This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28 January 2017.
APPLE TREE YARD: Sunday, BBC One
THE CULT NEXT DOOR: Thursday, BBC Two
Tired of all the usual Valentine’s Day platitudes? Then why not zing the strings of your lover’s heart with a card declaring: “Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf”?
Call me old-fashioned, but lupine evisceration doesn’t sound terribly sexy. Then again, to the best of my recollection I’ve never been seduced by a handsome civil servant in a crypt beneath the House of Commons.
That unlikely setting is where our story began in APPLE TREE YARD, an uncomfortably uneven thriller starring Emily Watson as Yvonne, a respectable genetic scientist, and Ben Chaplin as the wolfish stranger who detonates her polite upper middle-class existence with a series of thrilling sexual encounters in public places (including a café bathroom conveniently bereft of other afternoon customers).
Middle-aged Yvonne is unhappily married to a university lecturer (Scottish actor Mark Bonnar, who’s cornered the market in instantly suspicious characters) who, or so it would blatantly appear, has had an affair with a younger student.
After delivering evidence to a Parliamentary select committee – erotically-charged events at the best of times – she’s whisked off her sensibly-shoed feet by Chaplin’s carnal politico. Suddenly she feels desirable again, and so embarks on a risky affair.
Were it not for some typically solid, nuanced work from Watson and a shocking final scene, most of Apple Tree Yard’s opening instalment would’ve come across as little more than an unusually earnest Mills & Boon fantasy.
Granted, it played a fairly diverting guessing game. It began in media res with a manacled Yvonne being led to the dock, so something awful was bound to occur (it wouldn’t be much of a drama otherwise).
Like Yvonne, we don’t know anything about her nameless seducer. Is he just a harmless swinger, or something much darker? That wolf reference was already risible, but was it also a heavy-handed allusion to his swanky sheep’s clothing? So far at least, all of this turned out to be an effective piece of misdirection.
Having being led to assume that Chaplin’s character was the sole cause of Yvonne’s foreshadowed demise, in the final scene she was viciously raped by a hitherto inconsequential supporting character.
It’s impossible to fully assess Apple Tree Yard on the basis of one episode, especially in light of its horrific denouement. Its borderline silly aspects may prove deliberate in hindsight, there to lull scoffers into a false sense of security.
This is the story of a woman being punished for daring to enjoy the sexual freedom afforded to men. It’s the story of a rape victim.
If handled carefully, it could prove far more indelible than its initial impression.
A disturbing account of brainwashed incarceration was exposed in THE CULT NEXT DOOR, which told the true story of three women who spent more than 30 years in a Brixton flat under the tyrannical spell of an insane Maoist doomsday preacher.
Directed with typically blunt delicacy by the documentarian Vanessa Engle – a film-maker renowned for historical explorations of leftist politics - it allowed two of Aravindan Balaksrishnan’s prisoners to speak for themselves.
One of them, Katy, was born in captivity. Balakrishnan’s daughter, she’s a young woman with the mental age of a ten-year-old.
Despite finding shards of gallows humour within the rubble of its deadly serious subject matter, Engle’s film mounted a sorrowful case against extremist political maniacs who draw vulnerable people into their hermetic orbits.