‘A Very British Scandal’, fancy soap, or that’s what an author is

Bettany and Foy in A Very British Scandal.

Anyone who’s done an arts degree will at some point have found themselves cornered by a post-teen as they enthusiastically exit their class on post-structuralism, to excitedly present you with your very own copy of Foucault’s, ahem, seminal essay, What is an author

Which, if you take the trouble to read, you’ll be quietly flummoxed by, as you try to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Fortunately, we’ve all grown up and moved on from that. And similarly, you rarely hear anyone these days referring to the so-called auteur theory. Which is just as well, as it doesn’t exist – try ordering a copy for yourself. 

A Very English Scandal.

What there was was an essay by Francois Truffaut published in a 1954 edition of the Cahiers du Cinema, titled A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. There, he simply said that, given that, obviously, the author of a film is its director, the study of cinema ought to be organised around a pantheon of great directors. And that the least successful film by a great director was always more interesting than the best film from a mediocre film maker. 

Today, the general consensus is that cinema, again obviously, is a director’s medium. But that television is a writer’s medium. Which brings us to A Very British Scandal

You’d be forgiven for imagining that this were a sequel to A Very English Scandal, from 2018. As, clearly, this is exactly what the BBC and its producers want you to think. But it isn’t. 

A Very English Scandal was written by Russell T Davies, who’s one of, if not the most talented writer on these shores. He came to prominence with Queer as Folk, which he made for Channel 4 between 1999-2000, and for then re-invigorating Dr. Who for the BBC, which he did as its showrunner between 2005-10.

But it was with A Very English Scandal, for the BBC in 2018 (reviewed earlier by me here), and It’s a Sin, for Channel 4 in 2020, that Russel got to demonstrate quite how gifted a writer he is. 

It’s a Sin.

And the problem with A Very British Scandal is that Russel had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was written instead by Sarah Phelps, who spent most of her career as a senior scriptwriter on EastEnders

So if all you are looking for is the BBC’s answer to The Crown, this is the show for you. It’s plush and incredibly fancy soap, where the sumptuous budget has been spent on costumes and locations rather than on script or story. 

And in fairness, so impressive are the central performances from Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, who manage miraculously to make two extraordinarily unpleasant individuals appear almost sympathetic, that’s it’s easy to momentarily get lost in the frocks and stately homes. 

But it’s impossible not to compare the two series if you’ve seen them both. And where A Very English Scandal is fleet of foot, dripping with irony and constantly surprising, A Very British Scandal is leaden, pedestrian and entirely, indeed consistently predictable. That’s the difference a real writer makes. And that’s what an author is. 

Still, that distinction seems to have completely eluded our friends from across the water, if the reviews in The Guardian and The Independent are anything to go by. So bully for them. They got away with it. 

So if you want to escape the real world and wash it all away with beautifully packaged and incredibly expensive soap, by all means enjoy A Very British Scandal. But if instead you’re inclined to fire up those cerebral synapses, get yourself a copy of A Very English Scandal and wallow in its decadent joie de vivre.

Here’s the trailer to A Very English Scandal:

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Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal”

A Very English Scandal.

There’s a wonderfully seductive and darkly comic drama available on the BBC and RTE at the moment which delves into sexual mores and politics in a refreshingly mature manner. A Very English Scandal is a dramatization of the non-fiction book of the same name by John Preston, charting the Jeremy Thorpe affair of the 1970s. 

Very much of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up variety, and, without giving anything away, it’s the story of the leader of the Liberal Party in Britain at a time when there was a real possibility that they might have ended up in government there. 

Inconveniently though, one of his former male, ahem, friends refuses to leave him in peace, and so he decides to take definitive and decidedly drastic action.

Ben Whishaw, left, as Norman Scott, right.

I have to confess, the idea of watching a drama revolving around a forgotten leader of a defunct British political party from the 1970s, and starring Hugh Grant, was about as appealing as, well, watching a drama about a forgotten British politician from the 1970s. And I gave it a wide berth first time around. So I’m really pleased to have caught it this time round as it is, as one of its characters might have put it, an absolute hoot.

There are all sorts of reasons as to why it all works so well. For starters, and very surprisingly, Grant gives a career-defining performance as the brilliant, driven if flawed Thorpe. Then there’s the tone it strikes. Pretty much everyone involved seems to have been some class of an eccentric. But instead of playing this for laughs, showrunner Russell T. Davies and director Stephen Frears play it largely straight. Which, of course, makes it all the more comedic.

Then there are the various subplots which complicate the central plot, broaden the story’s horizons and add layers of enveloping irony. Thorpe’s search for a wife, and then for her replacement. His support, as a staunch Liberal, for the bill to have homosexuality decriminalised. And his rise through the Liberal Party and up the greasy pole of British politics, and the politics of party politics that that creates.

Normal People, lovely view.

The contrast with Normal People couldn’t be starker. The latter takes a two hander, bereft of subplots, and tries forlornly to stretch it out over a never-ending six hours. So it’s forced to paper over the dearth of plot with an over-reliance on familiar and exotic locations.

A Very English Scandal also makes wonderful use of its locations, but they are never anything more than the backdrop to a wonderfully dynamic story that’s constantly building in momentum. And the fact that its events are both true and accurately recounted only makes the series all the more remarkable.

You can see the trailer for A Very English Scandal here.

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