Mother-in-laws get a bad rap in fiction and this disturbing two-part drama, The Little House, (starting tonight on ITV1, 9pm) does nothing to improve their standing. Newlyweds Ruth (Lucy Griffiths, Robin Hood) and Patrick (Rupert Evans) are visiting his parents when it transpires that they want their darling (and unappealingly drippy) son and his pretty wife to move into a wisteria-wrapped cottage down the road. To close the deal, they’ve bought them the house. Only, there’s a problem; Ruth is a committed urbanite who loves her teaching job.
You’ll guess where this is going in the first five minutes as the family endure a stilted conversation around the dinner table, with Patrick’s mother Elizabeth (Francesca Annis) digging at her daughter-in-law. Annis is perfectly cast as interfering, neurotic and possibly unbalanced matriarch. And there’s even a scene that hint at her unnatural love for her only son, though it’s not on-the-nose incest like we’ve seen in Bouquet of Barbed Wire and Pillars of the Earth.
A few minutes on from the awkward family get together (at least in screen time) and the couple have shelved their doubts and relocated to their mortgage-free, countryside idyll spoilt only the proximity of the in-laws. Soon, Ruth is weighed down by depression and hallucinations. We know from the opening scene (a hazy flashback) that she was orphaned in a car crash so you suspect this past trauma is adding to her current condition. But, blazing in the foreground is another contributing factor: Patrick’s haughty, controlling mummy. The friction between the two women cranks up infuriatingly slowly as sweet Ruth usually opts to keep the peace rather than confront her aggressor. But she can’t keep calm indefinitely. For more on this, watch the second instalment next week.
To keep the slower scenes relevant, curious snippets of back-story surface. We discover, for instance, that there’s an absent, renegade daughter, the mention of whom makes Elizabeth’s jaw pulsate. What went on there, we wonder.
Tension in The Little House is cleverly eked out, but there are some irritatingly clichéd and semi-illogical turns – moments of mother-in-law-induced mayhem that would make most women in Ruth’s position sprint to the nearest solicitor’s office. And the concluding part builds to a copout, trashy ending that wouldn’t feel out of place on EastEnders. Incidentally, if you want to avoid finding out too much about the finale before it airs, switch off tonight before the spoiler-packed trailer at the end of episode one.