After Netflix’s recent dirge Anatomy of a Scandal, I was hoping that Amazon Prime Video’s A Very British Scandal would serve up some actual scandal. Shock me! Make me gasp! What tawdry affairs might we see? Show me how depraved these rich people really are!
Despite excellent casts and one (British Scandal) being based on a true story, neither series has lived up to this potential. They each take themselves very, very seriously, which is a shame especially because A Very British Scandal’s forbearer, A Very English Scandal, had a nice touch of satire and whimsy to it that was grounded in a genuinely emotional story.
A Very British Scandal follows the (true) 1963 divorce of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (Claire Foy) and Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll (Paul Bettany). What rocked the tabloids at the time was the salacious nature of the divorce, which suggested that the Duchess had had multiple affairs, the evidence of which included a Polaroid photograph of her fellating a man whose face is not shown, but who is definitely not her husband.
What Sarah Phelps’ three-part series (originally released in the UK on BBC One, but hitting American shores on Prime Video) aims to do is give context to the person of Margaret, and repair her reputation while showing what an utter horror her husband was. But really, neither of them come off particularly well. Margaret is a rude liar and a manipulator, Ian is an abusive alcoholic and drug user. They get to know one another while he’s married and she’s going through a divorce, exchanging biting barbs that will turn acidic during their marriage. She’s the daughter of a millionaire, he inherits a castle. They smoke a ton.
In 2022, the charges brought against Margaret by her husband are certainly not very scandalous at all, and A Very British Scandal could have done more to show us who Margaret even is to make things more interesting. In these three episodes, we don’t get much of a sense of her, or her life before she met Ian. Yet neither seem particularly remarkable; both are overly confident, spoiled, and emotionally stunted from absentee parents (a cycle they perpetuate as well). The series loves showing us flashbacks, though, of Margaret once falling down an elevator shaft. We never find out how or why she fell 40 feet down an elevator shaft, nor anything about how apparently she was told she would never walk again, but is now fine. We never see her interact with her children, nor do we know what she wants other than an appreciation for Ian’s castle, which she paid to restore.
A Very British Scandal is ultimately as empty as the two empty people it focuses on, who are cruel to one another and present little to recommend them. Despite some attempt at feminist trappings by the script (particularly in a very wordy text coda after the final scene cuts off abruptly), Margaret is no hero. She is painted somewhat as a desperate woman who acts desperately, and there’s no mistaking Ian as anything other than a cold-hearted cad. But we’ve already seen Foy do all of this better, in the same ‘50s and ‘60s fashions, as a determined woman with a love of Scottish castles tangling with a feckless man with no discernible eyebrows in The Crown. And the comparisons to that show do this one no favors.
Perhaps worst of all, the show is simply not scandalous in the least. Both parties were supposedly having multiple affairs (we know, at least, that Margaret was involved in that photo shoot), but there is no hint of it whatsoever. Sex is hardly a force here; we see Margaret have a one-night stand after her first divorce but… good for her? Everyone talks a lot about her appetites (including her!) and her admirers and yet… there are none to be found (although the same is true for Ian who was supposedly a womanizer and he… mostly goes for walks or gets drunk and yells at Margaret?)
In the first episode, Margaret tells Ian to promise her that they will never bore one another in their marriage. He agrees, and I suppose they do keep to that. Unfortunately, A Very British Scandal is a dull, lifeless retelling that wants very badly to say something but—just like Anatomy of a Scandal—delivers little more than banal cruelty from the extremely wealth.
A Very British Scandal premieres Friday, April 22nd on Prime Video.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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