Marnie Dickens makes shows that get people talking. She did it in 2016 with Thirteen, the addictive BBC Three abduction drama that broke iPlayer records. This week, the writer returns with an equally shocking tale, Gold Digger, about an older woman swept off her feet by a younger man with seemingly nefarious intentions. “I hope everyone has a different opinion when they watch it,” says Dickens. “And I want people’s views to change. They might start out hating one character. Then, when they watch the episode that focuses on them, they’ll go, ‘Oh I see, that’s why they’re like that.’”
Dickens cut her teeth on Hollyoaks, moving on to Ripper Street and The Musketeers. Thirteen – starring a pre-Killing Eve Jodie Comer as abductee Ivy – showed she liked to take risks. “I was very keen that Thirteen wouldn’t be voyeuristic,” she says of the decision to home in on Ivy’s escape from her captor, rather than her experience as a prisoner. Besides, this was no straightforward victim/perpetrator tale. “It starts off as a story about a survivor,” says Dickens, “and becomes one about an unreliable narrator.”
A similar push-pull lies at the heart of Gold Digger. Julia, a wealthy, divorced mother of three, meets Benjamin, a suave, good-looking and – crucially – much younger man. The two embark on a whirlwind affair, much to the disgust and despair of Julia’s adult children.
Although Gold Digger has its own twists and turns, there are definite Doctor Foster parallels, from an attractive cast behaving very badly to its opulent interior design. And, like Foster, it also delves into universal themes. “We all have families and every single one has their own secrets and lies,” says Dickens. “More than that, we all have our own memories and versions of the same events. We rarely accept that we are wrong in those interpretations.”
Female sexuality and desire, particularly the way we deny them in older women, was another theme of her six-parter. “I wanted to look at what it means for a woman when she drops off the desirability scale for the rest of society. You haven’t actually gone away, it’s just that people stop looking. The key to Gold Digger is that Benjamin sees Julia. That’s such a big thing because her ex-husband has only seen her in terms of the marriage they made, and her kids can’t understand her as a sexual being.”
It helps, she admits, that the actors – Julia Ormond and Ben Barnes – have great chemistry. “You have to believe in their relationship, to think that it could be genuine, or else the premise doesn’t work. Julia is a very attractive woman in a very authentic way. You can see why he would notice her and be intrigued. The setting is important as well: it’s her birthday, she’s been let down by her kids, and they meet in the British Museum, where she used to work. He sees her as the person she used to be.”
Naturally, the story doesn’t unfold in the way you’d expect. It’s full of intrigue, too, much like one of Dickens’ favourite shows, Succession. “Initially,” she says of the HBO hit, “you think these are all terrible people, but your opinion changes. When I first watched, Tom was a weak, repellent man. By the end of the second series, he was breaking my heart. That’s what a good drama needs. It’s not enough to have adrenaline-driven plots. You need characters to take you on a journey. That’s what keeps you coming back each week.”
One thing Dickens doesn’t like is dramas that outstay their welcome: she was determined that Thirteen would only run for one series. “There are shows that ignore that and carry on. In some cases, they really shouldn’t.” Does she see Gold Digger in the same terms? There’s a pause. “It’s always hard for writers because, obviously, if people like your work and it does well, there is the temptation to keep going. Also, you become really attached to the characters. With Gold Digger, I hope people feel like its ending is true to that particular tale.”
• Gold Digger starts on BBC One at 9pm on 12 November.