Rape or consent? TV drama tackling the most pungent issue of our age: JAN MOIR on Liar, ITV’s latest gripping series

  • Joanne Froggatt and Ioan Gruffudd star in show centred on a rape allegation
  • The drama explores gender politics set against the modern sexual landscape
  • Joanna says she nearly turned down the role after her Downton Abbey rape story

At first they seem like a dream couple, perhaps even made for each other. Teacher Laura has broken up with her childhood sweetheart and seems happy at the prospect of a new life without him.

Surgeon Andrew is a widower, a wearer of scrubs, a dutiful single dad. In their small town on the Kentish coast, she teaches his son at school, he works with her sister at the hospital.

There has always been a tremor of mutual attraction between them, for each is very far from being filed under undateable or dismissed as a loser.

The show centres on an allegation of rape made by Joanne Froggatt's character toward Ioan Gruffudd's?

The show centres on an allegation of rape made by Joanne Froggatt's character toward Ioan Gruffudd's?

She is blonde, pretty and intelligent, dedicated to her job. He is tall, dark and handsome, equally devoted to his job. So dinner sometime? Why not? Just another couple of alphas taking a bet on each other.

Soon there is red wine, romance and a walk home from the restaurant in the crisp night air. Yet back at her place afterwards, something terrible happens, something that will change their lives and those of their families forever – an accusation of date rape. Andrew says they had consensual sex, Laura says he raped her – but who is telling the truth?

The answer to that question will be reeled out over the next six weeks in Liar, ITV’s new drama series about gender politics and the aftershocks that blight the modern sexual landscape. Starring Joanne Froggatt as Laura Newell and Ioan Gruffudd as Andrew Earlham, each one-hour episode of Liar attempts to peel back the smears and deceit in an emotional exploration of consent, sexual violence and rape accusers.

Last night’s first episode left viewers unsure of whom to believe, as both versions of events seem equally plausible. Laura can’t quite remember what happened but she does not waver in her belief that it did happen. She tells the police: ‘I wasn’t drunk. I remember coming into the bedroom, I remember him pushing me down and I remember as clear as anything I told him to stop.’

Joanne says her rape story line in Downton Abbey nearly cause her to turn down her Liar role

Joanne says her rape story line in Downton Abbey nearly cause her to turn down her Liar role

Andrew is equally vehement that he behaved like a gentleman throughout. Did he force himself upon her? ‘God no! If I thought for one second that she didn’t want to sleep with me...’ he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

Liar is created by Harry and Jack Williams, the producer and screenwriter brothers who also made the hugely popular television series, The Missing. They have been extremely clever to set their new drama in a middle class milieu, where both protagonists are attractive and desirable professionals apparently in control of their ordered, crime-free lives.

The series is shot in Deal, where Laura and Andrew live in equally ravishing properties decorated in fetching oceanic shades. He roars around in a sports car, she relaxes by skimming through the waterways in a kayak. They are known to each other, they have friends in common, their lives are already enmeshed. It might seem an unlikely scenario for a drama about sexual violence, but statistics show that women are far more likely to be attacked by someone they know, than a stranger hiding in a dark alley.

The surgeon and teacher enjoy a romantic meal before the date ends in an allegation of rape

The surgeon and teacher enjoy a romantic meal before the date ends in an allegation of rape

Of course, Joanne Froggatt is best known for playing lady’s maid Anna Bates in Downton Abbey, a character who was raped by a valet in one dramatic storyline. Justice was dispensed back then when Anna – or was it her husband? – took the law into their own hands. In Liar there are no easy solutions. Laura initially seeks revenge by posting details of her perception of the rape on Andrew’s social media pages. This impulsive act exposes him to online ridicule and abuse – but also herself. ‘Laura doesn’t always make the right decisions, she is flawed,’ said Froggatt in a recent interview.

Rape and consent are some of the most pungent issues of our Tinder-dating age, subjects that always create huge interest and explosive headlines. Look at Julian Assange, who still chooses to hide in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, rather than face charges of sexual assault in Sweden. Elsewhere it took two trials to find footballer Ched Evans not guilty of raping a 19-year-old woman in a hotel room in Wales, a girl who was initially deemed too drunk to consent.

And in the popular soap Emmerdale, a recent storyline had one character jailed for the rape of his ex-wife – although crime research suggests that most wife rapes go unreported. Even if they do go to court, guilty verdicts are rare. As Laura gets angrier and angrier in Liar, she quotes a statistic used by the Rape Crisis charity which states that of 85,000 rapes of women in England and Wales every year, only 5.7 per cent result in a conviction. (Partly because only 15 per cent of women, claim the charity, will report rape to the police in the first place.)

