This week BBC1 premiered a new ‘contemporary’ drama series set in the heart of South London. The familiar hallmarks of life south of the river are plain to see: rocketing house prices, overcrowded tube trains, struggling migrants, and the high-rise sites of the City in the looming skyline. The action takes place on Pepys Road where, owing to the property boom, residents are sitting in a street of multi-million pound homes.
But life is not all sunshine, money, and normality. The eerie, atmospheric music frames a street haunted by an intense sense of foreboding. Character introductions are broken up with mysterious cuts to a man taking photos of the houses and their residents, and depositing calling-cards through every letterbox declaring: “We want what you have”.
The episode opens with the audience receiving introductions to the cast of characters, from city banker Roger and his money-splurging wife Arabella, to local shopkeeper Ahmed and his indolent brothers, to the frail widow Petunia increasingly worried by her dizzy spells.
Secretive artist Smitty watches from the shadows in an attempt to suss out why this string of messages is being sent and why these unassuming residents are being watched. The fast-paced scene changes kept this viewer keenly engaged. As a native South Londoner, I was watching with an eye to that paradigmatic virtue of any ‘gritty’ drama: realism. I was pleasantly surprised to see on Capital a street that is entirely believable, and all the more gripping for its accuracy.
There is a visual trope at the heart of the opening episode. What the programme successfully conveys are diverse microcosms sharing one sphere. These are little worlds with troubled, complex characters, who have their own environments and very different homes, lives, and relationships. But what they all share is a common macrocosm, a communal playground in which their stories are played out. The opening episode ends with startled residents waking on Christmas Day to discover: “We want what you have” painted across their street. There is confusion and fear, conveyed in an understated and slick way.
Capital resists most of the easy clichés that are all too familiar in a London-based ‘urban’ BBC series. The result is an intelligently balanced, visually diverse, and thematically gripping success. It is a contemporary drama that really does speak to modern London. And on that front, it is a breath of fresh air.
Image: August Brill