Four very different dramas got us through that zone between Christmas and new year that can feel as though your soul is a half-masticated blini hurtling into the void. BBC One’s three-part A Very British Scandal, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Anne Sewitsky, told the real-life story of unrepentant “scarlet woman” Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (Claire Foy), whose vicious 1963 divorce from the Duke of Argyll (Paul Bettany) featured a notorious photograph of her fellating a mysterious (headless) lover.
Here, then, is another high-end soapy serving of sexed-up British history (2018’s A Very English Scandal dealt with the Jeremy Thorpe affair), with Foy as an intriguing duchess. The appeal of her Elizabeth in The Crown was as a young housewife-queen: flustered, blushing, eager to please. Margaret is just as porcelain-skinned, but also glacial, sexual, a pouting wolf. The decadence is there when she and her future husband flirt up a storm on a train. Less so when she attends the sex party of her aristo-friend Maureen (a viperish Julia Davis), where debauchery is represented by a somewhat tragic clockwork penis trundling across a table top (toff-swinging, it seems, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be). Later, Margaret rounds on Maureen for mocking her sexual appetite, snapping: “I do like it. I like it very much. And I’m extremely good at it.”
A Very British Scandal isn’t really about sex; it’s about the hypocrisy surrounding sex. It’s also about cut-glass savagery. The duke, acidly played by Bettany, is vile, druggy, violent and after Margaret’s money. Margaret stammers helplessly in front of her scathing mother (Phoebe Nicholls, chilly and superb). After the duke steals the photographs, and the divorce turns even more rancid, Margaret is expelled from elite circles: “We will close ranks.”
There are no innocents here: Margaret, the third wife, forges letters to try to get his sons disinherited. Though she was an early victim of media-shaming, she’s too haughty and entitled to break your heart. Wisely, Foy doesn’t focus on making Margaret sympathetic; instead she makes her human – complex, messy, bold. You’re rooting for her as she sticks out her chin in court and admits to being the woman in the photograph. Within a few short years, the 60s would be swinging; sure, predominantly for men, but free spirits like Margaret may have benefited. She may not be a perfect fit for feminist or heroine, but she was a woman born cruelly out of time.
Harry and Jack Williams (The Missing, Liar) wrote The Tourist, an Australian-set, six-part thriller starring Jamie Dornan (The Fall) and directed by Chris Sweeney and Daniel Nettheim. It starts out like a homage to Steven Spielberg’s 1971 film Duel. Dornan is driving alone in the sweaty, hazy outback when he’s menaced by a dusty truck with an unseen driver – all we see is a boot pressing on a pedal. After being rammed off the road, Dornan wakes up in hospital, with amnesia, as the Man. When he goes to a meeting in a diner he has written on a scrap of paper, he narrowly avoids being blown up.
From there, The Tourist is a blur of mysteries: who is the Man? Does he genuinely have amnesia? Who’s the other guy we see buried alive in the desert? Other characters drift through: Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’, Unbelievable) as a self-effacing, underestimated cop you could imagine ambling about in Fargo; Shalom Brune-Franklin (Line of Duty) as a waitress who seems more involved than she’s letting on. Dornan convinces as the good guy who could be a bad guy, and there’s a rough, homemade feel to the proceedings that at times turns nightmarish, hallucinatory. The outback scenes burn through the screen, grimy and desperate. Tension builds as the Man manoeuvres his wheelchair down a dark hospital corridor. I have only seen the opener, but already The Tourist feels taut, jagged and distinctive, the best Williams offering since The Missing.
Sadly, watching the opening two episodes of Around the World in 80 Days (BBC One) felt like it took 80 days. Set in 1872, this eight-part version of the Jules Verne story about the gentleman-adventurer, dramatised by Ashley Pharoah and Caleb Ranson, stars David Tennant: a good actor (so scary in Des), but his Phileas Fogg is so underpowered, navel-gazing, feeble, it’s a surprise he can cross the road unaided, never mind take on wagers to circumnavigate the globe.
The onus is on Fogg’s companions – Ibrahim Koma as roguish valet Passepartout; Leonie Benesch as an intrepid journalist – to provide the vim: first amid Paris riots, then on board an Italian train as, with Fogg’s ingenuity, they cross a wrecked bridge to save a child’s life. I rather enjoyed the brazen anachronisms: “I need a man like a fish needs a penny farthing!” However, the excitement of the hot-air balloon – the first sighting, the maiden voyage – is dampened by soggy Fogg’s lachrymose yearning to prove himself: “No man in the world knows more about lost opportunity than me.” Less hot air from Fogg and more into the balloon, and this series might yet take off.
Over on Netflix, Stay Close, adapted by Harlan Coben from his novel, is an eight-part thriller about hunting a serial killer from the same team, including writer Danny Brocklehurst, that made Coben’s The Stranger for Netflix in 2020.
The ever-brilliant Cush Jumbo (The Good Fight) plays a woman who has fled her past but finds it catching up with her. James Nesbitt (The Missing) is a morose cop who falls for Sarah Parish’s earthy bar manager. Richard Armitage, who was also in The Stranger, turns up as a dishevelled photographer, and Eddie Izzard is a lawyer with a social conscience. Stay Close is slick, bullishly fast-paced and – spoiler alert – features antiheroes, played by Hyoie O’Grady and Poppy Gilbert, who make Killing Eve’s Villanelle seem eminently reasonable. I guessed the killer early on, but that didn’t stop me enjoying it. Coben knows how to make plots bounce, swerve and tantalise until the finish.
What else I’m watching
Death to 2021
This annual roundup, co-executive-produced by Charlie Brooker, is getting heat for jokes about the “Duke of Deadinburgh”. With pops at Trump, anti-vaxxers and Jeff Bezos, and contributors including Hugh Grant and Diane Morgan, it’s better (sharper) than last year.
Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard
David Attenborough takes a break from living things to explore fossils, mammoths, stone axes and everything else prehistoric with palaeontologists, archaeologists and evolutionary biologists. Did ancient humans wipe out mammoths? Quite possibly.
Sondheim at the BBC
A documentary featuring as part of a special BBC Four evening devoted to celebrating the life and art of the composer Stephen Sondheim, who died in November, aged 91. Archive BBC footage includes performances from Sammy Davis Jr and Liza Minnelli.