Sarah Vaughan, author of ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’, talks about the representation of law in history
There was a time in the not too distant past when the idea of a British MP being charged with a criminal offense would have seemed far-fetched. Those times are no more. And while Anatomy of a ScandalThe glossy courtroom drama on Netflix today, is a work of fiction, it’s also an incredibly prescient example of life imitating art.
“I was joking this week that it was good Boris and Rishi got the marketing email,” laughs Sarah Vaughan, author of Anatomy of a scandal, the novel on which the series is based. “Obviously on a human level I’d really rather we didn’t have a Prime Minister who’s been fined for breaking lockdown rules – but weirdly I have a Netflix show this week that’s Weird Schedule. Hopefully this will give the show a little more resonance.
Even before this week’s headlines, to say Anatomy of a Scandal eagerly awaited would be an understatement. Adapted for the screen by David E Kelley, the Emmy-winning screenwriter and producer behind big little lies and The defeatthe stars of the thriller in six episodes Country‘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 past-tense lawyer who finds herself suing Whitehouse when her affair with a young assistant leads to a sexual assault charge.
This is a team Vaughan, 49, admits she could hardly have dreamed of. “A producer said to me recently, ‘Do you realize that it’s not normal to have Sienna Miller on your first show?’ she smiles. “Also, like a lot of middle-aged women, I really liked Quinn when Country was out – I thought he was the moral heart of the show but also had that kind of dark intensity – so when they told me they were approaching Rupert Friend, I screamed.
Friend, she admits, had to be canvassed three times before accepting the role. “He said being a licensed curator wasn’t high on his bucket list, but the amazing director challenged him. His character is more nuanced, I think, in the show than in the book. David E Kelley said he was not a victim of his upbringing but was largely a product of his upbringing He had a very rarefied life, really, and lived nothing beyond of that.
For Vaughan, as the drama unfolds around the case, the real story is one of power and privilege, as demonstrated by Whitehouse’s elastic relationship to truth, her sense of entitlement and her membership in the Libertines, a fraternity elite club clearly inspired by the famous real-life Bullingdon Club.
“I think there have been other shows about rape, but that’s about the law scandal and that’s what made it a different story,” Vaughn reflects. “I started writing the book in 2016 as the EU referendum approached. David Cameron was in charge, a former Etonian prime minister who had been to Oxford. George Osborne was Chancellor. There Had had a bit of a rage over that very famous photo of Bullingdon with Cameron and Boris Johnson on the steps, and I just had it in my head as I was writing it.
Before becoming a best-selling novelist, Vaughan spent more than a decade The Guardian, where, as a political correspondent in 2004, she interviewed Johnson about his affair with Petronella Wyatt. “The point of Boris’s interview wasn’t that he was having an affair. It was that he was fired for lying about it,” she explains. “What struck me at the time, it was his lack of contrition. There was this real sense of entitlement, the belief that he was going to bounce back and it didn’t really matter, he was going to be perfectly fine.”
While this was a time before the #MeToo movement, the gender and power dynamics at play in the halls of Westminster have also long fascinated Vaughan, playing a key role in both Anatomy of a Scandal and in his last novel, Reputation. “I didn’t experience it, which I’m deeply grateful for, but I could absolutely observe this power imbalance,” she says now. “I don’t think it takes a particularly vivid imagination to imagine that where you have powerful men who believe in their own importance and women who, as researchers, are much less powerful and earn a lot unless there is a huge imbalance of power, the potential for exploitation is huge.
In fact, in the period since Anatomy of a Scandal was published in print, the UK has been rocked by a succession of attacks that could have come directly from its pages, from the sexual assault trial of MP Charlie Elphicke to the case of the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock with an assistant, going through the ongoing Partygate scandal. As bleak as it was for the British electorate, overall it only served to heighten anticipation for Vaughan’s perfectly timed debut television work.
“I often wonder what it must be like to know that no matter how you behave, you will always be excused and forgiven,” Dockery’s character reflects during a dramatic scene. It’s a question many viewers may also ask themselves, before, during, and long after their next Netflix binge ends.
Updated: April 15, 2022, 10:00 a.m.