Persona: the French deception Marvellous
Crook. Saviour. Gangster. To spy? What’s the story
Londongrad Turtle Media
I’ve spent much of the past week listening to smart people trying to figure out charming con artists and soft-spoken money makers. No surprise, really: the scam show is a popular part of today’s audio lexicon, in danger of being overdone. Still, the three shows I devoured are worth it.
The first is Persona: The French Deception. It tells the story of Gilbert Chikli, French-Israeli master of the “president’s scam”, where the trickster contacts a mid-ranking corporate employee and persuades him that he is the boss of the company. Once they are convinced, he tricks them into believing that due to terrorism or some other madness, they simply have to transfer huge sums of money to him. (Yeah, I know, but it works, apparently. Plus, Chikli goes a lot deeper than you might imagine.)
Number two show is Crook. Saviour. Gangster. To spy?, which concerns Italian-English fraudster Giovanni Di Stefano. Di Stefano is known as an (unqualified) lawyer who deterred criminals such as Nicholas van Hoogstraten on technicalities, although he also played a secondary role in embezzling lesser mortals from their savings.
And finally, the non-scam Londongrad. This concerns Alexander Lebedev and his son, Evgeny, Russians who have long operated legitimately within the highest circles of English society.
The Lebedevs throw great charity parties, talk to important people over dinner and have acquired two British newspapers, the ear of our beloved Prime Minister and (in the case of Evgeny) a lifetime peerage. I include the show in my roundup because a) all three shows involve international politics and money and b) it takes the skills of an investigative journalist to identify what Lebedev and his son did.
Each show has its own specific flavor, delivered by a dedicated and talented host. Long formby Evan Ratliff, who presents French Deception, brings a career-long understanding of people who create their own reality and invite others to join. He’s a smooth storyteller, with the ability of an American podcaster to guide the listener by the hand through a convoluted plot and make it feel like a story of our time. Calum McCrae, who presents Crook. Saviour. Gangster. To spy?is more excitable, prone to jokes and has a less authoritative tone. LondongradPaul Caruana Galizia began his career investigating the murder of his mother, Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. He brings a kind of shock to his hosting, a disbelief that blatant, cash-fueled maneuvering is allowed in Britain.
Still, these shows have undeniable similarities, and it’s not just that they’re all journalistically rigorous and perfectly paced, with nice musical riffs. These are their subjects. Chikli, Di Stefano and Lebedev Sr all come from modest backgrounds and all turn into globetrotters, popping up in unusual circumstances creating enormous personal wealth. And they do it just by getting along with other people, by putting themselves in positions where the riches seem to just… happen. During the 1990s, Di Stefano befriended a real estate tycoon in Belgrade. Soon after, the tycoon was murdered and Di Stefano took over his business. For some time Evgeny Lebedev hung out with then Tatler editor Geordie Greig, until – bang! – his father bought the evening standard and he was made its editor. This kind of power play is a real skill, though it may involve people less cynical than you or me. (A common trait of the upper class is being terrible at spotting wankers.)
If I had to invite one of them over for tea, my first choice would be Evgeny, who is calm and non-violent (“He listened very well, didn’t talk much,” Nicky Haslam says in the first episode). Chikli and Di Giovanni would be much more entertaining, but they remind me of people I’ve met in the music world: all the time “hip”, with exceptionally sleazy friends (Di Giovanni was the Serbian paramilitary gangster’s best man Arkan). And if I had to listen to these podcasts in order, although there is little choice between them, I would go Londongrad, French Deception so what Crooksimply because Londongrad is indicative of the state of the UK today.
These stories make you wonder about modern life; how money seems to materialize and evaporate for some people as if it weren’t real. It also makes you wonder how much other people believe in movies, especially Freedmena constant reference, with Catch Me If You Can and The wolf of Wall Street close finalists. Every aspiring millionaire is looking for a movie star life, not just the best restaurant tables. They want a life that could be turned into a movie. Movies are expensive, however. Podcasting is much cheaper. There can’t be a scammer alive these days who isn’t followed by a passionate person with a microphone.