CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night's TV: Quick! Send our best agony aunt to Julia and her vile, selfish family
Canal Boat Diaries
One of my guiltiest pleasures is a juicy agony column. I acquired the taste aged eight, reading Claire Rayner in my mother's Woman's Own (I was an odd child).
Now, as well as turning eagerly to the Mail's own brilliant advice columnist Bel Mooney on Saturdays, I sometimes wallow in other people's problems on internet advice sites. That odd child is still lurking, it seems.
Gold Digger (BBC1) has all the irresistible ingredients of a plea to an agony aunt. Newly divorced Julia, just turned 60 and the mother of three grown-up children, feels utterly ignored by the family she devoted her life to raising.
Gold Digger (BBC1) has all the irresistible ingredients of a plea to an agony aunt. Pictured: Julia and Benjamin
So when a shyly good-looking man half her age lavishes attention on her, she ignores all the danger signs and hurls herself into a wholly inappropriate love affair. Really, can you blame her?
Her children do. They took one look at charmer Benjamin (Ben Barnes) and sized him up as a predator intent on parting them from their inheritances.
They might not be wrong. A glimpse of Ben and Julia's wedding day, in a flash-forward at the outset of the drama, revealed there is violence to come.
A glimpse of Ben and Julia's wedding day, in a flash-forward at the outset of the drama, revealed there is violence to come
And no agony aunt would ever advise a woman to throw in her lot with a man whose opening gambit is: 'I'm not some weird stalker who's going to follow you home and strangle you.'
With each of the six episodes centred on a different character, so far we've seen the story from Julia's viewpoint and that of her accident-prone, manipulative daughter Della (Jemima Rooper).
All three siblings are nasty bits of work: big brother Patrick (Sebastian Armesto) is cheating on his wife, while the youngest, Leo (Archie Renaux) is spongeing off his parents.
Julia Ormond as the lonely divorcee is subtly superb. Fans of Mad Men will remember her as Don Draper's melodramatic mother-in-law, pretending to understand only French unless it suited her, but here she could not be more different: reserved, scared of her own passions and pitifully desperate to be loved.
We know Patrick is her favourite, and that she has guessed his marriage is on the rocks. It's obvious she can't help disliking Leo because he's so like his supercilious, arrogant father (Alex Jennings).
But none of this has been spoken out loud. It's all in the gestures, the flickers in her eyes and tremors in her voice.
Gold Digger is a super-heated mess of emotions and deceit, challenging us to ask whether we would ever be so naive, needy or deluded ourselves — and what we would do to put things right. Just like a good agony column.
CRACKING QUIZ OF THE WEEK:
Cash Trapped (ITV), the brainchild of host Bradley Walsh, got off to a shaky start when it launched in 2016.
But he’s ironed out the glitches now and this rapid-fire game with loads of banter is really addictive telly.
Online film-maker Robbie Cumming's series about life in a barge, Canal Boat Diaries (BBC4), poses the gentler question of how we might cope with a mobile existence spent travelling Britain's waterways.
Robbie, who spent several years trapped in an office job he hated, now passes his days pootling around the canal network and videoing his journeys on his smartphone.
This gives these five daily half-hour episodes an amateurish sheen, like watching clips on YouTube, that feels artificial on a BBC channel.
What's missing most is a companion for his journeys. We've loved seeing Prunella Scales and husband Tim West voyaging the backwaters. Watching Robbie travel alone is less engaging.
But he has some smashing stories, such as the time he had to stop for repairs because his propeller got snagged in a woman's discarded bra.
And apparently it's risky to trawl the waters for lost items with a magnet, because of the likelihood of finding discarded guns and knives.
Who'd have thought it?