In a London church hall, one of those coffee-stained church halls with sticky lino floors and badly-stacked plastic chairs, a policeman addresses a group of local residents. Someone has been putting threatening postcards through all of their letterboxes saying ‘We Want What You Have?’ and the residents – a banker, his wife, the owner of the local shop, his next door neighbour – want something done about it. Naturally they’re upset, yet one question in particular, from the banker’s wife, has them all nodding in aggrieved assent:
“Are you aware if it has had an impact on the local housing market?”
That concern is at the heart of a new TV adaptation of John Lanchester’s novel Capital and this is a scene from it. Moments later director Euros Lyn (Happy Valley) calls cut and offers the cast, including Toby Jones, Lesley Sharp and Adeel Akhtar, a note. “Remember what we said about the housing market – that thought upsets you.”
Capital uses the peculiar British fixation with property, and the resentment it can foment, to bring together a diverse ensemble of characters in classic Dickensian fashion. On Pepys Road in Clapham there’s a banker (Jones) eyeing up holiday homes as he prepares for a £1m bonus; there’s a Polish builder (Radoslaw Kaim) all too ready to indulge the interior design whims of the banker’s wife; there’s a Zimbabwean refugee (Wummi Mosaku) with a PhD working as a traffic warden; and there’s an OAP (Gemma Jones) who’s lived her entire life in the same address on the street and is now contemplating death in the house in which she was born. At the end of the street Ahmed (Akhtar) runs the corner shop. Tellingly, though the novel is set in Clapham the adaptation was filmed in Tooting and Balham, because the march of gentrification meant the producers couldn’t find a street in Clapham that still has a local corner shop.
John Lanchester started working on what would become his great state-of-the-nation novel in 2005. While he was working on it the 2007-8 crash happened. Set in a single South London street, the novel ended up as one of the defining portraits of the human effects of a global financial crisis: almost instantaneously it felt like it had captured an era.
This new television adaptation of Capital, however, is not set in that era; it is set in the present day. What has shocked Lanchester is how little has changed.
“If you’d said to me when I had finished the novel in eight years’ time they’ll be making a TV thing from it and it will be set in the present because it will feel the same I would’ve said no that’s not possible. I remember thinking when I wrote the book that people would never get back to that frame of mind where they thought, ‘everything will just keep going up forever.’ And I was completely wrong.”
The story is powered by a mystery: a series of anonymous postcards bearing the message “We Want What You Have” start popping through the letter boxes of Pepys Road, and the residents are forced to admit each other’s existence as they confront the faceless threat. But beneath that mystery Capital is also a snapshot of a London changing at warp speed, driven by a property boom hardly anyone can comprehend.
“For better or worse the economy and therefore our lives – not only in London, although it’s exaggerated in London – is defined by property and our strange relationship to property,” says writer Peter Bowker, who has delivered a script every bit as vivid and surprising as his Bafta-winning piece Marvellous last year.
Capital shows how a house can mean more than just an investment. Lesley Sharp’s character, Mary, has moved out of Pepys Road but her mother (Gemma Jones) still lives there. For Mary, the house is a vessel for memories, not just a number in an estate agent’s window.
“Mary is trying to make sense of her relationship with her mother and with her past,” says Sharp. “It’s a complex story but one that’s tied up in this house. Every house has a different story to tell.”
Yet the most striking story the houses of Pepys Road have to tell is how they have exploded in value. When that becomes intertwined with the self-worth of the people in them, you have a problem, says Peter Bowker.
“It’s our strange feeling that somehow our emotional well being has become tied up with the price of our house. This strikes me as something fundamentally worrying – but we’re all at it. I don’t exclude myself from this.”
Neither does Toby Jones, who plays banker Roger. Jones lives in the area where Capital is set. He has seen precisely the process that is dramatised in Capital at work.
“With the Jubilee Line extension Clapham is about half an hour from Canary Wharf,” he says. “That’s revolutionised housing in Clapham. It’s quite clear that those streets off the old town have been bought up by and renovated by the kind of family that is Roger and his wife and kids. They’ve even expanded out to Balham and Tooting where we filmed the show. It’s very familiar to me because I live alongside those families. I’ve watched them move in and I’ve watched the skips come and go.”
One result of what Lanchester calls “Inequality made visible in the texture of ordinary daily life,” is, according to Jones, a kind of systemic bewilderment.
“There’s a sense in which the people on these streets are confused by their own lives. And that the money they have either earned through their property or earned through their living has not made their lives easier. It has confused their lives. Even those people who don’t have much money, the boom of property wealth confuses their relationships. It doesn’t make them worse or bad but it sort of distorts relationships in ways that are very interesting to act – and I hope for people to watch.”
On its release in 2012 Capital was an instant bestseller. Lanchester had already written one bestselling non-fiction book about the crash (Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay) and he went on to write two more outlining the mistakes we made and how they might be avoided in the future. Yet the fact that this TV adaptation of Capital is able to tell much the same story as one from 2007-8 in the present day suggests no one has listened to a word he said.
“The fact that there are lots of things in the financial system that are just as fragile and that now we’re having just as much of a debt-fuelled slash credit-fuelled property bubble in London especially, is the source of disappointment, demoralisation or surprise.”
The truth of it is that in Capital and in the articles he was writing before the crash Lanchester managed to predict what was coming, without seeing what would cause it.
“One of the things that’s really weird to me is that I think it would be difficult to be simultaneously as wrong and as right as I was. I was right that there was a crash coming. A spectacularly bigger crash than the one I imagined. But I thought this is a London property bubble like the one I can remember from the late 80s. It will pop and reality will resume. One of the only asset categories in the whole world that was essentially unaffected and has gone roaring away, is London property.”
It means that as long as everyone keeps wanting what everyone else has, Capital may look as disturbingly relevant in 2020 as it does now.
Capital begins on BBC1, 24th November