Strong female characters are a traditional mainstay of TV drama, from Ena Sharples to the magnificent Catherine Cawood in Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley. But there has always been a shadow side to these mouthy, active women: the female victim that fuels the crime genre engine of so much TV. Traditionally young, white and pretty, commonly sex workers, these ghosts haunt a huge proportion of the stories we consume at the end of a long day, a tray on our laps or a glass at our lips. The dramatic value of their deaths is underwritten by the value society confers on women it deems sexually viable. Of course, it's a sexual currency entirely without value for the 'victim'... if we're talking women-as-objects, the ultimate human object is a corpse.
This much we know. It's talked about, problematized, and - thank god -- increasingly addressed. Keep up the good work, I say. But it seems to me that just as problematic as the sexualisation of violence against women on screen is the way that female sexuality is - again and again -- quite literally killed off before our eyes. Let's remember that the sexualized female is not the same thing as female sexuality [I'm looking at you, The Fall], this being a crucial matter of point of view. Whose stories, exactly, are we telling? What about women as subjects, including sexual subjects?
John Berger, who died recently, memorably introduced the notion of the male gaze into assessments of western art. This assumption that the 'viewer' is a heterosexual male is still as much a part of narrative culture as visual. Film and TV, being a bewitching mash-up of both, present us with a double whammy. And dramas that profess to tell female-centred stories, driven by a female protagonist, can still be firmly embedded in the male gaze. Take 2015's Sicario, sold as a female-led action movie. In it, Emily Blunt plays an FBI operative who mainly watches men do stuff, to steal Claire Vaye Watkin's beady phrase. So much so, that she isn't even in the climactic scene, which belongs, as the film really does throughout, to Benicio Del Toro. I mean, by the end of the movie, Emily doesn't even get to watch...
All this annoys me. So when I was approached to adapt Louise Doughty's bestseller Apple Tree Yard for TV, I was on a grouchy look-out for the pitfalls of This Sort of Thing. Like thousands of readers, I was beguiled by the book's grip and intelligence, the need to turn the page. But when we talked about the adaptation, I was wary of the compromises television drama can so easily submit to. Casting, for one. The protagonist of Apple Tree Yard is, crucially, a middle-aged woman who has an intensely sexual and transgressive affair. To put it brutally, the story is driven by someone who is no longer commonly deemed by society to be sexually viable or attractive. The book compels us to identify with Yvonne by telling the story entirely from her point of view. On the page, we stay in her head, and her body, as she enacts her most subversive desires and her life spirals out of control. On screen, that automatic objectifier, we have to watch her.
Now, we are not over-used to watching middle-aged women have passionate, non-missionary sex on our screens, let alone women who have been flagged up for their middle-class-everywoman qualities. To my great relief, the production team never at any point considered casting a younger actor. We were exceptionally fortunate to attract Emily Watson to play the role of Yvonne. An extraordinary actor, unwaveringly honest in performance, she is also unmistakably middle-aged. Of course she's beautiful - she's a movie star -- but in that deceptive way that convinces you as you watch her that you might, at your best, with excellent lighting and a following wind, occasionally be that lovely. The humane animation of her face invites you in, rather than commanding you to stop and marvel at its surface. It doesn't hold itself wary of anyone's gaze. And so, with Emily's performance, and aided by Jess Hobb's cannily subjective, sensually precise direction, we were all pulling towards the same goal. To get the audience to share the complexity of Yvonne's story as her life unravels, as a scientist, wife, mother, friend, lover, victim and criminal. Over the four episodes of Apple Tree Yard, the body in the frame is a woman: problematic, sexual ... and alive. Here's to more of that, I say.
Apple Tree Yard begins Sunday 22nd January on BBC One at 9pm.