Writer: Paul Sellar
Directors: Jessica Dromgoole, Jonquil Panting and Sasha Yevtushenko
With so many high-rise buildings appearing on the London skyline in recent years you could easily suppose that construction was fairly straightforward, but Paul Sellar’s 2019 drama How to Build a Supertower suggests otherwise. Across four episodes and three hours, Sellar explores the fraught business of financing, promoting and actually building iconic skyscrapers, as jeweller-turned property magnate Max Silver struggles to get his supertower off the ground.
Self-made man with a business in Hatton Garden, Max Silver becomes an accidental developer when he buys the freehold of his shops. Soon tasked with constructing the London Hourglass, Max must put together a Board of influential people to navigate the planning permission process, balance the finances and start selling tenancies, all before the diggers finally arrive. Double-crossing partners, dodgy investors and a hostile media mean Max may have little to gain and everything to lose.
Sellar’s drama is certainly comprehensive, giving insight into the world of the built environment with its complicated process of deals, schmoozing and risk while covering the route from attracting investors, visualising the architecture, the build and pressure to deliver. With a British gangster-flick swagger mixed with the informal charm of White Gold and The Big Short, the writer lets Max narrate his own story, explaining and commenting on events while employing dialogue, news headlines and even promotional videos to vary the storytelling style.
While the jaunty approach does enough to keep the listener’s attention while signalling the many moments when Max and Co. face ruin, with years of scandal, glitches and a large cast of characters popping in and out of the story, it’s not always easy to keep track of the various strands. How to Build a Supertower may seem too convoluted to be true, but the complicated balance of politics, economics, international trade, world-wide competition and organised crime sweep by in a dizzying whirl.
Each of the episodes focuses on a different aspect of the process. The first establishes Max as a man in a hurry, a devoted but tough father always running to the next opportunity while making use of networks and old school ties. The second explores the personnel of international clients, newspaper editors and politicians who compromise Max further, and it is not until the third that the build finally begins with all the jeopardy that it brings as both the backers and the political climate changes. By episode four, the complexity of this construction gets personal for Max, yet by this point it is far harder to keep track of the sequence of events or really invest in the outcome as new dramas are raised and resolved quite quickly.
Max is the only character we get to know in any depth, given a gruff East End charm by Robert Glenister and a charisma that stretches through the episodes. Max is certainly savvy wanting to have the ‘post-mortem before the death’ and willing to do whatever it takes to complete his project, but Glenister never makes him seem unfeeling or naive about the options he takes, keeping the audience on his side.
The secondary characters are more sketchy, with daughter Zara (played by Katherine Press) proving that despite her more privileged upbringing she is a chip off the old block. A consultative role for Catherine Cusack as wife Carole fizzles out and after that there are too many incidents and people to properly keep track off, leading to occasional confusion about who is present and where we are.
The story behind building ‘a prestige project for the city to grab a bit of cache’ is clearly far more troubling than Max intends and as ‘the marketing starts long before the bulldozers arrive’ Sellar certainly gives a sense of the ongoing tension as time and money dwindle rapidly. As with all supertower projects, this one takes slightly too long to build and the end result doesn’t quite deliver the hoped-for impact, but an entertaining performance from Glenister builds a strong foundation.