“Who loves me most?” asks an old man, his cheekbones so high and pale they bring to mind the white cliffs of Dover on a cold winter’s morning. Around him at the breakfast table sit four pug-like women, their pretty faces quite squashed with envy, avarice and fear. Who are these people? Are we watching some modish update of King Lear? You might think so, but you would be wrong.
In fact, this is Trust, a new ten-part series about that 20th century Croesus, Jean Paul Getty, whose grief for his son and heir – druggy George has just stabbed himself to death with a barbecue fork – manifests itself not one bit as he peers at the front page of the Times. The women, meanwhile, comprise his live-in harem. No wonder they look trembly, overbred.
Which of his remaining sons is fit to replace the ill-fated George? The answer is: none of them. “Perfumed fucking wasters,” he shouts, pondering his options. A grandson, John Paul Getty Jr, young and lithe and exuding a certain disingenuous enthusiasm, seems like a good idea for a while, but it isn’t long before he’s on a plane back to Italy, grandpa having discovered that he likes drugs almost as much as his daddy, John Paul Getty II. This is a disappointment, of course, but Getty is able to distract himself with an injection to his penis – it’s 1973, and Viagra is not yet available, even to billionaires – that leaves him looking nothing less than “magnificent” down below. If he thinks for a second of his grandson, now heading towards Italian criminals to whom he owes a lot of money, he gives no sign – or at any rate, none that is audible above the groans he emits while servicing the evening’s chosen female.
Do I like Trust, which aims to tell – again – the story of how John Paul Getty Jr came to lose his ear (9pm, 12 September)? Yes, I do. Mightily. Written with smooth wit by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), and directed with under-the-radar flamboyance by Danny Boyle, it is everything a ten-part series about badly behaved rich people should be: silly, salacious and yet deadly serious. I sensed a certain wacky commitment on the part of its producers in the opening scene, a gardener piling high a load of gassed moles on the lawn at Getty’s Surrey stately home, Sutton Place. And sure enough, an hour later the first episode drew to a close with Getty’s butler wearily scooping up a load of lion shit (Getty’s latest acquisition is a big cat called Theresa) into which he then stuck a small figurine of his employer, purloined from the architect’s model of the museum Getty is constructing. Nice work. After all, in the matter of a family as preposterous as the Gettys, there’s no point being a Scrooge when it comes to symbolism.
The acting ranges from decorative (Sophie Winkleman as the member of the harem who’s known as Margot looks great in her little black dresses) to super-competent (Anna Chancellor, who plays Getty’s mistress-in-chief, Penelope Kitson, certainly makes the most of her pearls and court shoes), with the notable exception of Donald Sutherland, who wears Getty’s cruelty like a skin. Wow. After a while, you start to experience dread even when he’s only innocently washing his socks in his dressing room (though Beaufoy may have made a bit too much of this habit; surely the old miser only set to work with the Woolite when he wanted to avoid laundry bills). Please don’t open that dressing gown, you think, as he approaches in burgundy silk. Money and Geo F Trumper’s extract of lime. Seriously, you can almost smell him.
Hugo Blick’s new drama, Black Earth Rising (9pm, 10 September), stars Harriet Walter as Eve Ashby, an international prosecutor, and Michaela Coel as Kate, her adopted daughter and a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. It’s somewhat neat that Eve’s latest case involves a Tutsi warlord; Kate is furious she has taken the job, believing he’s one of those who helped bring the genocide to an end. But I also think this series will only reveal itself as bad or brilliant some weeks hence. In the meantime, then, off we go, into the labyrinth. These two women are great, and for now, I’m perfectly happy to follow them.
Trust (BBC Two)
Black Earth Rising (BBC Two)
This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism