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?