Finance in screen fiction is a realm of monsters. From Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho to the crazed party animals of The Wolf of Wall Street, the arena of deal-making is portrayed — particularly in America — as winner-take-all without trace of empathy or redemption.

Industry — the British-made television drama that follows a group of young bankers competing on a City trading floor whose second series is currently airing on HBO — is a more subtle example of the genre. Its characters are not monstrous but they are all flawed, ruthlessly transactional in their...

Finance in screen fiction is a realm of monsters. From Gordon Gekko in Wall Street and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho to the crazed party animals of The Wolf of Wall Street, the arena of deal-making is portrayed — particularly in America — as winner-take-all without trace of empathy or redemption.

Industry — the British-made television drama that follows a group of young bankers competing on a City trading floor whose second series is currently airing on HBO — is a more subtle example of the genre. Its characters are not monstrous but they are all flawed, ruthlessly transactional in their dealings with each other, and frankly hard to like. There aren’t any nice guys.

I took the writers Mickey Down and Konrad Kay to lunch at the Ivy Café in Marylebone and asked them why. Both are (like me) former investment bankers themselves — Down was an intern on a mergers and acquisitions team at Rothschild’s, Kay lasted a bit longer as an equity salesman at Morgan Stanley. Did they hate every second? Is Industry, in effect, the therapist’s couch that’s helping them get over the trauma? I had, after all, been through a similar transition myself and took at least a decade to write the first career out of my system.

Not really, they reply separately, but in similar words. They liked at least some of their colleagues but both suffered a form of imposter syndrome: the balance sheet analysis behind M&A work was “a foreign language I didn’t speak,” says Down. “I made so many mistakes, I always felt I was about to be found out.”

“I hated calling clients,” says Kay. “And I can barely add, multiply or divide. I had to work really hard to be really average.” If they looked forward to anything, it was Friday afternoons when they could at last wind down and go to the pub. Do they miss any aspect of it now? “Only the tailoring,” says Kay again. “We liked the dressing up.”

That dates them to the early 2010s when they escaped. Today’s trading floors are mostly more dressed-down than the Industry version, a minor detail in what’s otherwise, as viewers from the City tend to agree, a very authentic portrayal of the milieu — including financial detail that you don’t have to grasp to enjoy the drama, but which makes sense if you do. In the second series we get more contemporary political background, but will the protagonists who survived from the first series have learned to treat each other more kindly?

No spoilers here. Suffice to say that Kenny, the Northern Irish foreign exchange trader (played by Conor MacNeill) who has a tortured relationship with his manipulative sexpot assistant Yasmin (Marisa Abela), has had to go into rehab, poor fellow. As for the tension between Harper (Myha’la Herrold), the street-smart black kid who lied about her college degree to get the job, and her inscrutable veteran boss Eric (Ken Leung), all Kay will say is: “It’s a twist on that age-old thing, how you always have to kill the one you love.”

Later in the conversation, he refers to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a “story engine” for the series. But will there be as much sex and drugs as in the earlier episodes? “Oh yes. More, actually.”

Kay, an English literature graduate, is the funnier and more mischievous of the pair. Down, whose mother is Ghanaian and who studied theology, seems gentler and more cerebral on brief acquaintance — though I observe that his lunch choice of steak tartare has a touch of the macho banker to it. They’re both far more likable than the people they dream up; and having been writing together since they first teamed up at Oxford, they are clearly well in tune with each other’s thinking.

One of their first joint efforts was a play at the Edinburgh Festival about a fake moon landing “with a huge amount of swearing.” Then they wrote a first version of Industry as a fly-on-the-wall docudrama, but it was too harshly honest to be entertaining. Finally they got lucky in 2017 with a commission from HBO for the first series of eight Industry episodes that became a co-production with the BBC and premièred, to generally positive reviews, on both sides of the Atlantic in November 2020.

The HBO relationship has been great for them: “They just let us get on with it,” says Kay. “It’s the full-on American ‘showrunner’ way of doing things and on series two it has been flawless, conflictless — really joined up. We don’t trust anyone else to make our show, so we’re involved in every casting, every edit, every music choice.”

“The actors are very engaged with the psychology of their characters and there are other writers on some episodes,” adds Down. “But we give them a detailed scene-by-scene synopsis and we edit every line.”

As for the BBC’s input, “they top up the budget for each episode” but do they, I wonder, also ask for more BBC-ish storylines of the kind that deliver subliminal messages on race, gender, climate and the evils of capitalism? Does anyone at Broadcasting House ever say: “Can’t you give us moral uplift and happy endings, a bit more Call the Midwife?” “Not at all,” says Kay, guffawing at the comparison. “This is a drama that never moralizes and never stops to explain. We could write twenty series of it but good’s never going to triumph.”

And no pressure from the backers to reduce that unusually high quotient of shagging and substance-abuse? “Oh no, quite the contrary.”

It helps that the show is a relative bargain, coming in at a fraction of the cost per episode of long-form television hits such as Succession, the Murdoch-lookalike media-dynasty drama replete with helicopters, penthouses and superyachts. Industry, by contrast, is largely filmed in Cardiff, in a former electronics factory space that’s been converted into a trading floor. So if audiences keep tuning in, many more episodes could be in prospect.

But don’t Kay and Down feel an urge for pastures new, having given such powerful expression to an unhappy passage of their own past lives? Yes and no. They want to stick with television because “no one writes films any more, except maybe Marvel superhero stuff.” And the episodic format, eight hours (with the possibility of more) rather than two, gives far greater scope for storytelling without the tough discipline of having to write a definitive ending.

They’re also aiming to escape writing about banking, at least some of the time. There’s a murder mystery in development, a sort of “Gosford Park with cocaine,” and an update of a 1960s spy drama — though I sense they’re nervous as to how critics might react to very different material coming from “those boys who wrote Industry.” No need to worry, I’d say. They have a talent for character, an ear for dialogue and a rare creative chemistry between them: let’s see what they come up with next. Meanwhile, as Kay reminds me in a cheery farewell, lots more sex and drugs.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.