Airing at the end of 2015, Capital told the story of residents living on a single London street transformed by soaring property prices. DQ finds out how the BBC drama was adapted from novel to screen.
When it was first published in 2012, John Lanchester’s novel Capital was described as an astute observation of London during the 2008 financial crash.
Set in a single south London street, it tells the story of the residents of Pepys Road, which has been transformed by rising property prices. They include an investment banker and his shopaholic wife, a Polish builder, a Zimbabwean refugee illegally working as a traffic warden and a pensioner who has lived her entire life in the same house.
Lanchester’s novel has since been adapted for television by Peter Bowker and production company Kudos Film & Television (Humans, Broadchurch), with an all-star cast including Toby Jones (Roger), Rachael Stirling (Arabella) and Radoslaw Kaim (Bogdan). Also appearing are Wunmi Mosaku (Quentina), Adeel Aktar (Ahmed) and Gemma Jones (Petunia).
Bowker and Kudos’s Derek Wax executive produced the three-part miniseries with the BBC’s Lucy Richer. It was produced by Matt Strevens (Cucumber) and directed by Euros Lyn (Happy Valley).
DQ spoke to Lanchester, Wax and Strevens to discuss how the show was brought to life for BBC1, which began airing the series in November last year.
John, how would you describe your book, and did you ever think it would be made into a TV series?
Lanchester: No, I didn’t. It never crossed my mind. I set out to write what I thought of privately as my big fat London novel, as I was very interested in the condition of London and the way it has changed. I’m very interested in the way people live private parallel lives in London and have neighbours who don’t really know each other. So it’s a novel about a community that isn’t really a community – people living in close proximity who have separate lives, separate agendas and separate concerns, and there’s a plot that brings them together when they start getting anonymous postcards through their doors saying, ‘We want what you have.’ That’s the trigger for the story.
It’s been described as a ‘state of the nation’ story. What was it that you wanted to say about society?
Lanchester: George Orwell once said the hardest thing to write about is the thing that’s immediately in front of your face. I became very interested in what was immediately in front of my face – the extent, the speed and the scale of the change in London. I’ve lived in London nearly 30 years and it’s changed astonishingly. That struck me as a really interesting thing – not to sermonise about or have a theory about, but just to describe. That was the plan.
How did Kudos win the rights to the book?
Lanchester: A number of people were interested in it. I talked to some people but I knew it would always be Derek. I particularly liked that he saw the book in the same way I did, and I trusted his sense of tone. Tone is the most important thing in some respects – if you get that wrong then nothing else really matters. I had a strong sense that we saw it the same way; that was the crucial thing.
Derek, what did you see in the book that would make a good TV show?
Wax: The book captured my imagination straight away. John has an extraordinary insight into people, which makes his work very real and authentic. Many novels with a sociopolitical dimension seem like they’re trying to illustrate some political point, whereas there was an ambiguity and ambivalence about Capital’s characters that made you feel there was something much richer and more complex going on. The fact we live these parallel lives with people who are often our neighbours felt very true to life. There are some people living on the same street who don’t even know what’s happening next door. And it’s not just about the neighbours, there’s an unbridgeable gulf at some level within families as well.
What were some of the challenges you faced bringing the book to the screen?
Lanchester: The main omission compared with the book is a narrative strand about an African footballer called Freddy Kamo who comes to London aged 17 and has just started to play first-team football. There’s a whole story and set of characters around him but within 30 seconds of saying hello for the first time, Peter (Bowker) and I agreed it couldn’t be done on TV. The fact is, you put football on television and for some reason it always looks a bit shit. So that was a very thorough and painless surgical incision that happened right at the start.
Did you work alongside Bowker in the script phase?
Lanchester: It’s Pete’s baby. There were various points at which we had talks, particularly at the beginning when we discussed structure and shape, and then there were a couple of specific points to do with the City of London that Pete wanted to talk through.
Was it always destined to be a three-parter?
Wax: The person we should mention is Lucy Richer at the BBC because she’d read the book at the same time as I had and also loved it. Whether these things are discussed in internal meetings at the BBC as to how much they can stretch episodically for literary adaptations, they’d decided three was the number. I think we could have stretched it to four or maybe more. We did have to reduce some of the characters a little bit more. Losing the footballer was a very good decision because he’s coming to play at a Premier League football team so you’d have had a completely fictional football team with all these extras playing football. If it’s supposed to be Chelsea, how could you possibly make it feel real? The ambition was always to make it feel completely authentic and real.
How was the show put together considering it’s set on a street that doesn’t exist in real life?
