The Poison Tree ITV1 with MyAnna Buring, Matthew Goode PREVIEW

Nowhere to hide? MyAnna Buring as Karen in The Poison Tree. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★½ 

ITV1: starts Monday, 10 December, 9pm 

Story: Karen Clarke has spent 12 years waiting for her partner, Rex, to be released from prison. Now he is free, she is looking forward to settling down to normal family life – but suddenly she feels she is being stalked…

Based on a novel by Erin Kelly (which was highly praised by Stephen King), The Poison Tree is a two-part family thriller revolving around buried secrets gradually being forced to the surface.

Karen and Biba

Karen and her teenage daughter, Alice, greet Rex on his release from prison after he’s done 12 years inside. She’s looking forward to starting a new family life with her partner, determined that they should keep from Alice the secret of their past and the events leading to Rex’s imprisonment.

Karen also covers for Rex’s absence by telling the neighbours near their small seaside bungalow that he’s been away working.

Partying, drugs and an unhappy childhood
Through a series of flashbacks we get clues to the momentous, secret events that forged Karen and Rex’s relationship. Karen actually met Rex’s damaged sister Biba first, when she and Rex were living a hedonistic life in their own grand house.

At the time, 1999, Karen was a mousey languages student, while Biba was a flamboyant art student. However, behind the partying and drugs lay an unhappy childhood for the siblings, with their rich businessman dad, Max, being unfaithful to his wife, who was suicidal over his antics.

As Karen comes on the scene, events come to a murderous climax, though as episode one finishes we are still not sure how Rex ends up in jail. What is clear, is that his release is not the new start Karen hopes for.

Released from prison – Rex

Creepy seaside setting
There are the silent phone calls, anonymous texts and the feeling that someone is watching their remote bungalow. Karen is unwilling to tell Rex about this, and it becomes clear she has deeper secret that she is withholding from Rex.

The Poison Tree is adapted for ITV by Emilia di Girolamo, who’s written some gripping episodes of Law & Order: UK, and it’s a solid enough thriller. The beachside setting is isolated and made menacing by director Marek Losey.

The two episodes are just about enough time to build up the characters and keep us interested in finding out whether Rex really was the murderer and what went down in 1999…

Cast: MyAnna Buring Karen Clarke, Matthew Goode Rex, Hebe Johnson Alice, Ophelia Lovibond Biba, with Patrick Baladi, Ralph Brown, Lex Shrapnel, Neil McKinven

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A Mother’s Son starring Hermione Norris, Martin Clunes PREVIEW

Martin Clunes,  Alexander Arnold, Hermione Norris and Paul McGann. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★½ 

Story: When a teenage schoolgirl is found murdered in the woods near a local town in Suffolk, the news rips through the local community, and that of mother-of-two Rosie Haleton, who discovers damning evidence that could be connected to the heinous crime.

ITV1: Monday, 3 September, 9pm

Rosie (Hermione Norris) becomes suspicious

It’s good to see Hermione Norris back on screen. We only saw her last year, admittedly, but that was in the totally forgettable Outcasts. A Mother’s Son is much better, with Hermione playing a posh mum with a Hitchcockian dilemma – is her son a murderer?

A Mother’s Son is a claustrophobic thriller, set in the family home of Rosie (Hermione Norris) and Ben (Martin Clunes), a couple who have set up home together after they’ve both separated from partners, each bringing a couple of teenagers into their rather grand Suffolk house.

Family pulled apart by suspicion
Tensions start to tear at Rosie and Ben’s relationship, and that of their children – Jamie and Liv, Jessica and Rob – after a schoolgirl is found murdered in a reed bed. Rosie, a bit of a natural worrier, becomes suspicious of her own son, Jamie, when she finds a pair of his trainers, which he says he’s lost, under his bed covered in blood.

Jess (Antonia Clarke)

Jamie is accused by Ben’s daughter, Jess, of peeping on her in the shower, while Jamie is also always arguing bitterly with Rob. It’s the kind of drama in which the teens are often filmed in moody shadows and we’re given the impression any one of them could be hiding something.

