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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!