If you are feeling even a slight pang of nostalgia for the cut and thrust of the working world during lockdown, you could do worse than tune into Industry, Lena Dunham’s new BBC and HBO drama about a group of young people hurled into the maelstrom of a London investment bank’s graduate trainee scheme.
Preposterously long hours, hyper-competitiveness, belittling superiors, a self-destructive obsession with money, tangled workplace sex, piles of cocaine, dull grey outfits, enough screen time to make a spider go blind, and a general work/life balance that skews so far to the former it would make Margaret Thatcher look slothful… Honestly, after one episode you’ll be put off ever going back to the office again.
“It depends who’s looking at it, I suppose,” says Harry Lawtey, one of the show’s young leads, diplomatically. “It’s certainly different from my world.”
Investment banking may seem like a horrifying industry to be inside, but it’s compulsively watchable from the outside. Industry was executively produced by Girls creator Dunham, but its writers, Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, both formerly worked in the City and based the characters on composites of real people.
Lawtey, a quiet and polite 24-year-old, plays Robert, who is the kind of young banker whose expectations of his new career appear to have been formed in 1985. While other characters are studious and self-conscious, Robert is introduced as smug, sharply suited and spends as much time in nightclubs or womanising as he does observing the financial markets. It’s not in the script, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that his backstory involves applying for The Apprentice.
“The only things he knows how to rely on are charisma and charm and bravado, and he has an outdated idea that the industry requires that of him. Underneath it he’s just a lost boy looking for some validation,” Lawtey says.
Though frequently witty, the series was also inspired by the tragic real-life death of Moritz Erhardt, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern who was found dead in the shower at his London flat in 2013. The 21-year-old had suffered an epileptic seizure after working for 72 hours straight, in a rite of passage known as the “magic roundabout” – leaving work in the small hours to just change and shower at home, then going straight back to the bank.
“It’s about banking, but really that’s just the lens we see the characters through,” explains Lawtey. “It’s also about the pressure of being young, and what it takes to be ambitious and competitive but also happy.”
It was his first major role, and, thankfully, a challenging one. “When I told all my mates who I was playing, they laughed in my face. I can’t say I live up to Robert’s standards of partying and hell-raising…”
A true ambassador for the clean-living Generation Z, Lawtey, who currently lives with his parents in Oxford, spends lots of time exercising, barely uses social media, doesn’t dabble in narcotics (despite some authentic portrays of comedowns in the show), and doesn’t create alternative identities to maximise his yield on dating apps, as Robert does. In fact, he isn’t even on Tinder.
“That part of Robert’s character is symptomatic of a whole generation, really, how there is this opportunity to generate an entirely different version of yourself. And he doesn’t have the maturity to acknowledge how unhealthy that is – neglecting your own self.”
Industry was principally filmed in Cardiff, where the cast all lived in the same apartment block for six months, being sensible together and becoming firm friends. Dunham was present throughout (bar the audition stage, when she was still in New York, so somebody’s “sole job was to hold an iPad with her on FaceTime”), and rented a cottage nearby.
“It was kind of surreal, the first thing we did was go to her cottage to get to know each other, so we ordered loads of pizzas, sat around a table and played games. Then at one point her phone buzzed and she went, ‘Now, I don’t want you all to think I’m some kind of superstar celebrity, but look who’s just texted me…’
“Lena turned around her phone and it was Brad Pitt. He’d just finished a sculpture and wanted to know what she thought, I think. We were just in awe. Then she took a photo of all of us and sent it to him. And I saw what I looked like in it: like a man who’s caught trying to decide how he wants Brad Pitt to see him. It’s the most pained expression. Not my finest hour.”
It’s lucky they all got along, since most of the young actors have at least one messy, graphic sex scene in the series. It’s never gratuitous, mind, and nor is the nudity confined to one gender: Lawtey has his own full-frontal walkabout early on.
“There’s sensitive scenes throughout, and it provides a challenge for you as a person. It’s a test of how comfortable and confident you’re prepared to be in your own body. But there was a lot of support, we worked with intimacy coordinators, who made a big difference, the whole atmosphere made it as easy as possible,” Lawtey says. “Plus, they always seem charged and erotic, but on the day it’s quite mundane. People are always checking in to see you’re OK.”
He feels “incredibly fortunate” to have entered the industry at a time when scenes like these are now prioritised from the perspective of safeguarding. A few years ago – when Dunham started out, perhaps, or certainly when cast mates like Sarah Parish were breaking through – the attitude might have been, “Go on then, get your kit off, don’t be such a prude.”
“Some of the older cast members would say to us all, ‘It’s not always this good, you know’,” Lawtey admits, of the atmosphere on set. “We’re a generation of actors that are really reaping the rewards of the MeToo movement, and I feel like this show and others are at the vanguard of a changing philosophy around sexual content on TV. It’s reassuring that the awful things that were allowed to happen just won’t be any more.”
Raised in Cyprus, where his father was stationed with the RAF before being moved to Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, Lawtey and his brother, George, a performance analyst at Bristol City Football Club, halted a run of military men in the family. After only a few small acting jobs, he was plucked almost directly from drama school for Industry.
Now, without wishing to instantly objectify him, he is at serious risk of becoming a pin-up – or at least the next in-demand leading man on the conveyor belt of British TV drama heart-throbs. I wonder what Lawtey sees in his future.
“Oh, just to be a working actor, really,” he says, endearingly. “It’s a boring answer, I know, but I just want to do that. You’re a fool to have too many ambitions and dream roles, you’re just asking to be let down.”
Hamlet, then? Or James Bond? He laughs. “Yep, one or the other.”
And off he goes, into his world of work. It certainly beats an office job.
Industry begins tonight on BBC2 at 9.15pm