Liar explores gender identity as teacher Laura accuses surgeon and widower Andrew of rape

Liar explores gender identity as teacher Laura accuses surgeon and widower Andrew of rape

Last year, Crown Prosecution Service statistics reported a rise in rape referrals from the police of 11.3 per cent (6,855 referrals), a rise in prosecutions (4,643) and also in convictions (2,689). These conviction rates, claims DPP Alison Saunders, are the highest ever.

There has been progress, but clearly there is still room for improvement when it comes to extracting justice for victims. Yet as Laura’s case begins to unfold and Andrew’s dark past unfurls, the messiness of life begins to intrude on any clarity of this situation. ‘It all happened in a blur,’ says Laura, who then gets furious when the police ask her how much she had to drink. There also are hints of mental health problems in her past.

‘They will look at my medical history and call me a hysterical madwoman telling lies about their hero surgeon,’ she fumes – and it is hard to argue with her thesis. Meanwhile ambiguous Andrew shimmers around town with a frown on his giant brow, his gaze a pool of horror, his scalpel hand beginning to shake.

After a romantic walk following their meal, the pair go back to Laura's, where he claims they have consensual sex and she says she was raped

After a romantic walk following their meal, the pair go back to Laura's, where he claims they have consensual sex and she says she was raped

Thankfully in this instance the truth will come out, but surely the private nature of rape or a rape accusation is part of the problem in real life? There are rarely any witnesses, in circumstances that are open to interpretation by judge and jury.

For most cases of sexual assault, it all boils down to one person’s word against another in open court. Who is to be believed? And who is to be believed here?

Liar depicts the complications and feints quite brilliantly. Laura has no bruising and no drugs in her system (she claims Andrew put something in her wine). He has no scratches on his face or body and no reason to attack her in the first place.

Throughout last night’s drama, Laura became easy to dislike and was made to look as unattractive as possible. She oscillates with rage, she shouts at the police, she scrapes her hair back, revealing a little tortoise face set hard against the storm.

However, it is hard to believe that any contemporary drama about rape will not depict the woman accuser as the victim rather than the fantasist. Or that any television company would broadcast anything to discourage women from reporting an attack. But Liar is layered and already surprising. Perhaps the truth is that the truth can be interpreted in different ways and that there really are two sides to every story.

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Writing brothers star on BBC and ITV at the same time as their new dramas Rellik and Liar get underway... so they agree to spend the evening in the pub?

Most TV drama writers are desperate to tune in when a programme they’ve created eventually gets broadcast.

But the decision of what to watch was far less simple for co-writing brothers Jack and Harry Williams last night.

The pair had two new series going head-to-head in the prime time ratings – so rather than choose which one to watch live, they agreed to spend the evening in the pub.

Rellik aired at 9pm on BBC1, while Liar premiered on ITV at the same time. And to make the stakes even higher, both programmes are thrillers.?

Rather than choose which of their series to watch live, Harry and Jack Williams have chosen to spend the night in the pub

Rather than choose which of their series to watch live, Harry and Jack Williams have chosen to spend the night in the pub

Rellik – the title is ‘killer’ backwards – is the story of a serial murderer, starting at the end and telling the tale in reverse.

Meanwhile, Liar is a psychological thriller about rape. It leaves viewers to pick sides after a handsome surgeon and a newly-single English teacher have sex but offer very different accounts of the event.?

Jack Williams – the 38-year-old elder brother – was optimistic both dramas will be successful, saying: ‘Hopefully they will attract a slightly different audience. Rellik is much darker.’.

But unable to decide which to watch themselves, the pair, who also created BBC drama The Missing, decided to retreat to the bar. Harry, 35, said: ‘I think we’re going to go to the pub and pretend it’s not happening. Follow one each via Twitter.’

Both brothers say the double launch has been a painful experience. ‘I think having one show go out is stressful enough. Having both go out the same week is the ultimate torture,’ Jack told The Times.

The brothers – whose father Nigel Williams is also a screenwriter, and whose mother Suzan Harrison and third brother Ned are both television producers – did not have much choice in the matter.

BBC1 shows often get the bigger ratings. But last night speculation was mounting that ITV’s Liar could prove the bigger draw, as viewers tune in to watch former Downton Abbey actress Joanne Froggatt play the English teacher.?

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