I’ll confess, I was expecting ITV’s Flesh and Blood to be a beefed-up, starrier version of the BBC’s Gold Digger. After all, on the surface they’re very similar: both dramas focus on an older, wealthy woman (Francesca Annis in Flesh and Blood, Julia Ormond in Gold Digger) finding love again, to the immediate suspicion of her adult children.
In both dramas, the woman is revealed to have had a turbulent first marriage, and in both dramas the women’s daughters initially prove more welcoming to their mother’s new boyfriend, while the adult sons seem repulsed by thoughts of their mother’s sexuality and anxious about their own inheritance.
But there ends any further comparison, because where I found Gold Digger dour and dull, I thought Flesh and Blood was mischievous, suspensful and unexpectedly funny — very funny, in fact, despite the serious stakes that are set out in the first scene, which shows a nighttime police crime scene where a body is being removed from the family home on the Sussex coast.
The source of much of the show’s humour is dowdy, nosy Mary, the family’s longtime neighbour, played by Harry Potter star (and The Crown’s future Queen Elizabeth II) Imelda Staunton. It’s Mary who explains to the police the backstory to her neighbour’s troubles, her conversation with them framing the first episode, which is told in flashbacks. But what Mary doesn’t mention is that she harbours an intense crush on attractive 60-something neighbour Vivien (Francesca Annis), whose burgeoning romance with retired surgeon Mark (Stephen Rea) seems to rankle with her.
There were shouts of laughter at the press screening I attended, when during a darkly comic scene Mary signs for one of Vivien’s packages — before merrily steaming open the parcel to find a silk dressing gown, which she wears while watching television, laughing uproariously and spilling her gravy-soaked dinner all down her front. She also makes judicious use of a pair of binoculars, which she trains on Vivien’s porch.
Fresh from playing one of the Lyons siblings in Years and Years, Russell Tovey plays Jake, Vivien’s only son and, according to Tovey himself, a first-class “man child” and “epitome of toxic masculinity”. Despite his many faults, Jake is also a source of humour, particularly during his combative interactions with his two sisters, Helen (Claudie Blakley) and Natalie (Lydia Leonard), who are both more financially secure than himself (although no less unhappy in their personal lives…).
Both Mary and Jake seem immediately suspicious of ex-surgeon Mark, and writer Sarah Williams (The Long Song) leaves the viewer uncertain of his motivations. He showers Vivien with gifts, compliments and spontaneous trips, his behaviour deemed “gentlemanly” by Vivien’s daughters and dismissed by Jake as “wet”. Mark is also desperate to tie the knot, even surfing the internet for locations that will offer quick, fuss-free wedding ceremonies — despite Vivien’s protestations that for the moment she’s enjoying her independence following her late husband’s death.
When Vivien collapses during episode one, Mark is on-hand to help her with his wealth of medical expertise — but as she suggests he move in, the timing seems too perfect. Even if he’s not after her substantial wealth, could it be a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy? Or is he simply a spontaneous, courteous older man hoping to settle down with a vivacious widow?
However, the real heart of this idiosyncratic show is its “essay on womanhood,” as described by director Louise Hooper (Cheat) during the show’s press launch and Q&A. Created, commissioned and produced by an all-female team, the show’s most interesting or unexpected moments during episode one all centre around its female characters.
For example, Vivien, at first seemingly mild-mannered and unassuming, reclaims her sexual and financial independence. Meanwhile her youngest daughter Natalie has abandoned her artistic interests in pursuit of a five-year affair with her boss, hoping he will leave his wife for her; she struggles when she finds out about her own father’s similarly drawn-out affair in a conversation with her mother (who has no idea about Natalie’s relationship).
Natalie’s high-flying sister Helen is experiencing marital problems (specifically in the bedroom) and finds solace in the bottom of an iced G&T. And of course, Mary is so far the most interesting character of them all: the annoying, overly-familiar neighbour recognisable to many viewers, yet whose nosiness takes on a darker edge…
Marrying the familiar with blackly-comic twists, a stylish, cinematic backdrop, and irreverence towards conventional TV crime drama, ITV could well have a new hit on their hands.
Flesh and Blood aired in the UK on 24-27th February on ITV
Flesh and Blood airs on Sundays at 9/8c on PBS Masterpiece