Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

Confessions of a Teenage Fraudster review – why did they drag three hours of TV out of this?
Culture TV and Radio

Confessions of a Teenage Fraudster review – why did they drag three hours of TV out of this?

Programme-bloat is a common problem on streaming platforms. They have money, no taste and a lot of hours to fill. The BBC’s rigour and shaky funding structure as a public broadcaster generally mitigates against it following suit, but occasionally mistakes are made. One such is Confessions of a Teenage Fraudster, which devotes three 45-minute episodes to the very simple story of Elliot Castro, instead of the one fun hour it should have been.

Castro was a bright lad desperately bullied and unhappy at school. His dad was Chilean and Elliot liked to take the Financial Times to school to feel grown up – either of these was enough to make him a target in 1990s Aberdeen, he says. He left school at 16 in 1998 with no qualifications. He claimed he was 18 and got a job in a call centre selling mobile phones – an early sign of the chutzpah that fitted him for the life of crime he was about to embark on. There, he found himself in the happy position of having to take down people’s confidential credit card details as part of his job, then started pretending to need extra information about their savings accounts to finish the paperwork. He used those details to order another card to be sent to his home address to fund an increasingly lavish lifestyle – in teenage terms – until each one was cancelled and he would begin again.

What did he spend his ill-gotten gains on? Clothes for himself and the temporary friendship of others, by being the drinks-buying man in every pub and club he could, sending bottles of champagne to people’s tables like he had seen rich men do in films and revelling in the sensation.

That, really, is it. The scams become a little more sophisticated, exploiting the various enormous loopholes that existed at the beginning of the credit card boom and subsequently in online shopping when the internet came along, especially once he had been to prison a few times. It wasn’t that he was led further astray by old hands – this was very much a young person’s fraud game – but that jail gave him time to read up on exactly how things worked then cogitate on how they could be turned to his advantage.

But the pattern remains the same. Castro finds a way to beat the system, lives the high life until the loophole closes or the police find him, goes inside, has a think, repeats. Even he gets bored in the end. As the number of warrants out for his arrest in an increasing number of countries narrows his options, he gets sloppy and is eventually “properly” caught and sentenced to an underwhelming two years in Ford open prison. Journalist Neil Forsyth writes a book about him and he is able to start life anew thereafter. Castro now produces music and advises on fraud prevention.

We hear from Castro throughout, both in interview (“I was shitting myself” is a phrase that comes up repeatedly as we cover his five years of fraud in exhaustive detail, which at least adds a bit of linguistic colour to increasingly samey tales) and in laboriously scripted voiceover (“A teenager could break the system. A teenager was breaking the system”). He is a melancholic presence now, 20 years on, but there are moments when he is recalling highlights, or slipping in and out of the accents he used to throw people off his scent, or instances of pure daftness (such as pretending to be a commodore to get a bespoke uniform made for his supposed lieutenant son) when you can see the cocky teenager who booked himself on to first-class flights and into five-star hotels all over the world for half a decade.

No insight into his actions is offered beyond his desire for the friendships he never made at school and finding himself growing up in an era that suddenly offered a clever, confident boy a way to realise any teenager’s dream of living it up on unlimited funds. He is too likable and his punishment too lenient to allow any schadenfreude. Even the detective most dedicated to catching him seemed to feel that he was just a bit lost rather than bad.

All of which is to say – it’s an hour. An hour tops. Catch Me If You Can this is not. Enough already.

skip past newsletter promotion

  • Confessions of a Teenage Fraudster is on BBC iPlayer and will air on BBC Three on 5 June

Source: theguardian.com