"The man who commits adultery with a woman is lacking in sense. He who would destroy himself does it," says wise grandma Hazel. "Proverbs 6:32-34," she adds.
"They should make that into a fridge magnet," Julia replies.
Julia (Julia Ormond) is Hazel’s ex-daughter-in-law. The proverb is directed towards Hazel’s son Ted (Alex Jennings), who left Julia not long ago. When we land in the first episode of BBC One’s new romantic thriller, Gold Digger, Ted and Julia’s divorce has just come through. It’s around Julia’s 60th birthday and the tension between them (and subsequently their three adult kids) seems to stem from their separation. There’s something else, though. Something unsettling is rumbling beneath the surface as blurry flashbacks to a violent incident interrupt the narrative despite no one in the present putting words to what happened. Yet.
But that’s just the subplot. The main drama lingers around Benjamin Greene (Ben Barnes), a charismatic and enigmatic young man about whom we don’t know very much.
Julia lives in Devon with her youngest son, Leo (Archie Renaux), who thrives off his mum’s wealth and is incapable of changing the lightbulb in his own bathroom. Julia had arranged a dinner in London with him and her two other grown-up kids, Patrick (Sebastian Armesto) and Della (Jemima Rooper). Leo forgot it was her birthday, Della’s flight got cancelled and even though Patrick is bursting with faux concern about his recently single and historically 'weak' mother – his word, not ours – he has his assistant send her a big bunch of flowers and cancels on dinner, too. It's wildly frustrating that despite her financial independence, incredible agency and clear accomplishment over her lifetime, the first time we hear someone describe Julia, it's as 'weak'. Were our wealthy lead a man about to embark on a whirlwind romance with someone younger, we're pretty confident this wouldn't be the word used to describe him.
Alone in London on her special day, Julia takes a wander through a museum where she is approached by Benjamin. He asks about a missing artefact and Julia tells him that she worked there many years ago. Benjamin has clearly had a flick through Wooing Older Women For Dummies because he insists that it can’t have been that many years ago. Julia doesn’t quite swoon but, just like that, the familiar presumptions about age-gap romance stifle the atmosphere on both sides of the TV screen.
You can’t help but be suspicious as you watch this exchange. There are important questions niggling in our subconscious. First, do people really get chatted up at museums in the middle of the afternoon? Why do we already feel like Benjamin has an ulterior motive for his approach? Is it just because he’s clearly much younger than Julia? And if so, why? Biases towards someone young being romantically attracted to someone older are challenged for the first time in this moment. It’s the stereotype most frequently ascribed to young women – 'the old guy must be rich', as the tired assumption goes – but if it weren’t for the title of this TV show, money wouldn’t seem like the motive here just yet. This young man pursuing an older woman suddenly feels more sinister, without us being able to put a finger on why.
Julia blushes. Benjamin spots that she’s not wearing a wedding ring. He asks her to go for a drink and insists that he’s not "some weird stalker who’s going to follow you home and strangle you for rejecting me", which is about as reassuring as someone pointing a gun at your head and promising not to blow your brains out. Julia obliges and next thing you know, they’re waking up in bed together at the fancy London hotel where she’s staying. Both fully clothed, though. Julia tells him that he needs to leave because she’s just turned 60 and he’s "bloody young". Benjamin interrupts her with a kiss and off they go for a hand-in-hand stroll around central London instead.
We’re teased a little more with the idea of gold digging when they get to a market that looks an awful lot like Covent Garden. Benjamin picks up a watch and Julia goes to pay for it in cash. Benjamin throws an eager glance at her wallet as she hands over a wad of 50s. Back at the hotel he willy-nilly orders room service, makes himself comfortable in the free robes and makes plans for other lovely things they can do together. "You are dangerously persuasive," Julia tells him. Yes, this is probably a foreboding motif for the following five episodes.
That said, Julia seems on board with this whirlwind affair until a man in a bar mistakes her for Benjamin’s mother. "Why aren’t you with someone your own age? What’s wrong with you? I know nothing about you!" Julia explodes at Benjamin moments later. Benjamin shoots her some vague information about his parents not being in the picture and having once thought he was going to marry someone his own age. They have sex back at the hotel and agree to tell Julia’s kids about their relationship at a do-over 60th birthday meal – which this time they all turn up for.
Unsurprisingly, the kids are disgusted. Suspicion and judgment dictate the dinner conversation as people strategically go to the bathroom in pairs to discuss the frustratingly young man their older mum seems really happy with. And can you blame her? She feels desired and sexually attractive. Benjamin is tactile and suave, his every word dripping in conscious sincerity. But we and her kids are being deliberately set up to believe his affection isn't genuine – because he's so much younger.
Gold Digger is a thriller, and the implied backstories motivating Julia's desires, Benjamin's pursuit and her kids' quick dismissal of her new relationship tell us that the journey's going to be anything but straightforward.
At the end of the awkward birthday dinner, during which eldest son Patrick does his best to interrogate Benjamin and his intentions only to get little more than a swanky business card in return, Julia takes out her wallet to pay. Patrick tells her to put her money away and turns a judgmental stare towards Benjamin, who is far too preoccupied stroking Julia's hair to make a move for the bill. Patrick slams his American Express card down on the table to make an exasperated point. Benjamin gives him a snide little wink and smirks with a different brand of candour than we've seen before. He's smug, proud and gives zero shits. There's a sinister financial power play looming, and Benjamin knows exactly what he's doing.
Gold Digger starts on BBC One on Tuesday 12th November at 9pm.