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5 April 2024

Netflix’s Prince Andrew film Scoop is fun to watch. But what’s the point?

This anti-climactic, behind-the-scenes dramatisation of the royal’s infamous Newsnight interview can’t compare to the real thing.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Everyone remembers that interview. The red and gold chairs surrounded by a vast expanse of ornately patterned carpet. The twin crystal water glasses balanced precariously on a spindly side table that seemed to channel the tension in the room. Emily Maitlis, Newsnight’s star interviewer, in a military-style grey jacket coolly wielding a biro with weapons-grade efficacy. And His Royal Highness himself, the monarch’s favourite child, casually setting fire to his reputation and throwing the royal family into a crisis they have yet to recover from.

We heard it all that evening in November 2019. How Prince Andrew didn’t regret his friendship with the billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. How their friendship continued even after Epstein’s conviction, with the Prince staying at the New York mansion where countless underage girls were trafficked. How he couldn’t possibly have done the things he was accused of doing by one of Epstein’s victims – because he was unable to sweat and had besides been at a Pizza Express in Woking on one of the nights in question.

It’s difficult to imagine a dramatic retelling of this historic television moment living up to the strangeness of the event itself. But that hasn’t stopped Netflix from cashing in on the action. Scoop is its star-studded adaptation of the similarly named Scoops, a memoir by Sam McAlister – the gutsy BBC producer (or, more accurately, booker) who landed the Prince Andrew interview.

Billie Piper plays McAlister, revelling in a leather jacket and polished jet-black nails that feel decidedly un-Beeby as she battles with the fusty elites who refuse to listen to her. Gillian Anderson is resplendent, bearing a downright uncanny resemblance to Maitlis. Rufus Sewell plays the Peter Pan prince: a man who rearranges a mountain of cuddly toys on his bed and who genuinely thinks the interview has gone well until he receives an onslaught of horrified messages while relaxing in the bath. (Sewell reportedly studied the real interview footage with the help of FBI “body language experts” to help unlock of mystery of Andrew’s mannerisms.) Keeley Hawes is his adoring yet naive right-hand woman, palace aide Amanda Thirsk – the whole disaster is her idea. The cast are all clearly having a huge amount of fun.

The resulting film is fun to watch, too: think Aaron Sorkin meets W1A. Scoop is thrilling: pacy, and full of frenetic energy, from the opening sequence, when a paparazzo hurtles across New York to land the perfect snap of Andrew and Epstein strolling through Central Park. It leaves us in no doubt who our heroine is: the first shot of Piper’s McAlister shows her striding in leopard-print heels through Broadcasting House, passing the George Orwell quote “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”, to the exuberant tune of “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, which crops up later as her ringtone.

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Piper has called McAlister an “unsung hero”. (Amazon’s rival adaptation of the Newsnight interview, A Very Royal Scandal, starring Michael Sheen as Andrew and Ruth Wilson as Maitlis, is rumoured to have a somewhat different interpretation.) Her colleagues won’t take her seriously. Other journalists who lack her flair don’t understand the hours of work (and phone calls, and long lunches) needed to secure a bombshell interview. She is scolded for wasting time taking Thirsk out for a drink, then vindicated as all that groundwork culminates in the scoop of the century. Not that it got her a pay rise or a promotion, as the real McAlister, who quit the BBC in 2021 and now teaches at the London School of Economics, has been quick to point out. But at least she gets her moment of glory, delivered as a wall of stunned social media reaction once the interview airs.

The trouble is, we know it’s coming. I was in the Newsnight studio the night before the interview was broadcast, when Maitlis got the green light to trail it on the show. I remember the almost unbearable tension: everyone on edge, from the make-up artist to the camera operator, with Maitlis herself visibly twitchy as she revealed what her programme had to offer. Scoop has none of that suspense. This film is almost by definition anti-climactic. There is no jeopardy. We know the sordid details of Epstein’s enterprise – underaged girls provided as playthings for a billionaire’s friends. We know McAlister will win over Thirsk and land the interview. We know Maitlis will choose to kill with kindness, gently giving the Prince the time and space to tie his own noose. We know the consequences: utter humiliation and the abrupt suspension from royal duties. We even know he will end up paying an out-of-court settlement reportedly worth £12m to Virginia Giuffre, who accused him of having sex with her when she was trafficked by Epstein at the age of 17.

Scoop cannot shock us, so it aims to entertain us instead. And in that, it is a success. But on the question of what it is trying to achieve, I come up short. Much more attention is paid to McAlister’s workplace struggles than to the crimes the film relies on for its high stakes. There is one moment where the true force of Epstein’s evil hits you – McAlister on a bus, looking at a picture of one of the victims while a group of schoolgirls of a similar age giggle a few seats in front of her. But the action quickly reverts to the less consequential topic of BBC HR. Behind-the-scenes dramas have their allure, but in this case, beyond the top-notch performances, it’s hard to see the point. If you need reminding of Prince Andrew’s onscreen downfall, go and watch the real thing.

Scoop
Netflix

[See also: Dev Patel’s “Monkey Man: political commentary meets bone-crunching action]

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