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26 November 2015updated 03 Aug 2021 2:50pm

The BBC’s Capital is that rare thing: an adaptation better than the book

It may not make for happy viewing, but excellent acting elevates Capital above its rather schematic progenitor.

By Rachel Cooke

Be warned: the BBC’s adaptation of John Lanchester’s somewhat schematic 2012 novel Capital doesn’t make for unadulteratedly happy viewing. This isn’t to say that it isn’t good – this is one of those rare occasions when the TV version is better than the book, the outlines of its slightly cartoonish characters now finely shaded by a group of brilliant actors. Even so, watching it was nothing if not queasy-making. Do I know anyone who would, if sufficiently provoked, bawl the words: “What use is 30 grand to anybody?” Oh, God. I fear that I might. In this property-obsessed city, manners and empathy in the matter of money have grown almost as rare as affordable homes.

All of this begs the question of how the series will play with viewers who live outside London. My hunch is that by confirming their prejudices – when I recently told a man in a pub near Cockermouth where I lived, he performed a hammy shiver – it will have them turning off in droves. But I hope I’m wrong.

What talent is here. Its writer is Peter Bowker (Marvellous, From There to Here), its director Euros Lyn (Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley), and among its stars are Toby Jones and Rachael Stirling. And what a relief to be presented with a prime-time show whose concern is for the way we live now, rather than for the way we murder now. However grotesque the character of Arabella (Stirling), a spoiled wife whose love of the Cotswolds reaches its limit after 48 hours of non-stop pampering (“Spending our summer holidays at our country house? Doesn’t that strike you as a bit . . . dowdy?”), at least she isn’t another perverted killer on the run from a cop with relationship problems and a taste for the drink.

We are in Clapham, south London, the land of wet rooms and pomegranate molasses. Most of those who live on the street in which the action takes place have more money than either taste or decency. Couples such as Roger (Jones) and Arabella: he works in the City and thinks mostly about his bonus; she potters at home, thinking mostly about Ocado and her builders. Among their neighbours, there remains only one long-standing resident: Petunia (Gemma Jones), a disoriented widow who moved in when these terraces were still shabby. What diversity there is comes in the form of those who service the area: Ahmed (Adeel Akhtar), who runs the corner shop, and Quentina (Wunmi Mosaku), a Zimbabwean traffic warden. With the notable exception of the kindly Ahmed, then, all of Capital’s characters are islands – though something is also in the process of connecting them: the creepy anonymous postcards they keep receiving, on which are written the words: “We want what you have.”

Capital’s plot is hokey and a bit predictable. From the moment Roger danced a jig in his glass-and-steel office, we knew that his Christmas cheque was going to be vastly less than the £2m he had mentally banked. But this doesn’t altogether matter. The pleasure is in its funny and sometimes chilling dialogue – “Like Islam and Pilates, I’ve come to respect it,” said Arabella, of Roger’s elaborate bonus-day grooming routine – and in watching its stars turn mere stereotypes into people you might (just about) pass in the street. Jones is superlative at shrivelled masculine pomposity; it makes you almost hopeful about his role as Captain Mainwaring in the forthcoming Dad’s Army movie. He is also able to pull off the great trick of conveying that something else – something kinder and more likeable – may lurk beneath and has only to be woken up to emerge.

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This isn’t true of Stirling, or not here, but that’s because beneath her character’s grasping, gym-toned exterior there simply hides more of the same. The only time she smiles is when she is pumped full of cupboard love, with the latest prize – under­floor heating, a dinosaur-themed bedroom for little Conrad – in sight. Are there women like her among my acquaintance? I pray that there aren’t, though some of their number, I feel sure, sometimes run past me in the park, oblivious to everything save for their own ever more dubious goals. 

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This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State