A rich new season of television drama

Rachel Cooke relishes a tale of mistaken identity.

The Scapegoat; Leaving

Daphne du Maurier – as weird a writer as I have ever read – published her novel The Scapegoat in 1957. The book tells the story of an English academic who, just as his melancholy holiday in France draws to a close, stumbles on his doppelganger. The two of them get drunk together and John confides in Jean his feelings of depression and failure. The next morning, when John wakes up alone in Jean’s clothes and realizes that everyone he meets now mistakes him for the other man, he feels disorientated but grateful, too: “I had told him my own life was empty; he had given me his.”

John’s motivation for masquerading as Jean, his abiding sense that for too long he has locked away inside himself the man he could be, is vital to the story’s success. John’s daring turn as imposter – he moves into Jean’s grand house, with his wife and child, and takes control of his glassmaking business – isn’t accidental, the result of embarrassment, panic or too many lies told too quickly. It’s deliberate: a desperate act by a desperate man.

ITV’s new adaptation of The Scapegoat (9 September, 9pm) by Charles Sturridge (yes, the very same Charles Sturridge who directed Brideshead Revisited in 1981) pretty much dispensed with all this psychological stuff –which is perhaps one reason why some people seem to have found it so baffling. Sturridge’s John, a teacher of Greek recently dismissed from his position at a boys’ preparatory school, meets Johnny, a posh bounder, in a pub.

Alas, no existential confidences are shared – with the result that when John goes home with
Johnny’s chauffeur the following morning, it seems completely mad, like a dare gone wrong. This, moreover, is exactly how Matthew Rhys as John (and Johnny) played it. Rhys looked queasy, mostly, as if he was about to throw up. He reminded me, at first, of someone in a very high-class farce.

Still, I’m not going to be too stern about this, for all that du Maurier would have hated it (she had strong ideas about sublimation and split personalities, mostly because, as we now know, she had to keep her own sexuality safely hidden from the world). I loved The Scapegoat. Yes, it was silly. But then, melodrama usually is quite silly. Therein lies part of the pleasure. Impossible, too, to argue with Sturridge’s other changes. He moved the action from France and made Johnny an English aristocrat with a crumbling stately pile, thus neatly avoiding the ridiculous notion that any Englishman could speak French fluently enough to pass as a comte. (Does Sturridge, I wonder, know Josephine Tey’s 1949 imposter novel, Brat Farrar? Tey’s book, which was also made into a film, is set in horsey England and I got a strong whiff of it here.)

I also liked the way he used the coronation to frame events. Neatly, John came to see his ascension to the head of the Spence household, like the Queen’s to the throne, as both a quirk of fate and – woah, psycho! – something righteous and meant.

Mostly, though, I just loved the look of the thing: the cardigans and the pearls, the Rollers and the mist, the eiderdowns and the chintz. The performances – not only Rhys, who was divine, but also Andrew Scott as Johnny’s brother, Paul; Phoebe Nicholls as a creepy nanny; Eileen Atkins as Johnny’s mother and Anton Lesser as the family priest –were fantastic. Is this what you get when you use a director as good as Sturridge? A film that looks and feels so right? Yes, I think it is – and it tells you a lot about ITV’s ambition that he is back. ITV drama is suddenly – it feels quite odd to be writing this – an embarrassment of riches. Leaving, a new series by Tony Marchant, is also shaping up nicely (10 September, 9pm). Marchant has elegantly fleshed out the kind of story you might read – come on, we all do it! – on the Daily Mail website: Older Woman Sleeps With Much Younger Man Shock.

The older woman, a catering manager at a country house hotel, is played by Helen Mc- Crory; the object of her desires, one of her waiters, by Callum Turner. McCrory is great, even if her Lancashire accent does keep slipping. She is so deliciously camp. If ever she falls on hard times, she’ll be a shoe-in for landlady of the Rover’s Return.

I gather that there are those who question whether her character, Julie, would risk everything – husband, kids, job – for a youth as callow as Aaron. But I see it completely. It’s not his looks, though even without my contact lenses in, I can see that he has cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin. No, it’s much more simple than that. When he looks at her, he sees her – and it’s this feeling of sudden visibility, cherished as it was not when she was young, that will be her undoing.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture