Some last taboos, it seems, can remain last taboos no matter how frequently they’re confronted. Grief, the menopause, masturbation, mental illness are all routinely described that way whenever they get depicted on television — i.e. quite often. But perhaps the sturdiest last taboo of the lot is that older women can have sexual feelings: something that appears to come as a rather patronising surprise to TV folk every time they tackle it — i.e. quite often.
The latest example of such bravery is Gold Digger (BBC1, Tuesday), a drama keen for us to understand that a woman of 60 can still be both desirable and a goer — although not so keen as to cast a woman of 60 in the role. Instead, 54-year-old Julia Ormond plays Julia Day, a recent divorcée whose 60th birthday begins with all three of her grown-up children bailing out of the celebration dinner she’d arranged.
Fortunately, things perk up once she bumps into hunky thirtysomething Benjamin (Ben Barnes) at the British Museum. In a cunning symbolic touch, they meet by a missing exhibit, which Julia informs him was a statue of a prehistoric woman that powerfully showed ‘her strength, her capability, what she had to put up with’. ‘Would you like to go for a drink?’ he replies.
When they do, small talk is largely eschewed. ‘If I let myself off the leash, I don’t know what I’d be capable of,’ Julia tells Ben thoughtfully. ‘None of us do.’ Before long, they’re duly doing that kissing-hard-against-a-hotel-bedroom-wall business that traditionally signifies ungovernable passion. But then comes the tricky bit, because now Julia has to introduce him to her children. (‘They’re going to love you,’ she assures him in a piece of irony as unsubtle as pretty much everything else in the programme.)
Her oldest child, Patrick, is a high-flying London lawyer — which means, among other things, that he has one of those glass offices with a panoramic view of the City, walks along juggling two mobile phones and responds to his wife’s complaints that he’s neglecting his family with the words, ‘I can’t do this right now.’ Her youngest Leo makes clear how feckless he is by the twin methods of everything he says and everything he does. The two, however, are united in the belief that Ben is only after their old mum’s money.
Naturally, the show’s women take a kindlier approach. ‘Has it occurred to either of you that Mum was happy tonight?’ sister Della asks her siblings after the introductory dinner. ‘She’s a woman in her own right,’ points out Patrick’s wife, apparently controversially.
For now, the audience is being kept guessing as to who is right. (Personally I’d suggest a genuine taboo would be Julia turning out to be a sad female fantasist, but I’m not holding my breath.) Meanwhile, if you want to get into training for Christmas with a particularly tough drinking game, why not watch Gold Digger and take a slug each time there’s moment of comically unashamed corniness?
By coincidence, The Cockfields, which began the same night on Gold, also concerns grown-up children, middle-aged divorce and the tricky business of extended families — but this time in sitcom form. Joe Wilkinson, who co-wrote the series, plays Simon, a man returning to his mum’s house on the Isle of Wight for his 40th birthday. With him is his girlfriend Donna (Diane Morgan), meeting Simon’s family in situ for the first time.
What follows can’t be called ground-breaking exactly. Before they arrive, Simon’s stepfather Ray (Bobby Ball) has strong feelings on the best driving route to the house. After they do, mum Sue (Sue Johnston) constantly fusses over food and bedding. Yet, the quality of the cast — both individually and as a highly convincing ensemble — makes even the most familiar material feel authentic. There’s also a nice line in Alan Bennett-style dialogue. ‘Ray went into Totland this morning, Donna, and got you a block of lard,’ Sue informs her proudly. ‘We noticed when we came to visit that you didn’t have any.’
The programme is good, too, at capturing the mixture of love, exasperation and guilt at his own exasperation that Simon feels about his mother — as well as the way that only your family can drive you to such heights of irritation: as far as Donna is concerned, her hosts are ‘very sweet’. And so, in the end, is The Cockfields — which derives its solid quota of laughs from nothing more cynical than people doing their clumsy best to get along.