Last June, during the snatch of summer between crashing Covid-19 waves, the Tory MP Matt Hancock was caught on CCTV kissing his aid – both of them married with children – while in his office. The footage of the rendezvous, which was leaked to The Sunand then subsequently made its way onto social media, was consumed by the nation as though it was the teaser for a Channel 4 drama in which the casting director has opted for ordinary-looking actors to lend the series a sense of realism.
This week sees the arrival of exactly such sort of drama with Anatomy of a Scandal, but contrary to what viewers might be thinking while watching, or Googling in the hours afterwards, the show is a fiction, in fact based on the 2018 novel by Sarah Vaughan. Still, Netflix’s six-part adaptation intentionally taps into the very real outrage at the litany of scandals that have dogged the Conservative party of late. The drip-feed of Partygate revelations about a suitcase of wine being wheeled into Number 10 on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral, or the breaking of young Wilf Johnson’s swing by a plastered government employee.
Anatomy of a Scandal thankfully does not attempt to better these sordid details, likely knowing that in a fictional story they would stretch the limits of credulity. Instead the story brings us into the lavish world of Tory MP James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) and his wife Sophie (Sienna Miller), their jolly Labrador and wholesome children (one of each, of course). This world begins to unravel as James’s affair with a young aide Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott) is revealed, before she accuses him of raping her in a lift inside the halls of Westminster. What follows is a courtroom drama in which the life of prosecution lawyer Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery) becomes entangled with the story, and a series of flashbacks from the past lead us to a big reveal.
The show comes from prestige TV pedigree: written and produced by Big Little Lies creator David E Kelley, as well as House of Cards show-runner Melissa James Gibson, and feels especially engineered toward our moment of peak Tory sleaze. Anatomy of Scandal arrives in the week that the Prime Minister and his wife, as well as the Chancellor, have been issued with fines for attending parties while the rest of the country was locked indoors. Enjoying a forbidden Colin the Caterpillar cake and sexual assault are clearly not on the same spectrum, but the shambolic sleaze of the current government, and their culture of dishonestly and air of entitlement, are written all over Anatomy of a Scandalit’s just a shame the fiction fails to live up to our disgraceful reality.
This is all the more disappointing given how the small screen is crying out for something, anything!, that isn’t based on a true and familiar story and instead offers some escapism. At a time when real news scandals have swallowed television whole – see: Inventing Anna, Pam and Tommy, WeCrashed, The Dropout, and seemingly everything streaming this year – ANatomy of a Scandal feels like fiction that hopes it will be confused for history.
In many aspects, not least in name, the drama is similar to the BBC’s A Very English Scandal and A Very British Scandal, series in which actors like Paul Bettany and Ben Whishaw played real disgraced figures from British history. Instead, ANatomy of a Scandal author Vaughan in part based James Whitehouse on Boris Johnson, telling TheTimes, “What really struck me was that he didn’t have any compunction about lying. It was very clear that he had a very different moral compass, that he was playing by different rules.”
The endless boarding school exploits, shameless expenses scandals, and stories of Tory MPs either sexually harassing women or voting against bills that protect them, mean that these type of men all blend into one. Similarly, James Whitehouse feels like a bland amalgamation of all these figures; the chaps of whom group photographs go viral because it’s impossible to tell them apart. Perhaps it is a testament to how much worse things have become since Vaughan wrote the book – before Johnson was even Prime Minister – but the writing longs for something vivid and unpredictable to make anyone in it feel memorable.
Furthermore, Anatomy of a Scandal’s narrative hinges on the secret of what actually happened in the lift between James and Olivia, as he repeatedly claims it was consensual while she affirms she was assaulted. The show appears to be criticizing the high stakes “he said, she said” that these trials morph into, and yet as in HBO’s The Undoing, it feels as though it’s turning the supposed gray areas of consent into a cheap narrative trick to sustain our attention and keep us guessing. One minute Olivia is a credible victim, the next her words from her sound ridiculous, as though consent is a mere matter of perspective. This means that these series have the unfortunate structure of leading toward a climax of finding out whether or not a woman was lying as the big reveal.
Perhaps most resoundingly, Anatomy of a Scandal feels so slavishly chained to the type of people it is trying to skewer that it doesn’t have anything new to say. Our stranger-than-fiction reality might be hard to match, but television that feels more boring than the news ought to be better at using its imagination.
‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is on Netflix now
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