Claire Foy won our hearts, and an Emmy, as the brave young Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of ‘The Crown’. She returns to the small screen on Friday in a nasty case called “A Very British Scandal” on Amazon Prime Video. As the Duchess of Argyll, a career socialite caught up in a tacky divorce, her technique is as flawless as ever. But if she wins your heart, you may want to get your valves checked.
“A Very British Scandal” is from the producers of “A Very English Scandal” (2018), another three-hour Amazon-BBC miniseries that chronicles a true tabloid fire among Britain’s privileged classes. “Very English”, with Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw at the top of their forms, was great (it’s also available on Prime), and that lineage – along with the casting of two similarly good performers, Foy and Paul Bettany, as the warring duchess and duke – sparked hopes of ‘Very British’.
Those hopes, at least for this viewer, have been dashed, but your mileage may vary. If you weren’t happy with the way the earlier show made use of the farcical humor latent in the characters’ outré and self-destructive behavior then ‘A Very British Scandal’ might be for you. The behavior is equally deplorable, but there is hardly an ounce of humor to be found.
The Duchess and Duke are Margaret Whigham, the daughter of a wealthy Scottish businessman, and Ian Campbell, a captain in the British Army in World War II who won the title of Argyll when a rather distant cousin died with no heir. The series spans the 16 years of their relationship, culminating in their brutal and very public divorce in 1963.
Their liaison begins, in plain sight, while Ian is still married to his second wife, and things don’t get any better. Ian uses Margaret’s money to restore the dilapidated Argyll Castle, fund an imaginative project to salvage a Spanish treasure ship, and keep himself in a semi-constant state of hateful intoxication. Margaret growls at her friends, spends much of her time in the company of other men, and embarks on a plan, involving fake letters and the purchase of a male child, to defraud Ian’s sons of their inheritance.
Faced with a story like this, a commonly used strategy is a degree of satire; that’s the route that director Stephen Frears and writer Russell T. Davies took in “Very English,” while preserving the full humanity of their sad characters. Another time-honored way to go is heightened melodrama: The couple’s miserable treatment of each other (and of most of the other people on screen) is redeemed by their great, but misguided, love.
Then there’s the way Sarah Phelps, the creator and writer, and Anne Sewitsky, the director, chose to go into “A Very British Scandal”, that is, forgo both comedy and emotion, at least in an unseemly way that might really resonate with an audience. It’s like a “Masterpiece” series on PBS forgot to take its antidepressants. (Sewitsky and the cameraman Si Bell, a regular of “Peaky Blinders”, give the show a “Masterpiece” noir look, handsome and slightly airless.)
This is not necessarily a surprising development. Phelps has written a number of crime dramas for the BBC, including five adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, which prioritize dark psychology and lurid twists on plot logic and coherent characterization. As the violent, manipulative alcoholic and the vain, snobbish maker punch and counter punch in “A Very British Scandal,” the characters’ opacity becomes tedious and increasingly enigmatic.
Part of this may be Phelps’s sensitivity, but there also seem to be some unresolved issues in her approach to the material. The show portrays both the Duke and Duchess as thoroughly obnoxious and principled toffs, but it also aims to give an idea of them as trauma victims – there are vague references to Ian’s time as a prisoner of the Nazis, and when Margaret is particularly stressed, she flashes back to an incident (taken from a real life) where she nearly died falling into an elevator shaft.
Bettany, who plays the more superficial of the two, does better. He’s convincing through and through as a smooth, sociopathic cad, and his delivery of Ian’s scathing put-downs gives the show its few glimmers of humor. (He nails the nasty light-heartedness of a line like Ian’s response when asked how often he has sex with Margaret: “Only if I couldn’t fight her off. She’s like a wolf.”)
Foy tries bravely – it’s hard to imagine a more expert performance in the role. But she’s trying to understand a number. Margaret’s expressions of love for Ian—the only thing that would explain her staying with him for so long—do not match her cold personality and oblivious demeanor, and Phelps has written nothing for her that reconciles them. That may reflect the reality of the story, but in a dramatization it would be nice if the emotions add up.
When the divorce trial arrives (it takes up most of the final episode) and Margaret is publicly vilified as a serial adulterer—a famous piece of evidence, prominent in the show’s plot, was a Polaroid of hers performing oral sex—it’s clear we intend to see her as the victim of an extreme manifestation of sexist moral hypocrisy. But the show has failed to put its plight into a larger dramatic context that would help us feel anything; it hasn’t really tried. If being a cold fish, as the cliché goes, is a British quality, then the series is very British indeed.