Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is an excellent BBC made-for-television film. Based on the autobiographical novel by Jeanette Winterson, this is one of the rare instances when the film adaptation is better than the book. This bildungsroman follows the childhood and adolescence of Jess (Charlotte Coleman), who is adopted and raised by a Christian evangelical woman (Geraldine McEwan) in Northern England in the 50s and 60s.
While the novel is dark at times, the film captures the bizarre moments of Jess’s childhood. Even as a small child, she’s dragged off to church meetings with the adults, and since Jess tends to take some of the dire parts of religion quite literally, there are moments of humour here. Jess’s adoptive mother is an unbending, relentless woman who raises Jess with scant attention to her childhood needs, but instead hopes she’ll be a missionary. She keeps Jess from school because it’s a “breeding ground” and this is an idea that Jess repeats without having the slightest idea of what it means.
The evangelical crowd Jess and her mother socialize with are largely a nice, well-intended, misguided group, but Jess’s mother is the most fervent, the most fanatical of the bunch. Their preacher, Pastor Finch (Kenneth Cranham) misuses his authority to pass cruel judgments on “his flock” if they dare question established hierarchy. When Jess falls in love with another girl, the preacher tries “casting out” the devil within, and these scenes capture the frightening, suffocating authoritarianism of the preacher’s unreasonable, misguided and cruel rule. Whereas the novel accentuates the mythic element of the tale, the film is rife with sardonic, black humour.