The novel Anatomy of a Scandal was written by former political correspondent Sarah Vaughan some five years ago – ancient history by the fast-moving standards of contemporary life and British politics. Dismayingly, however, its story of abused privilege and sexual misconduct has only become more relevant in the wake of further #MeToo revelations and a pandemic that has exposed a litany of hypocrisy among the political elite, from gold wallpaper in Downing Street and lockdown parties to MPs’ extramarital liaisons.
Fitting, then, that it has now become a six-part Netflix series, adapted by David E Kelley and Melissa James Gibson from Vaughn’s novel, which was itself inspired by Boris Johnson’s 2004 sacking from the cabinet – for lying about an affair – and his insouciant response.
The series follows junior minister James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), a coming man in the Conservative party and an intimate acquaintance of the prime minister since their days at Oxford university and the raucous and exclusively male Libertine Club (a barely disguised replica of Johnson’s beloved Bullingdon ). The revelation of an affair with his aide Olivia (Naomi Scott) jolts Whitehouse’s marriage to the dutiful Sophie (Sienna Miller) but, he assumes, will present a mere blip in his inevitable acceptance into the cabinet. However, Olivia makes an allegation of rape and a campaigning QC takes her case. For the first time, the mantra the MP has lived by and has instilled in his children – “Whitehouses always come out on top” – looks less certain.
Whereas Miller was quick to join the production, Friend was more reluctant. “It deals with a section of society, with its notions of birthright and noblesse oblige, that I find very difficult to engage with,” he explains. “I turned it down twice.” It was series director SJ Clarkson who eventually talked him into it. “She threw down a gauntlet: how do we humanize someone who has walked through life thinking they have not ever done anything wrong? That is a trait we can all see in our leaders. ”
Friend’s performance is eerily plausible. His Whitehouse is charismatic and smoothly persuasive, his eloquence barely concealing his arrogance, and he is hotly indignant when challenged. “James has won the whole way through his life,” notes the actor. “Why on earth would he stop and ask: what am I doing? He’s got it all. It became an irresistible challenge. ”
Equally strong is Miller as Sophie, who is forced for the first time to examine her own cosseted way of life and the principles she has sacrificed to preserve it. Again, the character’s privilege both repelled and attracted the actress.
“She is not necessarily the kind of character that I’m normally drawn to, but that awakening was what really compelled me to do it,” says Miller. “She has been raised in a world where things were pretty easy for her, where it’s a given that you will succeed and marry the good-looking guy who will go on and be a huge success. She’s complicit because she’s allowed it and probably enjoyed it in moments, although she really does not like herself for it. She has to rethink her myopic view of the world. ”
Miller was further intrigued by the superficial similarities in the script to an earlier period in her own life. In 2005, her then fiancé, the actor Jude Law, admitted to having an affair with the nanny caring for his children from a previous relationship, and the story became front-page news. Miller was later a victim of the News of the World’s phone hacking and was awarded damages in 2011.
“Sophie is catapulted into a very public situation regarding her husband’s infidelity, which is something I’ve had to experience. A lot of it was uncomfortably close, the press intrusion and all that side of things, although her response to those circumstances was the polar opposite to mine, ”says Miller, who, unlike Sophie, did not publicly stand by her partner. “In this moment where we are questioning a lot of things – not just around privilege but also around consent – it feels more and more relevant.”
The crimes of Harvey Weinstein and others exposed by #MeToo have, Friend and Miller say, resulted in improvements in their industry, from the ubiquity of “intimacy co-ordinators” (special directors for on-screen sex scenes) to the growing number of women in senior creative positions. It reflects a generational shift, which the series highlights in arresting fashion, with Sophie positing the theory that “men were guilty of selfish exuberance, women of failure to communicate”.
“I always loved that line – that sometimes it was just easier to acquire,” says Miller. “I got yelled at by Harvey Weinstein [producer of her 2006 film Factory Girl] and, although he never tried anything remotely sexual with me, there were moments of discomfort or inferiority because of your gender. Moments where you just thought: God forbid you offend a man’s ego by rejecting them. Even though you did not really want to be somewhere, you sort of had to. ”
She says the past few years have brought welcome change. “I feel emboldened now to ask for things in a way that I would not have before, because I was just grateful to be working or being in a room. . . I’m in awe of the younger generations, because I do not think we really had that language when I was growing up. ”
Of course, the battle against sexual discrimination is far from over, and it has been joined by a new one: the war against disinformation. Truth is now deemed by some to be a mere matter of perspective. The opportunity to explore this through the fractured nature of memory was irresistible for Clarkson, no newcomer to depicting out-of-touch opulence, having worked on HBO’s Succession.
“We might remember the champagne popping and somebody flaunting their member around at the end of the table,” she says, referring to scenes that flash back to the Libertine Club. “But we do not necessarily remember every single moment of any given night. I wanted to get that hazy feel: vivid and visceral, but fragmented too. ”
Clarkson also works hard to generate narrative dynamism through the lengthy trial scenes, representing various timelines and perspectives through mirroring motifs that comment on a dangerous absence of self-reflection among those in positions of power. Kelley was sufficiently impressed to tell Clarkson he intended to steal from her in the future – no small compliment from a veteran of defining TV legal dramas LA Law, Ally McBeal and The Undoing.
Gibson, meanwhile, was responsible for many episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards, an even more disheartening dissection of both a failing marriage and a corrupt political system. As a Canadian, she found scrutinizing the British establishment a chastening experience, though she is admirably diplomatic.
“Sometimes positions seemed a little more fixed [in the UK] than one is raised to believe is the case [in Canada], ”She says. “But we’re living in a time when all of that is being called into question, even with the royal tour of the caribbean [which faced a backlash in March]. Although there are rays of light, the fact that objective truth as a notion is still controversial is deeply disturbing. ”
Miller puts her feelings rather more plainly: “Just as they were in Cameron’s government, many in [the current UK] government are libertines with this sense that they abide by their own rules. I’m not saying Anatomy of a Scandal is going to save British politics, but it could cause people to question it. That’s how we effect change. Hopefully some politicians will watch it and have a good long look in the mirror. ”
She laughs drily. “But I doubt it.”
On Netflix from April 15
Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first