Sex, Drugs and IPOs: How Two Former Bankers Created TV’s Must Watch Show
The first season of Industry arrived quietly during the depths of 2020’s cold and grim November lockdown (you remember that one). A joint HBO and BBC venture centred around a group of young and voraciously ambitious intakes at a fictional investment firm called Pierpoint. Despite being predominantly set in an office — the harsh strip lighting, financial jargon and multiple monitors glowing with indecipherable graphs and statistics creating a very well executed sense of ambient anxiety — it was instantly compelling TV. Sex, drugs, money, jeopardy, more money, and a brilliant soundtrack. It was the best thing I’d seen in ages. Slick, kinetic, stressful. It made being an investment banker look… cool. Or at least quite interesting.
Created and co-written by friends Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, what sets Industry apart from other pieces of media that depict the world of finance is that the pair, who met at university, actually lived it. Both spending time at the same giant multinational investment bank after graduating. Having not written a script before, their time in the city pressure cooker gave them ample inspiration to create a cast of believable, dynamic and suitably murky characters, along with a finely detailed world for them to inhabit.
“It wasn’t like we went from Eastenders or anything,” says Kay, sat in a dim corner booth of Soho’s Old Coffee House pub, Guinness in hand as the Friday lunchtime crowd settles in for the afternoon around us. “We went from nothing to running a writers room and a production of 150 people. We didn’t know what we were doing. In the American system you’re kind of expected to do the role of a producer, too. To be a manager on top of being a writer, which we weren’t really prepared for.”
Down was the one who initially toyed with the idea of writing something about his time in finance. “I left the bank after a year,” he says, “because I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea how to make that happen. I got a job working for a talent agent, which is a world that makes Industry's look PG. On the weekends I developed a short film about a banker who wanted to be a DJ. A clip ended up on YouTube and an executive at NBC saw it and called me in for a meeting. Suddenly being a writer felt like a viable option.”
You might think, at this stage, that the pipeline from big meeting to hit show was a smooth one, but the byzantine world of TV doesn’t work like that. Kay was made redundant from the bank after three years “I always felt like a fish out of water,” and was convinced by his friend to give the whole writing thing a shot. “We went to the countryside for a bit to see if we could work together,” says Kay, “I immediately thought, ‘This is the best job in the world!’ Just sitting around talking all day.”
Scripts got optioned and then shelved, they made films and comedy sketches and took countless meetings. “The reason the show ended up happening,” says Down,“is that we were working on another script with the producer Jane Tranter at Bad Wolf. When she discovered that we had both been in finance, she said that she’d always wanted to do a show set in that world.”
The pair eventually got in a room with HBO, who also liked the idea of giving two young guys with a foot in that world a chance to create something new. Industry took two and half years to be realised. Writing, re-writing and, says Kay, “making loads of mistakes.” “Season two is so much better than season one,” he adds, “because we know what we’re doing now.”
Lena Dunham directed the show’s first episode and they convinced veteran American actor Ken Leung to join an otherwise inexperienced cast. A budget was allocated, a trading floor was built from scratch on a set in Cardiff, and 150 people reported for work. “I think we normalised it quite quickly,” says Down, “but that first day was… daunting.”“When it first aired we’d often get friends, or friends of friends who are still in finance say, ‘Of course that character is based on me!’” says Kay with a laugh. “It speaks to their own sense of ego, which I guess we’re skewering in the show. ‘Wasn’t that me? Didn’t I say that to you?’”
Part of the magic of Industry is that it compels you to care about things that really shouldn’t matter. A meeting in a dull boardroom can have you on the edge of your seat; a phone call can be excruciating, and a group meal is torture. Every chilly interaction, bored glance and barbed comment a potential landmine. Like another HBO hit, Succession, Industry revels in the mess and misfortune of a group of wealthy and selfish people who are often intolerable, while also making someone staring at numbers on a computer for 14 hours, or getting in a lift, hugely engaging. It’s also really funny.
Along with plenty of glowing reviews, one of the biggest accolades the pair received was an Instagram DM and a proposal from the late, multi-hyphenate fashion designer Virgil Abloh, who liked the show so much that, of his own volition, he designed an entire capsule collection around it. “There was an amazing hoodie based on the purple Pierpoint one in the show,” says Kay. “It’s mad, because I watched Mickey design the original one on a train to Cardiff, and then we have Virgil contacting us out of the blue with a fully sketched out collection. It’s a shame, because unfortunately the licensing agreement that we have with HBO just didn’t work with it.”
As we finish our pints and ready to part, Kay recalls the sense of dread he felt before season one aired. “It was Christmas Day back in 2019. By that stage we’d both seen every scene 100 times, but it was about a year out from airing. I was just sick of it. I remember calling Mickey up and freaking out, saying: ‘This is going to bomb! We need to find new careers!’ Luckily he talked me down.”
Season one and two of Industry are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer in the UK and HBO Max in the US.