Apple Tree Yard review: a gripping psychological thriller with a dose of Fifty Shades

The steamy BBC drama brings a slither of scandal to our screens and celebrates female sexuality in middle age

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It’s a mere nine minutes into BBC’s new drama Apple Tree Yard, and two perfect strangers are bonking in the crypt of the House of Commons. Sherlock, it is not. When you consider that the pair in question meet around four minutes before they tear each other’s clothes off, it’s clear that this new psycho-erotic thriller will be reeling in viewers for a bit of mid-winter scandal.

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Apple Tree Yard is an adaptation of Louise Doughty’s best-selling novel, starring Emily Watson and Ben Chaplin as two unknowns who enter into a wild and impulsive affair that ultimately rips their lives apart. The book itself is excellent, and Doughty’s story will serve as a strong backbone for the series – even if it does teeter a little into the well-trod territory of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Emily Watson, who recently told Radio Times how great it feels to be playing a female character with sexual desire at 50, has the role of the curious, sensual, yet fragile woman down to a fine art. She knows exactly how to portray a person who spirals into obsessive relationships, and she has perfected the look of a woman who has drifted out of her own body and is looking on in horror at her own actions. Watson won a Bafta for doing a similar thing in Appropriate Adult, where her character became infatuated with a serial killer, and she triumphs again in Apple Tree Yard as Yvonne Carmichael, the not-so-civilised scientist.

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“Have you seen the crypt?”

Yvonne is married to Gary. Safe, boring Gary who snores and only seems to talk about Tesco deliveries and nose drops. Or so we think. Played by Scottish actor Mark Bonnar – who was corrupt Chief Constable Dryden in Line of Duty and the filthy-mouthed Chris in Catastrophe – Gary is not as benign as we were led to believe. Gary, it turns out, is a bit of a philanderer himself.

Then there is the third element of the lust triangle – Mark Costley. “Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf,” Yvonne says. And she’s right, Ben Chaplin is wolfish: hard eyes, pointed face, and he doesn’t so much as speak, he growls. His character is determinedly anonymous – he wears a ring but we don’t hear anything about a spouse, he works for the civil service but we don’t know in what respect. “You don’t look like a civil servant,” Yvonne says. Correct, again. He keeps her guessing, and therein lies the attraction.

At various points, Yvonne has moments of self-doubt and her moral compass does at least try to sputter into life, but then her quiet rage at Gary and his infidelities propels her back into the arms of the wolf, and by the end of one scintillating hour they are in the throes of a full-on affair.

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Gary, too, has been up to no good

The key characteristic of said affair is the Doing of the Sex in Public. A street in Westminster by the name of Apple Tree Yard is one such public space. It is when these romps are happening – not to mention the clumsy sexting – that the show gets a bit Fifty Shades. But you forgive them for it, because it’s so refreshing to have middle-aged female characters with a sex-drive on TV. The reason Doughty’s book was a best seller is because it aroused the imagination of every sensible, suburban reader and made them think: “What if?”

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And, unlike Fifty Shades, it’s certainly not guilty of frivolity. It’s the dark undertones in this drama that make it worth watching. Mark says things to Yvonne like: “Text me later, even if you’ve been drinking,” and then after a pause, “Especially if you’ve been drinking.” It’s not sexy – it’s uncomfortable. The episode slams to a finish with a scene of shocking malice, and it’s only a sign of more darkness and discomfort to come.