One recent Friday, along came Anatomy of a Scandal (streams on Netflix), an inelegantly told tale about a toff, a Tory member of the British Parliament, well-off and married, and accused of having an affair with a young female member of his staff. The media savours the case and even more so when the allegation is raised to that of rape of the young woman.
In a sort-of psychological thriller that becomes courtroom drama, the life of the MP, James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), is revealed to be entitled but full of lies, as his wife, Sophie (Sienna Miller), deals with a disintegrating family life, and the prosecuting QC, Kate (Michelle Dockery, from Downton Abbey), ups the ante in the legal case. There are flashbacks to the couple as they meet at the University of Oxford, where they both behaved rather badly.
And one week later, along came A Very British Scandal (streams on Prime Video) about the real and very bitter divorce battle in 1963 between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. In this one, everybody’s rich or has a title. The gist is the Duke, one Captain Ian Campbell (Paul Bettany), a much-married but cash-poor Scottish heir, marries the very rich socialite Margaret Sweeny (Claire Foy from The Crown), and burns through her fortune while she has many lovers and is known for her enthusiastic enjoyment of sex.
So here we have a pair of new dramas about the torrid antics of upper-class gentlemen and ladies who are nothing of the sort. That’s the secret sauce – a satisfaction viewers take in learning that, as they suspected, these entitled people lead lives more tawdry and sordid than most people do. In the opening credits for A Very British Scandal, we see snippets of headlines about the divorce from that year, and one is, “Such dirty linen in high places.” Well, quite.
It’s probably time to call a halt to these dramas, even if both under scrutiny here have some attempted measure of psychological or social insight. In Anatomy of a Scandal, there is the matter of what constitutes consent and what is rape. But the muddled storytelling leaves the victim behind. In A Very British Scandal, the point is that the Duchess was condemned by public opinion and the courts for enjoying sex with many men, something that would never have been thrown at the Duke.
The thing is, the real antics of the rich and powerful in Britain are already tawdry and hardly need embellishment. Never mind the badly behaving nobs; a case can be made that we need more about the brutal history of British colonialism for which they and their ancestors are responsible.
In the meantime, of the two dramas we’re talking about here, A Very British Scandal is by far the superior one. In three parts, it is taut and fraught, with a good blend of high comedy and low morals on show, and it sticks to the core story of the marriage that went spectacularly awry.
It opens with Margaret arriving in court for the divorce showdown and the Duke telling her he’s willing to stop the case so that Margaret “won’t be confronted with the evidence.” Then the story flips back to their initial meeting on a train, years before. That is the minimum time-shifting necessary and the series keep it minimal.
The two main characters are presented as complex individuals, but in different ways. Margaret is warned about Captain Campbell, specifically that he has lingering issues from his time as a PoW at the end of the Second World War. Also, that he’s a Duke but sitting on land and a castle in Scotland he can neither sell nor restore. And he knows all about her. She’s a famous socialite and, in their circle, her history of lovers is legendary. There’s a scene in which another woman tries to mock Margaret for the amount of sex she’s having. She refuses to be embarrassed, saying, “I like it very much and I’m extremely good at it.”
They are no sooner married than the Duke’s callousness is revealed. He just wants her money and tells her she’s there to pay the bills. He drinks too much and she begins scheming against his ex-wife. You feel for both of them, trapped as they are. But it is Margaret who anchors the drama as the woman who will become the target of private and public hate. Yes, we conclude, the very wealthy in Britain can be horrid to each other. But we knew that already and can move on now.
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