Tells us more about today than the early 1960s: BBC1's A Very British Scandal reviewed

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

A Very British Scandal; Death in Paradise


For people who like a good upper-class scandal (or ‘people’, as they’re also known), 1963 was definitely a vintage year. Even before the Profumo affair came along, the divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll offered plenty to enjoy, with its courtroom tales of her 80-odd lovers and that famous Polaroid of her pleasuring a titillatingly anonymous man while still wearing her pearls.

All of which presented something of a problem for BBC1’s three-part dramatisation, A Very British Scandal — and not just because it had to pretend not to be titillated itself. At a time when female blamelessness is such a dominant media theme, could it find a way to make the Duchess seem badly wronged without being anything so demeaning and lacking in agency as a ‘victim’? The answer, much to its own benefit, turned out to be a firm ‘not really’.

In what it clearly regarded as a guaranteed enticement to all viewers, the BBC advertised the programme as a feminist retelling in which ‘Margaret, Duchess of Argyll held her head high with bravery and resilience’ despite the ‘institutionalised misogyny’ of the era. Luckily, though, Sarah Phelps’s script proved a lot more interesting and strange than that. Granted, there were several moments of special pleading, and the odd chunk of undigested author’s message. (‘The law doesn’t like women who aren’t sorry,’ Margaret obligingly pointed out.) Yet, on the whole, her old-school dramatist’s storytelling instincts were sturdy enough for her to keep abandoning her own brief.

The action began in the late 1940s when Margaret, about to ditch her first husband, was spending her time sharing impeccably brittle remarks with her female friends and beds with her male ones. But then she went on a trip to Scotland with the married Duke of Argyll and fell heavily in love — at least with his castle. Unsurprisingly, this very public relationship caused his soon-to-be-divorced wife much pain, which Phelps never sought to disguise.

Not that the Duke was a great catch, what with being a penniless, amphetamine-addicted drunk. Once married, he and Margaret duly settled into a life of eating silently at either end of a very big table in the customary manner of unhappily-wed toffs. When, that is, they weren’t sleeping with other people.

Through all of this, there wasn’t much doubt whose side Phelps was on. And yet, while the Duke eventually slid into full-blown villainy along with full-blown alcoholism, she did also imply that he’d suffered emotional damage during the war. Likewise, Margaret’s promised ‘resilience’ wasn’t always easy to distinguish from ruthless self-interest and, occasionally, flat-out cruelty. And if the idea ever was to make the Duchess a readily sympathetic character, Claire Foy in the lead role certainly hadn’t got the memo. In her hands, the woman was undeniably charismatic but never likeable.

The overall result, then, was a distinctly odd drama, which in the end perhaps had more to tell us about today’s world than that of the early 1960s. Not only were there the conflicting demands of a would-be feminist retelling (where the Duchess has to be both empowered and powerless), but these felt in conflict themselves with the awkward business of what actually happened.

Meanwhile, in another TV universe entirely, there’s Death in Paradise, whose BBC1 Christmas special on Boxing Day made the most of its apparent exemption from culture-war considerations to give its fans more or less everything they (oh, all right then, we) would have wanted. Sadly, we didn’t get the usual opening murder followed immediately by irresistibly cheery music. Otherwise all the familiar elements were reassuringly present: the pretence of endless sunshine despite the lowering grey skies; the unseen state-of-the-art crime lab on a small Caribbean island; the clunkingly broad comedy that other shows might worry is straying into minstrelsy; the strange failure of Saint Marie’s murder rate to affect tourism.

But, I’d suggest, it’s precisely this familiarity that can blind us to how much is going on in Death in Paradise. Without making much fuss about it, the show has built up solid back stories for each of the main characters and carefully drawn — if not subtle — relationships between them. Still without fuss, this 90-minute version kept all of those plates spinning nicely, while serving up yet another properly cunning whodunnit for the main (white) detective to be baffled by and then suddenly solve after repeatedly crying ‘Of course!’

And in this case, the programme’s touching respect for genre also extended to that of the television Christmas special. Sure enough, the murder disrupted the festive plans that Inspector Neville Parker (Ralf Little) had made to fly back to Manchester. But sure enough too, what he got instead enabled him to utter those most traditional of TV words at this time of year: ‘This might just be the best Christmas ever.’

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