“There are ways of spicing up a dry documentary about tax avoidance, like opening with the crash-wallop of a police officer bashing down a perp’s door or ramping up the soundtrack to build tension as they thunder in to arrest a bleary-eyed crook. So bravo to the makers of Catching the Tax Dodgers (Channel 4), who opted for the far more restrained and British “Tax, none of us much enjoy paying it” with footage of a confused man in a vest watching police go through his kitchen cupboards.
If you stay put after this admirably underwhelming opening, you will be rewarded with a nuanced piece of storytelling, peppered with fascinating human anthropology. Like a wildlife documentary crew, this team have the staying power to wait out their story as court cases progress and verdicts are declared. Not only does director/producer Lawrence Walford follow the police teams engaged in hunting and arresting serious tax criminals, he also gets his lens where few others have and speaks to the fraudsters themselves.
The voice of the law enforcers is essential, but also difficult to weave into a film when they speak in such uninspiring prose. “If you do not pay your tax, we will pursue you,” says Duncan McCallum, chief investigator on a huge case that has cost the national purse more than £45m in lost revenue. He goes about his business as you would expect; with focus, determination and no interest whatsoever in sexy soundbites.
He doggedly tracks wine importer Livio Mazzarello for years, scouring CCTV footage and import documents until he has a watertight case. Then he bursts in on the vest-wearing lawbreaker, albeit quietly, gently taking the fag from his hand as Mazzarello contemplates the sudden houseful of bullet-proof enforcers.
For what this lacks in lantern-jawed guardians of fairness, it more than makes up for in ludicrous, be-hatted villains. Richard Hillgrove is a PR person with celebrity connections (which aren’t mentioned here) who is willing to talk us through his arrest and subsequent conviction for tax fraud.
He’s one of those marvellous animals who, despite not coughing up when he should, believes himself to have been mistreated and says the pre-dawn raid on his home was an overreation to his “late filing” of a VAT return.
I particularly love the interviews with Hillgrove’s wife, often shot at her dressing table in a way that allows her to admire herself in the mirror while talking. “What they needed to do was put our lifestyle on trial,” she says, running a manicured talon over a Louis Vuitton vanity case that was mentioned in court.
The night before sentencing, Hillgrove holds a pumping pre-prison party in which he and his wife cavort sexily to I’m Still Standing by Elton John, playing up to the cameras; he in comedy specs while she pushes her chest out in a small red dress. The song ends and they kiss the kiss of a couple who may soon be parted. It is extraordinary in its performance and length.
In the cold light of day, he gets a suspended sentence and emerges from court in his trademark massive hat of entitlement, speaking of his relief before stepping into a people carrier.
The paper-pushers whose lives are devoted to following grey trails and looking for patterns in desert-dry data, these are not TV people. It’s the convicted criminals who have the real sense of showbiz.
In the closing moments, we are told that Mazzarello skipped the country during his trial, leaving a £46.6m hole in the public piggy bank. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in his absence. Sure, it would have been glorious to see him disappearing on a speedboat, hurling fifties into the foam and cackling, while chased by Keystone Cops. But instead we remember him at his arrest, a dumpy little thing, clutching a ciggie and looking for all the world as though he has lost his mum in a shopping centre.
We end on a stat, which seems appropriate. Since 2013, the HMRC says, it has secured more than £100bn from those breaking their rules. Good for them, and good on Walford for a surprising, fascinating piece of television, full of unexpected wonder. Now, if he would turn his lens on the high-street giants managing to pay no tax at all in Britain, he could make something we would all settle on the sofa for.”