“Nowhere else works like the cities”. This is the first line of BBC1’s new drama based on the 2009 ‘weird fiction’ novel by British author China Miéville, an exotically named man actually born in Norwich. His book has been adapted for TV by screen writer Tony Grisoni.
The cities in the title are Besźel, which looks like the Eastern Bloc of 30 plus years ago mixed with cafes and people from 1970s Istanbul and Ul Qoma which is glimpsed only briefly in the first episode. These streets look brighter, cleaner, and more advanced. The colour pallets are quite different in each city; dingy yellows for Besźel and clean blues for Ul Qoma. Like the inhabitants, the viewer always knows where they’re looking.
The two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but the inhabitants wilfully ‘unsee’ the areas they’re not allowed to view. Early on Commissar Gadlem (Ron Cook) gets out his overhead projector, and lays two acetate maps on top of each other. That’s a good way to get your head around it.
If you’ve not yet heard anything about the The Handmaid’s Tale, let me give you a hand getting out from under that rock where you’ve been hiding. This is an MGM production being show on Hulu in America. They seem to be a good 7 episodes ahead of us. Sadly, even in 2017, sometimes America is ahead of us in tv land. It’s great to have synchronised start dates, but it’s still not the norm. Avoiding spoilers for this much talked-about show is going to be a killer.
A few weeks after starting in the USA this 10 part drama series has been picked up by Channel 4 in the UK, which, as the young, intelligent, and left-leaning political channel is a really good fit for their brand and a bit of a coup. The series is based on a novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood and despite its startlingly relevant content was actually written in 1985. So this dystopian future Atwood envisaged is 30 years closer than we’d have hoped for, and none of her themes are any less relevant or possibilities presented any less realistic. In interviews Atwood says that none of these war crimes in the fictional Republic of Gilead are entirely made up – all have happened somewhere on the globe. This really is extremely dark stuff. Do we as the audience have the stamina to get through it?
The series opening is distressing, as our heroine Offred is violently parted from her husband and daughter, but it’s not a tense escape. We know she’ll get caught. The rippling tension comes from her social position at her new posting with the Commander (Joseph Feinnes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).
Spoiler warning: this is a full review of Apple Tree Yard so if you’re spoiler conscious, please look away now!
Apple Tree Yard is an eye-catching thriller, adapted from the novel of the same name by Louise Doughty about Dr Yvonne Carmichael (award-winning Emily Watson) and dashing Mark Costley (Ben Chaplin). The pair meet by chance at the Houses of Parliament. She’s there to give a talk on her work in genetics. Why he’s there is never really explained. He bats his eyelashes at her and invites her to tour the secret chapel. That’s the magic words as within about 5 minutes of meeting they’re having sex! This is the very definition of a whirlwind romance.
This secret romance is a big deal to Yvonne. It’s all a bit grimy and sordid, but very exciting. She falls head over heels for a man she knows nothing about. It’s sort of a way to get her own back on her dodgy husband Gary (played by Mark Bonnar, an actor who seems to be inliterallyeverything), but mainly to feel like an interesting and attractive middle-aged woman. I’d argue it’s the affair, not her Mr X as a person, that makes her feel good. It’s what it represents – the fight against aging and slowing down the inevitable invisibility as a desirable sexual woman. All this comes hot on the heels of her about to become a grandmother, and that’s surely no accident.