You have to question the BBC’s decision to name their new primetime drama Gold Digger. Not only does it seem to give away the central mystery of the series, but the term itself has such trashy connotations, owing to its frequent use in tabloid gossip columns and the like. Then again, perhaps that makes it perfectly apt. After all, this is quite a trashy story largely built around gawping at an age gap romance.
The series introduces us to Julia Day (Julia Ormond), a woman recently separated from her husband of 35 years, who has made plans to spend her 60th birthday with her three children. One by one they cancel on her for reasons of varying legitimacy, leaving her to spend her big birthday weekend in London alone.
Wandering around a museum where she once worked, she stumbles upon Benjamin Greene (Ben Barnes), an enigmatic stranger roughly 30 years her junior who quite forwardly asks her on a spontaneous date. It marks the beginning of an intense romance but when Julia introduces Benjamin to her three children, they are immediately suspicious of his true intentions with their wealthy mother.
Is it as the title suggests? Is he truly just a gold digger? Well, the first episode desperately wants you to think so.
When Benjamin is with Julia he brims with cringe-inducing one-liners as he compulsively dotes over her, but as soon as he’s alone with her sons, out come the menacingly smug looks and ominous double meanings.
Whichever version of him is on-screen, the last thing he could be described as is likeable, making it hard to believe the world-weary Julia wouldn’t simply dismiss the slimy sap in an instant. Although to be fair, she doesn’t have the benefit of hearing the ambient foreboding score that seems to follow him around like a bad smell.
But, there lies the main problem with Gold Digger: the central relationship between Julia and Benjamin is lacking any plausibility, not because of the age gap between them, but simply because Benjamin is a creep from the minute he appears on screen.
His burgeoning villainy is so overt that Julia’s obliviousness borders on frustrating, but it is at least consistent with the theme of the series: a woman who has devoted much of her life to other people, three children and an ungrateful husband, so intent on finally doing something for herself that she’s willing to ignore all the blatant red flags — or should that be herrings?
After all, there is the possibility that the sheer amount of evidence mounting against Benjamin could be a misdirect. But while that would add an extra layer of complexity to what looks like a cut and dried story, the twist would feel unearned given how little groundwork is laid for it in the opening chapters.
Barnes might be chewing the scenery here but the blame doesn’t lie entirely at his feet. He’s working from the direction and script he’s been given, the latter of which is pretty clumsy all round, but paired with Ormond’s subdued turn in the lead his performance comes off as exceptionally odd.
With the central romance resembling a darker take on the Mills & Boon formula, the more interesting aspects of this series lie with the supporting characters handling their own romantic misadventures.
Sebastian Armesto is the standout as Julia’s eldest son, Patrick. He’s a jaded curmudgeon flirting with the prospect of an extramarital affair, so hardly a traditional “good guy”, but he does seem to genuinely care for his mother’s wellbeing, as the only of her offspring to proactively investigate her suspicious new bloke. His character ultimately benefits from the moral ambiguity that Benjamin could have used a bit more of.
Scenes between Patrick and his sister Della (Jemima Rooper) are some of the best this show has to offer, their complicated relationship prone to the jabbing and bickering typical of siblings, but buoyed by an underlying respect for each other forged in the flames of shared trauma. Spoilt youngest son Leo (Archie Renaux) is disinterested in them both, adding some tension to the scenes where they’re together but giving him less to do with the plot overall.
The trio are saddled with their fair share of clunky dialogue, but Gold Digger definitely comes alive when their dynamic is centre stage. If only the series were about them.
There is some entertainment to be found in Gold Digger’s melodramatic and occasionally silly script, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s a much better show buried deep within its pages that isn’t seeing the light of day.
Had Benjamin been a more sympathetic and endearing figure from the outset, it would have injected the series with some much needed mystery and intrigue, perhaps even making the viewer conflicted about who they should side with. Alternatively, if the show had wanted to set him up as simply a loathsome villain, that could also have worked had the focus shifted towards towards the three siblings and their plot to oust him.
Instead, the finished product floats between these two disparate ideas and ultimately fumbles both.
Gold Digger is on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC One