Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard won great acclaim and sold in huge numbers when it was released as a novel in 2013. Now, thanks to Amanda Coe and Doughty herself, it has been adapted for television as a four-part series. The story belongs in the rebranded and recently ascendant ‘domestic noir’ genre – stories that tell of seemingly perfect, middle-class lives that are turned on their heads and go down a noirish rabbit hole, its protagonists suddenly plunged into situations and scenarios that they had no control over.
NB: Spoilers ahead
Much has been made of the sex scenes in Apple Tree Yard – Middle age sex! How dare they! – which, sadly, reveals a lot about our attitudes to sex and age. It seems that sex onscreen is only ok unless it features nubile young things writhing around in perfect harmony, ‘perfect bodies’ glistening in perfect lighting. In Apple Tree Yard our two main characters – self-described ‘civilised’ woman Dr Yvonne Carmichael (the ever reliable and believable Emily Watson) and Mark Costley (Ben Chaplin), a sharp-suited ‘civil servant’ with a smooth, rich voice and a seducer’s eye – embark on a passionate affair and yes, they have sex. They have sex often and with enthusiasm. It’s not perfect, it’s not anything pornographic: it’s fairly believable and, crucially, needed for the story. And there’s no nudity in these scenes, either.
Within minutes of meeting each other after a committee select briefing in the House Of Commons, Costley led Yvonne down into the crypt, into tiny, historical rooms – tinier and tinier – and whispering lasciviously “see, I knew you’d be interested”. Before long they were enjoying a knee-trembler and then breathlessly falling out into the public chambers looking a bit dishevelled and flushed.
It all happened a bit too quickly, if I’m being honest. I would have preferred this random sexual encounter to have happened with a bit more context behind it. We got that in the second act, when Yvonne’s family life was revealed – a grown-up child who revealed to her parents that she was pregnant with her first child; a mundane, routine-led home life; and a teacher husband who may or may not have been having an affair with a student of his. Add all this up – these crisis of middle age, this realisation that she was going to become a grandmother for the first time and that her husband may be playing away with someone younger – and you could almost forgive Yvonne for taking up the opportunity of a bit of rumpy-pumpy with a man who deeply desired her. But I wanted this context before she met Costley.
Still there we were. And Yvonne wanted more even though this was against her better judgement and her civilised temperament. This is what interested me in this first episode – Yvonne Carmichael, a genetic scientist so used to using rational thought to solve problems, was suddenly plunging herself into an emotional, random affair that she couldn’t explain. A woman of science unable to account for the unexplainable – a rumbling, animal, sexual attraction.
She had chances to stop it, but before long she and Costley (if ever there was a name…) were sneaking off into alleyways and playing footsy and more beneath restaurant and barroom tables. She constantly asked herself what the hell she was playing at – asked HIM what the hell THEY were playing at – but she couldn’t help herself, and soon she was emitting a long-lost glow, the type of which work colleagues began to notice. But Costley… there was something odd about him, something suspicious. Like Yvonne he was married, but unlike her he never revealed what he really did for a living, and the way he knew everything about security cameras and where the blind spots were in the alleyways suggested he had done this kind of thing before. Not once, but to the point that it had become an artform.
So all my attention was on Costley and his potentially deceptive ways (I was semi-shouting at the screen for Yvonne to break it off with him). But then… the final, horrifying scene of the episode took place, where Yvonne was assaulted and raped by a male work colleague. It was awful to watch – as tastefully done as it could be but horrifying and sickening nonetheless. With that Apple Tree Yard became something else – not just the journey of a woman embarking on a dangerous but restorative affair. Now Dr Yvonne Carmichael was now a rape survivor.
Where this is going to go I have no idea (I haven’t read the book), but there are interesting discussion points within this – not to mention tension – about sex, gender and, of course, age.
A promising, if imperfect start.