Claire Foy won our hearts, and an Emmy, as the doughty young Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of “The Crown.” She returns to the small screen on Friday in a nasty bit of business called “A Very British Scandal” on Amazon Prime Video. As the Duchess of Argyll, a career socialite caught in a tawdry divorce, her technique is as flawless as ever. But if she wins your heart, you might want to have your valves checked.
“A Very British Scandal” is from the producers of “A Very English Scandal” (2018), another three-hour Amazon-BBC mini-series that recounts a real-life tabloid firestorm among the British privileged classes. “Very English,” with Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw at the top of their forms, was wonderful (it’s also available on Prime), and that lineage — along with the casting of two comparably fine performers, Foy and Paul Bettany, as the battling duchess and duke — raised hopes for “Very British.”
Those hopes, for this viewer at least, have been dashed, but your mileage may vary. If you were unhappy with the way the earlier show exploited the farcical humor latent in its characters’ outré and self-destructive behavior, then “A Very British Scandal” may be for you. The behavior is equally lamentable, but there’s barely a shred of humor to be found.
The duchess and duke are Margaret Whigham, the daughter of a rich Scottish businessman, and Ian Campbell, a captain in the British army in World War II who lucked into the Argyll title when a fairly distant cousin died without an heir. The series covers the 16 years of their relationship, culminating in their vicious and highly public divorce in 1963.
Their liaison begins, in plain view, while Ian is still married to his second wife, and the optics don’t get better from there. Ian uses Margaret’s money to restore the rundown Argyll castle, finance a fanciful project to salvage a Spanish treasure ship and keep himself in a semi-constant state of spiteful drunkenness. Margaret grouses to her friends, spends much of her time in the company of other men and embarks on a plan, involving forged letters and the purchase of a male child, to cheat Ian’s sons out of their inheritance.
Faced with a story like this, one common strategy is some degree of satire; that’s the route the director Stephen Frears and the writer Russell T. Davies took in “Very English,” while maintaining the full humanity of their sad characters. Another time-honored way to go is heightened melodrama: The couple’s wretched treatment of each other (and of most of the other people onscreen) is redeemed by their great but misbegotten love.
Then there’s the way that Sarah Phelps, the creator and writer, and Anne Sewitsky, the director, have chosen to go in “A Very British Scandal,” which is to dispense with both comedy and emotion, at least in any unseemly way that might actually resonate with an audience. It’s as if a “Masterpiece” series on PBS forgot to take its anti-depressants. (Sewitsky and the cinematographer Si Bell, a “Peaky Blinders” regular, give the show a “Masterpiece”-noir look, handsome and somewhat airless.)
This is not necessarily a surprising development. Phelps has written a number of crime shows for the BBC, including five adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, that privilege dark psychology and lurid twists over plot logic and coherent characterization. As the violent, manipulative alcoholic and the vain, snobbish fabricator punch and counterpunch in “A Very British Scandal,” the opaqueness of the characters gets tedious and increasingly mystifying.
Some of this may just be Phelps’s sensibility, but there also appear to be some unresolved issues in her approach to the material. The show portrays both the duke and duchess as thoroughly unpleasant and unprincipled toffs, but it also wants to give a sense of them as trauma victims — there are hazy references to Ian’s time as a prisoner of the Nazis, and whenever Margaret is particularly stressed, she flashes back to an incident (taken from life) in which she nearly died in a fall down an elevator shaft.
Bettany, playing the more shallowly drawn of the two, fares better. He is thoroughly convincing as a smooth-talking, sociopathic cad, and his delivery of Ian’s scathing put-downs gives the show its few glimmers of humor. (He nails the nasty breeziness of a line like Ian’s response when asked how often he has sex with Margaret: “Only when I couldn’t fight her off. She’s like a wolf.”)
Foy gives it a valiant try — it’s hard to imagine a more expert performance in the role. But she’s trying to make sense of a cipher. Margaret’s protestations of love for Ian — the only thing that would explain her staying with him for so long — don’t line up with her cold-fish personality and oblivious behavior, and Phelps hasn’t written anything for her that reconciles them. That might reflect the reality of the story, but in a dramatization, it would be nice if the emotions added up.
When the divorce trial arrives (it occupies most of the final episode) and Margaret is publicly vilified as a serial adulterer — a famous piece of evidence, prominent in the show’s plot, was a Polaroid of her performing oral sex — we are clearly supposed to see her as a victim of an extreme manifestation of sexist moral hypocrisy. But the show hasn’t succeeded in putting her plight in any larger dramatic context that would help us feel something; it hasn’t really tried. If being a cold fish is, as the cliché would have it, a British quality, then the series is very British indeed.