Gold Digger review: The taboo-busting age gap relationship is not believable

Julia Ormond and Ben Barnes in 'Gold Digger': BBC
Julia Ormond and Ben Barnes in 'Gold Digger': BBC

Spare a thought for Julia (Julia Ormond), the heroine of a new six-part domestic thriller, Gold Digger (BBC1), who wakes up on her 60th birthday and realises her family are awful. She already knew about her ex-husband, Ted (Alex Jennings), who left her for her best friend, Marsha (Nikki Amuka-Bird), after 35 years of marriage.

But she doesn’t seem to have twigged that her three children are selfish, self-pitying wastes of space. The worst is Leo (Archie Renaux), the youngest, a peroxide-haired layabout who lives at home, swigs milk from the carton and responds to everything with witless sarcasm. He forgets Julia’s birthday completely. Nearly as bad is eldest child, Patrick (Sebastian Armesto), a harassed lawyer with a child of his own, who cries off her celebration to do more of his boring job. Only their sister, Della (Jemima Rooper), has a shred of sympathy. She doesn’t make it to the birthday because her plane is cancelled, and she’s recovering from a break-up.

Julia’s ready for someone to be nice to her. She takes herself to the British Museum, where she used to work, and gets talking to a young man, Benjamin (Ben Barnes), who asks if she wants to go for a drink. He is enigmatic, handsome and much younger than her.

Her guard stays up for about three seconds. Before you know it they are rolling around in a hotel room, holding hands by the river and generally staring at each other like a couple of pie-faced adolescents. The big question is: how will her dreadful offspring take the news? At her reorganised birthday dinner, she introduces him. Predictably the plates have barely been cleared before they start worrying about what this might mean for their inheritance. There’s Julia’s big house in Devon, a villa somewhere, investments. “Gold digger,” says Leo. Yes, thank you, we had worked that out.

The glossy sets and rich-family-with-secrets subject matter invite comparisons to Doctor Foster, and we are clearly meant to see this older-woman/younger-man relationship as some kind of taboo-busting revelation. The idea’s not bad. It’s true that, in general, women on telly cease to be sexual after 40. The problem is that minimal trouble is taken to establish the relationship. Other than asking her a couple of questions, Benjamin does nothing obvious to impress Julia, and while both actors do their best, there’s not much chemistry between them. Most of the initial relationship is shown in montage. Smooth talk in a museum might tumble a bored middle-aged women into bed, but why would she rush to the “introducing him as the new boyfriend” phase? Upper-middle-class mothers of three may have many qualities, but “relaxed about the assets” does not tend to be one of them.

Benjamin is cagey and defensive and clearly not what he seems, in which specific ways we don’t yet know. We suspect this intrusion into family life will dislodge some other family secrets. But it’s not only Julia who needs to be seduced into believing this man. The viewers need a little wining and dining, too.

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