There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the idea of a British MP being charged with a criminal offence would have seemed far-fetched. Those times are no more. And while Anatomy of a Scandal, the glossy courtroom drama out on Netflix today, is a work of fiction, it is also a staggeringly prescient example of life imitating art.
“I was joking this week that it was nice that Boris and Rishi got the marketing email,” laughs Sarah Vaughan, author of Anatomy of a Scandal, the novel upon which the series is based. “Obviously, on a human level, I would really rather we didn't have a prime minister who’d been fined for breaking lockdown rules — but on a weird, I've got a Netflix show out this week level, it is freaky timing. Hopefully, it will give the show a bit more resonance.”
Even before this week’s headlines, to say Anatomy of a Scandal has been eagerly anticipated would be an understatement. Adapted for the screen by David E Kelley, the Emmy-winning writer and producer behind Big Little Lies and The Undoing, the six-part thriller stars Homeland's Rupert Friend as MP James Whitehouse, Sienna Miller as his beautiful and impeccably well-mannered wife, Sophie, and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery as Kate Woodcroft, the barrister with a past who finds herself prosecuting Whitehouse when his affair with a young aide leads to an accusation of sexual assault.
It’s a team that Vaughan, 49, admits she could scarcely have dreamt of. “A producer said to me recently, ‘You do realise it's not normal to have Sienna Miller in your first show?’” she smiles. “Also, like a lot of middle-aged women, I really liked Quinn when Homeland was out — I thought he was the moral heart of the show but also had this sort of dark intensity — so when they told me that they were approaching Rupert Friend, I squealed.”
Friend, she admits, had to be asked three times before he accepted the role. “He said being an entitled Tory wasn't high on his bucket list, but the amazing director threw him down the challenge. His character is more nuanced, I think, in the show than in the book. David E Kelley said that he's not a victim of his upbringing, but he is very much a product of his upbringing. He's had a very rarefied life, really, and hasn’t experienced anything beyond that.”
For Vaughan, while the drama plays out around the case, the real story is one of power and privilege, as demonstrated by Whitehouse’s elastic relationship with the truth, his sense of entitlement and his membership in the Libertines, an elite Oxford fraternity clearly inspired by the notorious real-life Bullingdon Club.
“I think there have been other shows about rape, but this is about the scandal of entitlement and that’s what made it a different story,” Vaughn muses. “I started writing the book in 2016 in the lead-up to the EU referendum. David Cameron was in charge, an old Etonian prime minister who went to Oxford. George Osborne was Chancellor. There had been a bit of a furore about that very famous Bullingdon picture with Cameron and Boris Johnson on the steps, and I just had that in my mind so much as I was writing it.”
Before becoming a bestselling novelist, Vaughan spent more than a decade at The Guardian, where, as a political correspondent in 2004, she interviewed Johnson about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. “The point of the Boris interview wasn't that he had an affair. It was that he'd been sacked for lying about it,” she explains. "What struck me back then was his lack of contrition. There was this real sense of entitlement, a belief that he was going to bounce back and it didn't really matter, he'd be absolutely fine.”
While this was a time before the #MeToo movement, the gender and power dynamics at play in the corridors of Westminster have also long fascinated Vaughan, playing a key role both in Anatomy of a Scandal and in her latest novel, Reputation. “I didn't experience it, for which I'm profoundly grateful, but I could absolutely observe that imbalance of power,” she says now. “I don't think you have to have a particularly vivid imagination to imagine that where you've got powerful men believing their own self-importance and women who, as researchers, are much less powerful and earning far less, there's a massive imbalance of power. The potential for exploitation is huge.”
Indeed, in the period since Anatomy of a Scandal was released in print, the UK has been rocked by a succession of outrages that could have come straight from its pages, from the sexual assault trial of MP Charlie Elphicke to former health secretary Matt Hancock’s affair with an aide, to the ongoing Partygate scandal. As grim a period as it has been for the British electorate, globally it has only served to increase anticipation for Vaughan’s first and impeccably timed televisual work.
“I often wonder what it must be like to know that however you behave, you will always be excused and forgiven,” Dockery’s character muses during one dramatic scene. It is a question that many viewers may also find themselves pondering, before, during and long after their next Netflix binge ends.