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The Scandalous Lady W, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Scandalous Lady W, BBC Two

The Scandalous Lady W, BBC Two

Notes on an 18th-century scandal, with visuals dominating over character

'Riot Club' couture: from left, Shaun Evans, Natalie Dormer as Lady W, Aneurin Barnard

What exactly do we expect when a drama opens with the declaration, “This is a true story”? The Scandalous Lady W, based on Hallie Rubenhold’s biography Lady Worsley’s Whim, brought us some unusual 18th century marriage shenanigans that ended in one of the most scandalous court cases of the era. But, despite its central legal scenes, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” wasn’t the order of the day.

David Eldridge’s screenplay instead adjusted details to strengthen what would have anyway been a very acute commentary on the status of women in society, and particularly within marriage, at the time. Did it matter that in doing so he elided certain elements of history, and very probably psychology, that might have made it rather deeper, and came up with a 90-minute romp instead? Probably not, and the visuals here were so sumptuous that at times they dominated over character anyway, strong playing notwithstanding.

It made Seymour’s character trajectory an uneasy one – never fully a tragic figure

Seymour, Lady Worsley (born, and died, Fleming) was one of the richest heiresses of her day – as well as here, in the performance of Natalie Dormer, as beautiful (the testament of history wasn’t so kind) as she was intelligent. It was certainly a sprint from her first meeting (pictured below) with Sir Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans) through to the scene three months into their (still unconsummated) marriage, but you might have thought she’d have pondered their compatibility rather more in advance. Worsley may have been a promising politician, but suspicions that he was a fortune-hunter would have been in the air (in reality he apparently courted Seymour’s sister, too).

By the time of that conjugal bed conversation, it was looking rather obvious that he was something of a dolt, practically childish in his talk of sex as “rantum-scantum”, and his confessions of “unspoken desires”. Best to avoid a plot spoiler there – let’s just say that the memorable phrase, “I like to watch”, was more apt here than when uttered by Peter Sellers two centuries later: a contemporary illustration (pictured below right) relating to their story gives another clue.

Which had Seymour getting up to a lot of horizontal gymnastics, driven by the touching desire to “improve our union”, as she told Richard. His view of marriage, meanwhile, was as dogmatic as it could be, his wife’s role being to “do my bidding”. If it sounded absurd today, the point was that then it was the standard of society.

The final of the liaisons she was pushed into, with their Isle of Wight neighbour George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard, looking like he’d just returned from Hobbit climes) turned into love, followed by elopement. (Richard was in charge of the South Hampshire militia, a term that clearly meant something rather different then to what it does today: most conspicuously they were all dressed up in handsome red uniforms, main picture, that looked like a preview of Riot Club, aka Bullingdon, couture). Seymour seemed little concerned that she was leaving behind her young daughter, fathered by Bisset rather than her husband as it turned out, and was naïve in her expectations as to how she might be able to control the situation further.

It wasn’t helped by Richard’s decision – “It is my wish,” he thundered, against the advice of his lawyers – to sue his erstwhile friend for the value of his wife’s honour, which he put at £20,000, a fortune of course in those days. Given that all the corroboration needed was there, his case seemed assured (he’s got us “by the nutmegs”, George lamented), until Seymour took the equally extreme step of revealing just what had really been going on in their marriage.

Court scenes are always a gripping watch, and this one took on many extra surreal notes as no fewer than 27 of her former aristocratic paramours were trotted in to court to suggest that their relations with the noble lady had not been, well, quite so noble (how they squared that with whatever other family and professional obligations they had, we were left guessing). Cue the jury awarding Richard risible damages of a shilling, and a glint of triumph rippling across Seymour’s face.

But things would get no better, with Richard refusing to grant her a divorce, despite his Prime Minister Lord North counselling (a nice script touch) that she’d no more give up her quest for independence than the American colonies had theirs. He still had control of her money, and she was prohibited from seeing her daughter (actually the couple also had a legitimate son, but Eldridge left him clean out of the story). And as she asserted herself, by running up bills which her husband had to settle, as well as ridiculing him in a published verse Epistle, George fell out of love with her.

“Living as moderns”, a phrase that surely belongs more to the Bloomsbury set than it did here, just wasn’t an option for her. And it made Seymour’s character trajectory, from exploited wife following the bidding of a husband common sense would have told her was little more than a pervert, through to independent woman, whose new direction, implied as a rather brazen one, would drive her new partner away (they also had another child, omitted too), an uneasy one – never fully the tragic heroine that some of those later outfits (pictured above) suggested. It didn’t help either that she got some very versy lines in a script that veered between the vernacular and quaintly formal: “I was awakened at the midnight hour” – who, particularly an intimidated servant (Jessica Gunning, agonisingly uncomfortable, one of the best things here) would come out with someting like that?

Director Sheree Folkson didn’t stint on anything, from beautiful Georgian locations through to haberdashery highlights (all shot lovingly by Shane Daly). What with the garden mazes, there was something of Peter Greenaway here, and a score from Alexander Balanescu that sometimes hinted at Michael Nyman, when it wasn’t trowelling on the Bach cello suites rather too heavily.

Did it do Seymour justice? Her experiences were far wider than what we saw here: if you didn’t know it already, you wouldn’t have learned that after she had to leave England on Richard’s insistence, she was caught up in the French revolution, and was imprisoned in Paris. The only happy ending for her here came in the film's closing titles: she did marry again, after Richard's death and after what was left of her endowment reverted to her, to a music teacher 20 years her junior. She didn’t take his name: he took hers.

David Eldridge’s screenplay adjusted details to strengthen what would have anyway been a very acute commentary on the status of women in society

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Average: 3 (1 vote)

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