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The impossible ideals of the British middle class: why Doctor Foster is gripping the nation

It is fairly rare when a TV drama concerning entirely domestic issues such as marital cheating and lying to your spouse looks more like a noir-ish thriller complete with overblown paranoia, obsession, suspense and mind games.

The hit BBC drama Doctor Foster’s titular character (played by Suranne Jones) is a well-respected GP living with her husband and teenage son in a nice house in Parminster, a fictional town near London.

Dr Foster’s dastardly husband, Simon, played by Bertie Carvel. BBC, Author provided

In the first series this middle-class idyll is destroyed when Gemma discovers that husband Simon (Bertie Carvel) has been cheating with a much younger woman, Kate (Jodie Comer), the daughter of friends. Worse – he is a chronic liar, denying everything when confronted with proof of his cheating.

In series two, the now ex-husband returns to Parminster after two years away forming his new family; he now lives in a huge house, owns a flashy car and has a good job managing a new office development. He is also scheming to take away their son and oust Gemma from Parminster.

Middle-class horror story

It is interesting to see how the show’s creator, playwright Mike Bartlett, forces the psychological, the internal, the hidden, the shameful and the taboo into the open. Doctor Foster has an almost Hitchcockian sensibility, mostly achieved by subjective camerawork and noir lighting. We see what the characters see, and as a result we feel their fear, their anger and their pain.

Dr Foster has classic elements of Hitchcock – obsession, suspense, anxiety, fear – and a good dollop of Gothic melodrama too. CC BY-SA

We become Gemma when, in series two’s third episode, we see her spying on her son from the garden at his father’s house, watching him reject her phone call. We follow Kate’s gaze when she finds the handwritten envelope containing Simon’s tie on her doorstep. The camera becomes the character’s extension; it is limited and biased, allowing the viewers to introject the passions happening on screen as well as to project their own experiences of rejection, paranoia, jealousy and revenge on to the characters.

The real sense of horror and suspense, however, comes from the interplay between the private and the public, the hidden and the discovered in a world in which the nuclear middle-class family is the ideal form of human co-habitation.

The ideal middle-class family is very neat: the parents are moderately affluent, with good jobs, decent, faithful, not showing strong feelings in public; the children are sociable and successful. The middle class was truly born with capitalist modernity, and this picture of the bourgeois bliss was based on the Enlightenment vision of the subject as rational, civilised, professional and capable of taming his or her passions. It still informs our behaviour today.

A family in turmoil

This picture of the Foster family is the total opposite. In series one Gemma almost loses her job because she is unable to separate her emotions from her professional life. Her judgement is often clouded and she acts on impulse, without bothering to hide her emotions or provide rational explanations for her behaviour.

She does not self-reflect or learn from her mistakes. When she is not in control, she will do anything to regain the upper hand, including stalking and confrontation. For instance, using a dinner party to expose Simon’s cheating in front of his lover’s family.

The Fosters’ son Tom (played by Tom Taylor) is deeply affected by the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and their appalling behaviour to one another. BBC, Author provided

Meanwhile, Simon is a bully, a liar and a conman. His and Gemma’s relationship is blighted not only by infidelity but by physical violence and emotional abuse. At one point their son Tom (Tom Taylor), in series two, is on the verge of being expelled from school for displaying sexual violence towards a girl as well as beating up his classmate.

The horror of dismantling the rational bourgeois individual permeates Doctor Foster: everyone who looks nice and decent on the outside is soon shown to be deceitful or incapable of controlling basic impulses.

The house – the container of the nuclear family – is often portrayed as a Gothic place, a place of horror – creepy, empty or dark. Everyone in Parminster seems to be harbouring a dark secret, from an alcoholic GP to the neighbours whose marriage is a sham thanks to his cheating and her condoning of it.

The fall of the perfect woman

What makes matters complicated for Gemma is, of course, the fact that she is female and therefore particularly required to sustain the middle-class ideal. Instead, she is repeatedly undoing it, forgetting to keep a stiff upper lip. Her emotional life is constantly on display – something fitting for Jeremy Kyle Show guests, perhaps, but not for a female professional – particularly a doctor.

Undone by her husband’s infidelity, Gemma (played by Suranne Jones) will not conform to society’s image of a nice middle-class lady doctor. BBC, Author provided

Gemma is supposed to be contained, content, solemn. When this emotional earthquake strikes, she is meant to accept her fate and move on. A middle-class woman does not retaliate, or lower herself to stalking her ex-husband and his new wife, does not fail as a mother, and does not engage in scandalous public behaviour such as getting drunk or gatecrashing her ex’s wedding. In other words, she would not do anything that would compromise her social status.

When repressed and hidden from public view, emotions and impulses do not disappear – they fester until they find a way of manifesting themselves in the most embarrassing situations.

These moments become the source of shame and fear – but also of horror and suspense, which makes for great drama. Doctor Foster is addictive viewing precisely because we know how impossible the standards of the middle-class ideal are, and how many of us fail to live up to them.

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