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Media Spotlight: The Great Offices Of State

Presented by Michael Cockerell, BBC4

The Treasury is one of the oldest and most secretive institutions in the UK and over the years it has gained a reputation for housing some of the country’s most intellectual minds but also some of the most prolific nerds.

In the third instalment of Michael Cockerell’s series on the secret world of Whitehall, he examines the inner workings of the Treasury and gives a glimpse of what lies behind its doors.

Since it came into existence around 1126, in the reign of Henry I, the Treasury has prided itself on keeping the economy in check. But far from being a modern and extravagant place, this programme reveals how the Treasury takes a no-frills approach to its working environment.

Archive footage is used throughout the programme to show the inside of the Treasury, which looks more like an NHS hospital than one of the UK’s top financial institutions.

The chipped paintwork and cold, sterile environment make you realise that its workers are not there to claim too much on their expenses, but rather have swept into the Treasury straight from Oxford and Cambridge ready to bury their heads in books.

The programme offers an undercover look at what it is like on a day-to-day basis for those working in the Treasury, which steers it away from becoming a bland documentary about what the Treasury actually does.

Snippets of information such as how employees are only given one towel and one bar of soap on arrival only add to the appeal.

The chancellor’s role is depicted as a lonely one and former chancellor Kenneth Clarke sums it up when he describes the Treasury and its staff as being detached from the outside world.

The programme centres on how this detachment often results in heated conflicts between chancellor and Prime Minister.

Featuring interviews with current chancellor Alistair Darling, Cockerell explores the tensions that every chancellor faces, especially in the run-up to an election.

So while the brightest minds in the country may come up with a foolproof plan to get the country back on its feet the PM wants to win favour with the masses and cut taxes.

While the hour-long documentary doesn’t reveal any great secrets of the Treasury it does manage to bring to life an otherwise faceless institution.

You get the feeling that the programme makers steered clear of interviewing too many employees at the Treasury, perhaps to avoid exposing their “cautious and nerdy” personalities, as the programme describes them.

But it would have been nice to hear more from those on the inside and their personal accounts of great events inside the Treasury’s walls.

The programme shows how Treasury officials see themselves as a Whitehall elite, brighter and quicker than other civil servants. But it also paints them as hermit-like, avoiding eye contact with others so they can scuttle back to their office to decipher the latest financial report.

Of course, they are camera-shy so the programme doesn’t succeed in lifting much of the mystery that still surrounds the Treasury.

It’s a worthwhile watch that puts a human face on our government bean counters. But regrettably, I think it will take more than rationing soap to save the country from its current debt nightmare.

Review by Natalie martin


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