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Gavin Haynes Sleepless Nights

Wonga's Weird, Sentimental New Film Won't Save Its Reputation

But it does tell us something about the coming age of corporate art.

Image by Marta Parszeniew

Ever since Jesus swaggered into the temple and turned over their tables, money-lenders have had a bad rep. This is very unfair. Surely it's the money-borrowers who should be taking the blame? After all, if everyone paid back what they owed on time, society would have few problems with 5,853 percent APRs. Society wouldn't be forced to flinch at the distasteful sight of the money-lenders kneecapping the ones who don't repay. Or at least driving off in their repossessed Renault Meganes as their kids weep behind the net curtains. Is this the fault of the money-lenders? That they made someone an offer? No. The money-borrowers are the ones Jesus should've given a good kicking. “You idiots!” he should've said. “Why don't you just give them what you owe? You owe it. Legally binding. Hello-oooo? Didn't you even read the goddamned contract? What? Well I'm afraid, my friend, even in the kingdom of heaven, there is no such thing as a free lunch.”


As you're probably already aware, Wonga are a company who offer hard-up Britons the chance to become even more hard-up via being temporarily less hard-up. They do easy, painless, short-term loans. And, as they themselves point out, 90 percent of those are repaid on-time, in full. And the other 10 percent, well, there is a certain amount of scrap in every job. By their very nature, payday loans aren't designed to appeal to the smugly comfortable, the sort of people for whom there will always be 100 quid hidden away in life's cookie jar. If – like Wonga – you're dredging the bottom of the financial league tables, you will inevitably catch some of Britain's most self-destructive and credulous characters in your nets. In many cases, Wonga are just providing the gun these people need to shoot their own feet off. A little booster-pack along their inevitable slide towards deep, deep trouble.

Yet for some reason, everyone hates Wonga. What's the solution for a lender with an image-problem? It is to go into the arts, apparently. Visionary filmmaker Gary Tarn (he's described as "BAFTA-nominated") has been commissioned to put together 12 true stories of ordinary Wonga customers.

12 Portraits, the film made for Wonga by Gary Tarn

Across his tales, we get the ordinary stories of these ordinarily ordinary people, as they find love or happiness or whatever it is they're after, via loans with APRs in the thousands. The film, which was premiered in an event described as "glitzy" at Soho's Curzon Cinema on Monday night, appears to be Love Actually with small cash sums inserted at regular intervals. One guy needs £200 to pay for a romantic weekend with his girlfriend. Another guy needs £70 to get a bone marrow transplant. No one needs £100 to get back what they lost at the dog track yesterday. No one just needs to get one last hit and then this time – for definite – they'll get clean. Wonga's Chief Operating Officer, Niall Wass, assured Kirsty Wark that celebrated director Gary Tam (remember, he's "BAFTA-nominated") had been given 100 percent free rein in choosing the subjects for his film. And, happy-happy for all of them, what he chose has ended up far more Richard Curtis than Ken Loach.


The thing is, I don't doubt that Tarm had complete independence. And I don't doubt that Wonga were OK for him to have that. Yet neither did they ever doubt the final outcome. That's the beauty of these sorts of arrangements. Much like no one's ever going to find a piece of paper in an energy company's top drawer saying, "We, the undersigned, hereby agree to collude on prices." When people have the same incentives, they don't even need to nod or wink at each other.

Wonga's project seems like a defining moment for the coming age of creatively-made, corporately-moneyed art. The basic idea – that companies use creatives to make them look enlightened – is as old as the hills. They just took it that little bit further. No one is taking our side, they thought. Therefore: let's take our own side. Let's tell our own stories. And let's bring in some flashy creative, bump up the fees, so that it's art and not PR. Shakespeare, people will point out, had large parts of his career subsidised by his patrons. And that was a good thing, because it meant he got to spend more time dicking around with his poems rather than worrying about fixing his cart or selling pigs. But while he had to fawn over them privately, Shakespeare never actually had to write a play in which he cast the Earl Of Southampton as a really swell bloke who is kind to animals, loved by the ladies, and please, audience, won't you buy some Earl Of Southampton goodies at the curio shop on your way out?


The norm has changed and – to an extent – it's your fault. You probably thought, when you were torrenting the complete discography of your 19 favourite bands, that you were only taking food out of their mouths, and that would be fine. That they'd probably be scaling down from Tesco ordinary bread to Everyday Value loaf. That after being unable to afford protein, the upside would be they'd be working on that emaciated smack-chic look that inspired you to steal their records in the first place.

Unfortunately, you were wrong. What actually happened was that their income stayed basically static, but they had to do little moral jigs in order for that to happen. They had to yet again renegotiate the age-old tension between art and commerce. They had to suck it up a bit. All of those 90s musicians who collar you about how they'd rather have taken a pint glass to the neck than "sell out" by doing a sponsored show: they're the end of the line. The choice of a new generation is to climb into bed with companies and see what happens because the alternative is poverty. Alright, so you're not going to see The Cribs on the Smintline Sponsored By Smint Smint Roadshow any time soon, but you will see Vampire Weekend and Jack White doing Amex-sponsored shows. You will see Phoenix soundtracking an endlessly-repeated US Cadillac commercial. And you will see any number of indie tykes gigging up and down the nation's H&M forecourts, whether you want to or not.


Mostly, this is just benign co-branding youth media synergies being actualised with relevant content. Perfectly fine. No one, when you really get down to it, is so precious that they're physically above commerce. We're all producers and we're all consumers. Even Nick Cave has probably bought some bits and bobs from H&M in his time. The odd bobble-hat, maybe, for when he wants to be confused with The Edge. Hip-hop has spent its life actively celebrating commerce's superiority over art. Products rock. I use products. Consider that a product-endorsment.

Yet as these lines get increasingly swizzled, there are always these moments – like, say, doing a film for Wonga that premieres in the West End – where even Gary Tarn (he "just missed out on a BAFTA") might agree that you're dipping into weird uncharted territory, and perhaps society actually isn't all that far off from its David Foster Wallace-prophesied Year Of The Depend Adult Undergarment. Would anyone be too concerned if British American Tobacco helped fund some groovy new artworks of Kate Moss with the obligatory fag in her gob? If Dow Chemicals made a film on Bhopal, would they do a good job at adapting It Was Five Past Midnight?

None of which philosophy is going to save the increasingly clucking reputation of Wonga: The Movie. At the Q&A at the London premiere, the financial press were withering in their criticism. “A waste of money”, one national paper hack noted in his question. “Bizarre”, another continued. Wonga's artistically embattled directors would do well to remember the wise words of our lord Jesus Christ: “Artists are lampposts and critics are dogs.”

Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes

Previously: A West London Housing Estate Is Turning into a Real-Life JG Ballard Novel