Paul McGann as David
Added to the mix is Rosie’s ex, David (Paul McGann), who is aggressive and super-protective of Jamie.

The theme of a family harbouring a killer is easy to get swept along in, as it begs the question: how would you react? Would you be horrified but frozen by the possibility that your son is killer (Rosie), go to the police because it’s your duty (solicitor Ben), or cover up (David).

Martin Clunes, Nicola Walker and Alexander Arnold
Martin Clunes is surprisingly watchable in this serious role (and away from the treacle of Doc Martin), Nicola Walker is always good value, here playing the detective, and Alexander Arnold stands out with the most demanding part in the story, that of the difficult teenager.

This two-parter riffs well on its themes of torn family emotions, but the success or failure of  psychological dramas is how plausible the ending is. In this case convoluted twists are shunned, and the final moments are totally grounded, believable and emotional.

Cast: Hermione Norris Rosie, Alexander Arnold Jamie, Martin Clunes Ben, Paul MGann David, Antonia Clarke Jess, Jake Davies Rob, Ellie Bamber Olivia, Nicola Walker DC Sue Upton, Annabelle Apsion Kay Mullary, Juliet York Lorraine Mullary, Charles Daish DCI McLeish, Josef Altin Sean Christie

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The Last Weekend ITV1 with Shaun Evans, Rupert Penry-Jones PREVIEW

Rupert Penry-Jones as Ollie and Shaun Evans as Ian
Rupert Penry-Jones and Shaun Evans as the best of frenemies

Rating: ★★★

ITV1: starts Sunday, 19 August, 9pm

Story: Successful barrister Ollie Moreton invites old college friend Ian Goade, a primary school teacher, to visit him for an August bank holiday at his country home in Suffolk. Ollie and Ian, along with their wives, Daisy and Em, have a shared past and during the course of the weekend, old seething rivalries and sexual tensions reach dangerous levels.

Amid the Olympic euphoria, normal TV drama has been the big, fat loser – hence ITV1 being annihilated in the ratings. Mind you, they have thrown in the towel with limping repeats – Midsomer Murders v Jessica Ennis is no contest.

But as London 2012 comes to an end, ITV1 is ready for a comeback with this gem of a psychological thriller about male jealousy. It’s got fine performances, particularly from Shaun Evans, and a totally engrossing story in which you have to be alert to keep up with the machinations of the characters.

Rupert Penry-Jones plays Ollie
Mind games – Ollie

It is based on Blake Morrison‘s novel. It is a tightly set story, based around a small group at a country house over a blisteringly hot bank holiday. It is blissfully free of stupid plot twists, focusing instead on characters and emotions we all recognise.

Rupert Penry-Jones as Ollie
Ian and Em are visiting Ian’s old college mate Ollie – Rupert Penry-Jones – and his wife, Daisy, whom Ian once dated. Ian is a primary school teacher and Ollie a wealthy barrister. Their ‘friendship’ is a powder keg of competitiveness and festering jealousy that has an almost sexual element.

No sooner are Ian and Em out of their crappy car, which has a coat hanger for an aerial, than Ollie is insisting he and Ian hit the golf course to compete for a crazy £1000 wager, the first event of their traditional ‘triathlon’. It’s an uncomfortable match of niggles and gamesmanship.

Ian is our subjective narrator
Shaun Evans as Ian is the central figure here, as character and to-camera narrator, with the story slipping into the future and Ian commenting on past events. He is a chippy, deceitful figure, still hugely turned on by Daisy, played with insouciant sexiness by Genevieve O’Reilly. Claire Keelan is the devoted, likeable Em, who slowly starts to pick up on some of Ian’s provocations.

Claire Keelan and Genevieve O'Reilly
Claire Keelan as Em and Genevieve O’Reilly as Daisy

Goodness, but Ian is covetous and dishonest, while Ollie similarly has nasty sides, with an unpleasant hostility to his son and a near psychotic need to engineer some pastime at which he can grind down his less successful friend. You just know that despite the middle-class respectability, things are going to end brutally.

