The Little House is big on heartache

The Little House (UTV)Panorama: What have the drugs done to dad? (BBC1)

My sympathies lie with any woman unfortunate enough to watch last night's The Little House in the company of her mother-in-law. I imagine a graphic sex scene would have made more comfortable group viewing.

The first of the two-part series probed the often awkward dynamic and silent power struggle between the key matriarchs with acute observation, and there isn't a daughter -- or mother-in-law in the land who wouldn't identify with the interfering ways that were mirrored back at them.

The drama follows recently married couple, Ruth and Patrick. Patrick's plummy-toned parents live in blissful retirement in the wilds of the English countryside.

They have just bought a cottage on their land and mother dearest (the always impressive Francesca Annis) has designs on the couple moving in and bringing up their not-even-born-yet children on her doorstep.

Ruth, already overwhelmed by her in-law's interference, makes it clear that she has no plans on "living the good life just yet". Alas, she falls unexpectedly pregnant and her plans for a life sans in-laws falls apart.

After a complicated birth, Ruth finds it difficult to bond with her son, who she thinks prefers his grandmother. Meanwhile, mother dearest is bonding with newborn Thomas, while killing Ruth with kindness.

She takes to decorating the house and preparing dinner in her absence. The only suggestion that she is more than an overbearing grandmother is provided by the suspense-building music.

But, just as you begin to cast aspersions on the grandmother, Ruth starts to have delusional episodes. She is referred to a doctor who diagnoses her with post-partum psychosis. When Thomas is found with a cigarette burn on his body, the family decide to send Ruth to an institution.

The Little House has echoes of The Turn of the Screw -- just as you form an allegiance the plot unfolds even further.

The suspense is built around nuance. The jagged camera angles create a sense of an unravelling mind. The isolation and claustrophobia of the countryside is evoked by vast expanses of forest-scape.

Kudos to the director of photography who even managed to make Christmas Day in the countryside feel like a stint in prison.

The slick plot is owed to Philippa Gregory, who penned the best-selling novel on which it is based. However, Ed Whitmore delivered a near-perfect adaptation. Like the book, the television version leaves you second-guessing from start to finish.

The superb casting added to the intrigue. I cannot think of an actress better equipped than Francesca Annis to play the grandmother. Her elegant mien and soft features belie the simmering machinations of the character.

Likewise, Lucy Griffith's (Ruth's) almost cherubic features are in stark contrast to the brutality of which she is apparently capable.

The genius of The Little House is the niggling doubt. Is Ruth descending into madness or is her mother-in-law plotting her demise?

Clearly one of them is mad: is it the chain-smoking young mother who has been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, or the perpetually cheery grandmother who probably irons and starches her pyjamas? One thing is for sure: the finale is guaranteed to deliver.

Panorama also looked at the use of anti-psychotic drugs last night. The team investigated the over-prescribing of such drugs to calm dementia patients in British care homes.

According to the researchers, the drugs are not licenced or recommended for dementia patients. How sad that families who have already lost loved ones piece by piece saw those last semblances of sanity snatched by drugs that they should not have been prescribed.

"I share their anger," said the Minister for Care Services. We all do.


The Little House ****

Panorama: What have the drugs done to dad? ****