Life in the City

11 December 2015

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CAPITAL (BBC1, Tuesdays) is not an Anglicised version of Karl Marx’s masterpiece, offered so that it can be seasonally waved in public alongside Mao’s Little Red Book, but a drama series exploring the tribulations of contemporary life in the Great Wen.

A single road in south London exemplifies the appalling mystery of real-estate value: a rolling meter informs us of how greatly the price of the once-laughed-at Victorian terraced houses rises and rises. Those who managed to buy recently are sitting on goldmines — as long as they can continue to pay the mortgage. Those few who have been there for decades, still living in a family home that was once deeply unfashionable, are, on paper, as rich as Croesus. How does this transformation affect the residents?

The divide between the incoming professionals, eager to do all they can to continue the upward spiral of wealth, good education, and gentrification, and the remaining natives could not be more strongly drawn. The scenario is familiar to us London parochial clergy, generously housed in desirable locations while we work, able only to subsist on the outer fringes of the country once we retire.

But dissatisfaction rears its head: an anonymous campaign is poisoning the letterboxes with a campaign, “We Want What You Have”. Trying to catch the culprits, the police have so far incarcerated the saintly traffic warden — a refugee from genocide whom our laws will deport because she does not have a visa — and operated an anti-terrorist dawn raid against the generous Pakistani family who run the corner shop.

There is a splendid vicar, and Polish builders who are split between those who find the local girls ready for instant gratification, and those who are imbued with outraged morality. It asks all the right questions: how totally in thrall are we to money? How much do we care for the poor and elderly? How endemic are our racism, envy, and greed? The only problem is that perhaps there are a few too many targets.

In a different take on our city, This Is Tottenham (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) is a documentary about the people who turn up to the fortnightly surgery of their MP, David Lammy. With its recent history of riots and child abuse, this is a particularly difficult corner of the capital, and the issues that he seeks to solve are acute: appalling housing, withdrawn benefits, chronic sick seeking the care to which they are entitled, and illegal immigrants who have lived here all their lives.

Mr Lammy seeks to use the political clout at his disposal to redress what he sees as injustices and incompetence, while acknowledging that his influence will go only so far. The programme showed that the people in themselves are more important than their presenting problems: they are not just social-problem cyphers.

Toast of London (Channel 4, Wednesdays) is an example of TV buffoonery which has to be seen to be believed. The joke lies in the splendid actors’ spouting absolute rubbish — scenarios so far-fetched as to establish a precarious life in some half-glimpsed parallel universe. Steven Toast (Matt Berry) is a hopeless thespian, clinging on to the tatters of a career, cocooned by unassailable self-esteem. The programme lurches from sublime laugh-out-loud tomfoolery to embarrassing longueurs — all part, I suppose, of the rich tapestry of London life.

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