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.”