Sex and the middle-aged woman a groundbreaking BBC drama tells it like it is

Emily Watson tells why her role in Apple Tree Yard has been a delight

She made her name with raw and unfettered performances in films such as Breaking the Waves and Hilary and Jackie, but at the age of 50 Emily Watson admits that she thought those days were behind her. Then she was offered the leading role in the BBCs eagerly awaited adaptation of Louise Doughtys acclaimed thriller, Apple Tree Yard, playing a middle-aged woman who begins an unlikely and increasingly dangerous affair.

I guess when I first read it I thought really? Watson says, laughing. I mean Ive been described in the press before as a character actor who gets laid, which I think is a great description, but as the years go by you get laid less and less on screen and then you sort of stop, so I definitely felt that, like that Amy Schumer sketch, Id had my last fuckable day and then suddenly here I am. It was pretty cool although I did have to kind of swallow a few times when I read the script.

The role of Yvonne Carmichael, a highly successful scientist and apparently happily married mother of two whose one reckless decision sends her life spiralling out of control, came as a pleasant surprise. It was kind of great because these days when I go and do a movie the team is being run by a 22-year-old and Im playing the mum, she says. And then you go and do TV and youre running the show and the 22-year-old is in for a couple of days, which I wont lie was a nice thing.

It helped, she adds, that she and Ben Chaplin, who plays Yvonnes risk-taking new lover, Mark Costley, had known each other for a long time. As a younger actor I had a lot of experiences of those sort of sex scenes where everybody leaves and youre just thinking hurry up and say cut but we felt: lets not do this, lets actually talk through the beats of what would happen and how this would play out. Im quite proud of that and how it turned out although you do have to know someone quite well to do it.

Nor was Watson the only one thrilled by the dramas willingness to tackle middle-aged sexuality with a clear eye. I get offered a lot of relationship dramas but its very rare to find something thats so central to the age you are and the experiences youre having, says the director, Jessica Hobbs.

The appeal with Apple Tree Yard wasnt just that it was a story about a woman but that its a story about a woman of a certain age and I loved that because your sexuality doesnt die with your age. You dont have to apologise for it.

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Watson with Ben Chaplin, who plays Mark Costley in Apple Tree Yard. Photograph: Nick Briggs/BBC/Kudos

Doughty, the author, agrees, admitting that her biggest fear was that the programme-makers would cast young because not only would the plot not work if she had young children but its also important that theyre both middle-aged. Theyve been around the block and theyre both a bit rumpled. One of the most important lines in the book, which I was so glad Amanda kept, was when Yvonne says to Costley, Oh well, you didnt sign up for this and he replies, I signed up for you. Because until then it has been kind of a sexual folly but there is also a genuine love story and a real tenderness there.

That tenderness is partially driven by the fact that behind the scenes, producer Chris Carey apart, Apple Tree Yard is an almost entirely female affair: in addition to Hobbs, the screenplay was written by Amanda Coe and Manda Levin and Lucy Richer are executive producers.

It sort of speaks to the nature of the project that when I walked in and met Jess, she said to me Im four days older than you and there was immediately this sense of being women in the same place in life and working in a tough industry and just having a kind of kinship before we even started, says Watson. Throughout this piece theres been a sense of doing something with a kind of solidarity.

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Watson with Christian Bale in 1997 film Metroland. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

There is also the feeling that Yvonnes desire for escape resonates with middle-aged women in particular, says Doughty. Were just really tired and our competence has to take so many forms, she says. Were partners, mothers, looking after elderly relatives, holding down a career. Its exhausting and [therefore] its tempting when someone comes along and says heres a box of chocolates, put your feet up and let me massage your toes. Its not just that Yvonne falls in love with Costley, its that she falls out of love with herself and with the careful, competent persona shes created. The trouble is that society doesnt really let women take a holiday from themselves and the price you pay can actually be enormous if you get caught.

The way that price is paid is intended as a very clear contrast to the likes of True Detective, The Fall and <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/oct/05/gone-girl-review-two-different-readings-modern-marriage” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Gone Girl, with their tendency to fetishise their female characters, presenting them as victims of their own desires and punishing them for stepping outside accepted lines. When we started to develop the show, the first series of The Fall was very present in our minds, admits Levin, the head of development for Kudos, the production company behind the adaptation. We wanted to put out something that looked at women of that age but wasnt incredibly objectified and that tackled the way that female confidence can sometimes be seen as an invitation when its just simple happiness that idea that just walking down the street feeling good about yourself can actually be seen that way.

Coe agrees. One of the most appealing things for me about this drama is that its as messy as human life, she says. Yvonnes marriage isnt simple, her affair isnt simple. Its all beautifully complex just as life is because people do make complicated decisions and choices and thats whats really interesting.

As for Watson, she remains delighted by the way the script celebrates middle-aged womanhood in all its imperfections. Another real fist pump moment for me was when I read the line jelly baby, I want to fuck. It was like yesss, old fat women are really attractive.

Apple Tree Yard starts on BBC1 on 22 January at 9pm. Louise Doughtys latest novel, Black Water, will be published in paperback in March.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/14/emily-watson-apple-tree-yard-middle-aged-women-infidelity-sexuality

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