking establishment to upset the traditional balance of power. “Everyone’s Too Clever”: Nowadays most bankers are well-qualified, usually as accountants or solicitors though there seems to be a high proportion of bright Oxford and Cambridge graduates with arts degrees. As one director put it forlornly: “In our business everybody is terribly coherent. They all talk far too much and usually all at the same time. Everyone’s too damned clever”. Most seem to have a smart London address (Cheyne Walk, Belgrave Square) and a smart country address. Smartest of all, perhaps, was David Montagu and Company.

His was: The Kremlin, Newmarket. The Guards, and such clubs as Boodles, Pratt’s and the Cavalry also abound. Some banks are almost absurdly secretive about their work and their customers, while others are almost brazen at self-advertisement. Hambros make no secret of the scope of their business and while not entirely typical it gives some idea of what merchant banking is about. Eighty per cent of Italian bankers use them as their main or sole London agent (the legacy of the Cavour episode, perhaps); they finance imports of Danish bacon and Volvo trucks; they are heavily involved in forestry, worldwide, and in 1971 arranged a sixty-million-dollar credit for Brazilian shipyards and arranged finance for thirty-one ships delivered in 1972.

Other banks conduct similar operations, often working at breakneck speed and dealing in tens of millions of pounds. As one banker said: “The great thing about this job is that you have to think fast and live on your wits. The most important thing to remember is that a top banker is not just someone who makes a profit for the bank, he is, essentially a wielder of power”. (Radio Times, January 4, 1975 – Article by Donald Bull and Tim Heald).

pilot cast
SEBASTIAN BREAKS as Tom Prince
BRIAN BLESSED as Harry Shannon
JOY HARRISON as Deborah
KENNETH BENDA as Grimbold
MARY HIGNETT as Beyrl

series cast
Geoffrey Keen as Gerald Lang
David Buck as Tom Prince
James Kerry as David Ayrton
Hugh Manning as Freddie Pender

crew details
Creator: Donald Bull
Producer: Anthony Coburn

production details
Country: UK
Network and Production Companies: BBC One
Duration: 10×50 minute episodes
Aired From: 7 January to 11 March 1975

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