Engrossing and beautifully shot
Penry-Jones and Evans – soon to reprise his role as ITV1’s Endeavour – have appeared together in Whitechapel and Silk, and here they are engrossing as the mates locked in a destructive tangle. The whole three-parter – scripted by Mick Ford, directed by Jon East – is beautifully paced and shot.

ITV may have taken a drubbing this summer, but here they’re finally playing a blinder. Don’t miss it.

Cast: Rupert Penry-Jones Ollie, Shaun Evans Ian, Genevieve O’Reilly Daisy, Claire Keelan Em, Alexander Karim Milo, Hugh Mitchell Archie, Elisha Johnson Natalie, Mya-Lecia Naylor Bethany, Dan Cohen Student Ian, Alexander Owen Student Ollie, Nicola Millbank Student Daisy, Anthony Green John, Taylor Nelson-Morrison Campbell, Helen Anderson Mrs Baynes  

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13 Steps Down on ITV1 starring Luke Treadaway PREVIEW

Luke Treadaway, Anna Calder-Marshall, Gemma Jones, Geraldine James
Luke Treadaway, Anna Calder-Marshall, Gemma Jones, Geraldine James. Pics: ITV

Rating: ★★★★ 

ITV1: Monday, 13 August, 9pm

Story: Mix is a trainer-wearing, fitness-machine repairman who has sex with bored rich women and fantasises about the serial killer John Reginald Christie. He is also stalking a catwalk model, Nerissa Nash. His obsessive fantasy world eventually opens up his potential for real-life murder.

Great to see Ruth Rendell’s work back on prime time. The author behind the Wexford stories has a far more interesting and unsettling line in psychological whydunits, and 13 Steps Down is one of these.

It is a macabre journey in the company of Mix Cellini, young repairman and bit of a charmer, who at the same time is a loathsome creep. We first meet him visiting the site of what was once Rillington Place, the scene of the horrific murders of Mix’s hero, John Reginald Christie.

Elarica Gallacher as Nerissa Nash in 13 Steps Down
Stalker’s victim Nerissa

Mix Cellini is a stalker obsessed with serial killers
When Mix (Luke Treadaway) is not servicing fitness machines, he is servicing one or two bored rich women who own them. He rents a flat from Gwendolen Chawcer – a rather ‘irrational old bag’, as Geraldine James, who plays her, explains – and Mix’s place is packed with novels about serial killers.

His other obsession is a supermodel called Nerissa Nash (Elarica Gallacher), whom he stalks obsessively. His life spins into violence when a young woman he is sleeping with, Danila, criticises Nerissa while at Mix’s flat.

It’s a strange and compelling tale, with Mix’s neurosis mirroring the bitterness and delusions of his landlady, Gwen, who is sad and repellent at the same time. Add in Mix’s feeling that Christie is watching over him and you have an unsettling drama.

Luke Treadaway is compelling as Mix
Luke Treadaway, who we’ve seen in Attack the Block and Clash of the Titans, convincingly portrays Mix’s unnerving descent from reality, reaching a crisis in the second and final episode, in which he finally breaks the bubble of his fantasy world and approaches Nerissa. You feel a tinge of sadness for someone so out on their own.

Gemma Jones and Anna Calder-Marshall are wonderful as Gwen’s long-suffering friends, Olive and Queenie, who gradually become suspicious of her lodger.

Luke Treadaway and Victoria Bewick
Mix and Danila

Rendell is expert at pulling back the net curtains and revealing the madness and delusions of everyday life. Though the story feels a little shoehorned into just two episodes (it would have been interesting to know more of Mix’s background), this is still an engrossing thriller with a terrific gothic twist at the end.

Cast: Luke Treadaway Mix Cellini, Geraldine James Gwendolen, Elarica Gallacher Nerissa Nash, Gemma Jones Olive, Anna Calder-Marshall Queenie, Victoria Bewick Danila, Sam O’Mahony Darel, Maryam D’Abo Madame Odette, Laura Pyper Kayleigh, Ben Shafik Abba, Brian Bovell Tom

South Bank Show clip with Ruth Rendell talking about her novel

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