The saying goes that politics is show business for ugly people. But in Anatomy of a Scandal, a Netflix series adapted by David E Kelley and Melissa James Gibson from Sarah Vaughan’s bestselling novel of the same name, no one is ugly, or even slightly plain. This is politics for gorgeous, pouting people with excellent hair and a surfeit of caramel cashmere. Even after a sleepless night, they emerge into the dappled Westminster sunlight looking like they’re in an advert for Lancome or Dior, their faces as spookily uncreased as their sheets. “I am terrified!” yelps the (Conservative, I think) MP, James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), at one crucial moment. He does not, however, look terrified. Quite the opposite, in fact. He looks like he’s about to stroll down New Bond Street and pop into Burberry.
How bizarre, and how unexpectedly grim, that the single most convincing thing about this series is that its plot revolves around a rape charge; at least 56 MPs are, after all, currently facing sexual misconduct allegations, having been reported to parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. Somehow, though, this chastening real-life fact had little effect on me as I watched. Either I was yawning or I was rolling my eyes — and sometimes I was doing both at once. The cliches! Is it because Kelley is an American, and Gibson a Canadian, that in this show people in a hurry can always be heard shouting “Taxi!” into the rush hour traffic? And what of Britain’s rubbish central heating and rattling sash windows? Of our recalcitrant showers and redundant roller blinds? The production designers are still in the world of Kelley’s previous series, Big Little Lies, with its kitchen islands as big as ranches, and its refrigerators in which a woman might casually lie for a few moments if she was feeling sufficiently menopausal.
The London home of Whitehouse and his wife, Sophie (Sienna Miller), is about the size of a boutique hotel, and pretty much everything in it — with the sole exception of the pizzas Sophie serves her privately-educated little darlings for supper, which were probably delivered by Fortnum’s — looks like it has come from Oka, the posh-naff furniture store that was once owned by Samantha Cameron’s mum. You’ll search in vain for a wonky Ikea bookcase, though this may be because the couple do not actually own any books, in spite of the fact that before her marriage, Sophie was “utterly invested in children’s literature” (she wrote some kind of dissertation on it). Their constituency? We tend not to visit it much, though I think we can safely say that it’s not a so-called Red Wall seat (unless by “red wall” you mean some moody new Farrow & Ball colour).
But back to the plot, which I will try not to spoil for those who haven’t read the book, and who are — even after reading this — tempted to stick with the Whitehouses until the very last division bell. At Oxford, James Whitehouse was a member of a dining society called the Libertines, which is the Bullingdon Club (of which Boris Johnson, David Cameron et al were famously members) by any other name. So, too, was his best mate Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfeild), who’s now the Prime Minister. We know, thanks to some of the lamest flashbacks ever seen on screen, that the two of them behaved rather badly back then (their drunken antics are straight out of Posh, Laura Wade’s brilliant play, which later became the film The Riot Club, and to which I now refer you should you have a sudden craving for watching imbeciles wasting rivers of Bolly). The gentlemanly (ha!) codes of the club dictate not only that their secrets should be safe, but that the PM will stand by Whitehouse even when the parliamentary assistant with whom he had a brief affair accuses him of having raped her in a House of Commons lift.
But why the focus on Oxford? Why do we see so much not only of the young Whitehouse, but also of the young Sophie, who attended the same university at the same time? And who is the female friend from whom, at college, she tries so hard to pinch Anglo-Saxon translations? (Children’s literature, it would seem, is one thing, but Beowulf is quite another.) Don’t worry, though. Things will — hwaet! — fall into place eventually, just as it will also become clear why the prosecutor in the Whitehouse case, Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery), is so central to proceedings. Though when I say “fall into place”, what I really mean is that they’ll be tied together in so utterly preposterous a fashion you’ll wonder if you shouldn’t have a go at writing a bestseller yourself, maybe rattling it off in the spare hour you used to devote to half-hearted Zoom pilates. Honestly, as denouements go, this one is up there with Bobby Ewing realising in the shower that the last 84 episodes (or however many it was) of Dallas were just a long, bad dream, and not even the odd mention of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or a bit of light barrister banter backstage in the wig room, can disguise it.
I’ve already hinted that the acting is ropey. Only one person in this fiasco is any good: the ever-brilliant Joshua McGuire, as Chris Clarke, a Downing Street communications chief (McGuire is the next best thing to Tom Hollander just lately). Friend, for all that he’s obviously taking this thing Very Seriously Indeed, wears a varnished sideboard of an expression throughout, as does Miller, except when she receives really bad news, at which point she inevitably rushes to her well-appointed loo to vomit delicately.
As for Dockery, her performance basically involves a pair of spectacles — “I am very clever!” these frames insist, on her behalf — and her lovely shoulders, highly polished and on display at the Delaunay restaurant, where she dines with her married former pupil master, with whom she’s having an affair. (“Felicity?” she asks him, wondering if she will be getting any petit fours later. “In Wiltshire,” he replies, which is a euphemism not for any emotional state, but for his second home.) I’ve seen very few less convincing performances than this one; even when our legal eagle is just reading her papers, or applying her mascara, something in me wants to laugh, which is a bit painful in the circumstances. In court, it’s her job to describe to the jury, in detail, the technicalities of what rape involves: a speech that should be painfully uncomfortable but which sounds, in Dockery’s best Downton voice, just like so much innuendo.