Strevens: The terrifying thing was maintaining the authenticity of it – it’s multi-stranded and we had only seven weeks to shoot it, so we had to work out how you service all those stories and afford to shoot in London. London is hugely expensive and you can’t move around it. Wherever you put your base, it can take half an hour to move a few streets. We did look very briefly at the idea of using general views of London and then filming somewhere else, but we scotched that straight away. It was very important to us that London was the central character. Trying to double anywhere else as London wouldn’t quite cut it, so we went looking for places in London. Where John had set it, even though he wasn’t specific, it felt like Clapham (a district in south-west London). There were two or three streets John had in his mind when writing, but even he had ‘cut and shut’ Pepys Road – it was an amalgamation of a few streets. That’s what we had to find. But we couldn’t find a street with the right mix of gentrification that also had a corner shop. We also didn’t want to be on one street for too long because there’s a lot of noise and vehicles, and we didn’t want to disturb the locals too much. In the end, we used three streets for Pepys Road. The gift was Petunia’s house. The exterior you see has the same interior as that on screen and the way it’s dressed in real life is pretty much the way you see it on screen. We found a lady whose story matched Petunia’s – she had lived there since the 1950s. We were really lucky. The difficulty was the amount of story that had to be told in such a short schedule.
Wax: We should pay huge tribute to Pete Bowker. He was confronted with eight different strands and it would have been very stylised to have introduced the different characters via captions on screen. But in one of the first scenes, you see the characters on the Tube and the baton being passed from one to the other, allowing viewers to get to know them slowly and gradually but very organically – that was a mixture of Pete’s writing and Euros’s direction. You gradually start to absorb these characters into your bloodstream.
Lanchester: In a novel you can just say, ‘here’s another character,’ but it was very interesting, from a novelist’s point of view, to see how rigorous purely visual storytelling is. If you don’t see it, it didn’t happen.
Was it a risk to introduce so many characters right at the start and hope the viewers stuck around to find out about their individual stories?
Wax: It was a challenge because you want to have enough depth to allow viewers to get into those characters and to feel you’re offering a substantial meal, not just a snack. We only had three or four stabs at Roger in the first episode because of the challenge of all the other stories.
Lanchester: With just three episodes, you do leave a lot out. The novel is 175,000 words, so the actors knew more than they let on. The actors knew quite a lot about the characters and their back stories and I definitely feel they brought something to it. They inhabited them.
Wax: We were very lucky with casting. Some actors were quite well known and some were discoveries to us. The novel had this wonderful Dickensian opening chapter and we probably thought more about that opening chapter than anything else, because it describes this world in which this street was once full of detached homes that were not worth very much money but that have become gentrified houses over generations. They’ve become characters in their own right. We showed that partly through a three-minute backstory on Petunia , telling her life story at the beginning of episode one, which I think was a way of trying to visually do what John described in the book. For me, that opening chapter rivals Bleak House as a piece about where we live now and how things have changed, but through the lens of just one street.
How was the money put together to produce the show? Was it a complicated process?
Wax: It was a licence fee deal from the BBC, essentially. It wasn’t a big coproduction, we didn’t have a coproducer on it. Miniseries are quite hard to fund these days, and this one was especially as it’s a three-parter. There was also a question over whether the show was just about London and Britain (and therefore lacked international appeal). But I didn’t think it was. You always have to challenge that limited thinking. When you make something location-specific, that’s when you make it universal – shows that are set in general, non-descript places that could be anywhere, they actually create a sense of unreality for me. It was just a straightforward BBC deal and FremantleMedia International has distributed it.
There was some comment about Toby Jones being physically different from his character in the book. How did you change the character for the series?
Wax: It was a genuine choice, a choice we all stand by. We’re all thrilled. The fact Roger is written as 6’3″ in the book allows you to envisage him in a particular way. But in essence, this is a man who is adrift in life, he’s not happy despite all his apparent wealth, he’s searching for something and he can’t quite articulate what that is, even to himself. You need a really brilliant actor to find those depths and it’s about casting the right person, not just the physical type, and Toby is just one of the best actors in the country.
Lanchester: He’s a different person from Roger in the book but he’s a very real person. I had more people wondering about the casting before they’d seen it than afterwards.
John, would you want another of your books adapted in the future?
Lanchester: I’d happily have it done by Derek, Peter and Matt again. Writers love complaining but I’ve had an entirely positive experience. If there were a writers union, I’d be expelled for saying that!
Will adaptations continue to make up a lot of worldwide drama?
Wax: Drama is always about great stories, great characters and original insights into the world. As long as producers want to option and adapt books they really love, that’s the best reason to do it. When you see someone doing Jane Eyre again just because it hasn’t been done for a while, that sort of reason is never great and you feel it’s about the bottom line and getting business going. It should be about how much you feel for the book, and you should really want to spend a lot of time investigating it.