Gritty and classy; the BBC’s new Sunday night show THE APPLE TREE YARD is not quite what the previews would lead you to believe but it’s certainly worth its star power.
My view is this – if Emily Watson’s signed up, it’s gonna be good. Not a bad rule of thumb and one I’ve pretty much been accurate with over the years. Watson’s given some outstanding performances (Appropriate Adult and The Politician’s Husband are up there with some of the best UK dramas of the past ten years). So, I was more than pleased to find she’d be starring in the BBC’s glossy new adaptation of Louise Doughty’s fascinating novel.
Watson plays Yvonne Carmichael, a smart, sharp and successful geneticist. Intriguingly, the episode opens with her narrating events nine months in the future, reflecting on life’s choices whilst overlooking the London Eye. We come to realise she is in fact handcuffed in the back of a police van and crossing Westminster bridge. What is this? Corporate crime? A political activist? She looks too smart to be caught up in anything too seedy.
We seamlessly slip back in time and Yvonne is now inside the Houses of Parliament and you know what, it’s rather nice to see a female scientist explaining her findings to the gathered bigwigs; it is whilst here that she meets utter charm king Mark Costley (Ben Chaplin) looking like an airbrushed slice of divinity ordered direct from the pages of the M&S catalogue. He congratulates Yvonne on being oh so clever, offers to show her the ‘off-limits’ areas of the commons and promptly seduces her in a broom cupboard made famous by the fact suffragette Emily Wilding Davison spent the night there in order to claim equal rights with men as a resident of the Commons. Women’s rights and sex with a man you met less than ten minutes ago; seems a bit racy for a Sunday night drama, what will the scandalmongers think? Ah, but then again, these are real actors, they even take off their own pants!
Jokes aside, the cast is solid. The excellent Mark Bonnar plays Yvonne’s maybe-philandering-maybe-not husband. Susan Lynch is on best-buddy duty, a handy sounding board but one who seems to share all her romantic woes but learns nothing of Yvonne’s extra-marital excitement. At present, she’s not got much to do other than sip wine and natter, let’s hope her part grows as she’s a great actress – I have fond memories of her hamming it up as crazy witch in an episode of Marple!
There’s something generic about Yvonne’s two children and her perfectly proportioned home, all white walls and gleaming surfaces; clearly they don’t dump their mail on the breakfast bar all week whilst busy with work in the same way I do. Maybe that’s the point, perhaps we’re meant to see Yvonne’s life as being a bit too generic and beige, she’s achieved the hallowed ‘all’ – she’s got the job, husband and family and it doesn’t seem all it’s cracked up to be.
Could that be why she dives so recklessly, and quickly, into an affair with a secretive Bond-like character who she hardly knows? She doesn’t seem particularly bothered when he hands her a second mobile to use purely for their contact and, even more miraculously, she manages to walk the length and breadth of London in sky-high heels. The woman is a wonder of nature.
Things like that shouldn’t bother me but they do. If I’m to buy into this all-consuming affair and last for the duration I need some realism. Tiny details like crippling shoes and the fact this working woman never has a hair out-of-place can alter the entire understanding of a character. There also seems to be a penchant with modern dramas to slow the pacing – there’s elements of the episode that just seem to take forever to unfold and I’m not entirely sure if there’s a negative comment being passed on female sexuality and power or not. Time will tell, I suppose.
When the last scene comes it’s a shocker and changes the game entirely. You’re waiting, as with all affair dramas, for the couple in question to be discovered, that’s the tension builder. But the writers throw something totally different into the mix. It isn’t pleasant, and I won’t spoil the twist, but it paints episode two in an entirely new light. And this is what I signed up for; Watson playing somebody who isn’t at all generic or beige, but someone classy, mysterious and gritty.
- Aired on BBC1, January 23 2017 at 21:00.