“This is a true story,” we are told right at the start of this period romp based on a book called Lady Worsley’s Whim.
And in case that play on words in the title of Hallie Rubenhold’s history eluded you, the 90-minute drama (adapted by David Eldridge) quickly spells it out in blunt fashion soon after the action begins. “I am a slave to your quim,” Natalie Dormer’s Lady Seymour Worsley is quickly told by an admirer. And the tone is set.
It takes place more than 200 years ago, but the obvious appeal to the BBC is that this is a very modern-seeming story of Lady W’s search for love in Georgian England – and the problems even a woman of means encounters when she finds it.
She seems to marry husband Sir Richard Worlsey (Shaun Evans) for love but discovers that he doesn’t like normal sex. Far from it. Rather he enjoys peeping at her through keyholes and pleasuring himself while she gets amorous with other men. Which is fine. Each to his own. But the problems start when she falls for (and later elopes with) Anuerin Barnard’s doe-eyed gentleman George Bisset.
Sir Richard (below) can take a lot of humiliations – in fact he seems to enjoy it – but the loss of social standing is too much and a bitter divorce battle ensues in a world where a wife is still counted as a man’s property.
Lady W is clearly a modern woman – capably portrayed by Natalie Dormer as strident, strong and principled. If you read Rubenhold’s source book the real woman seems a lot more deranged and narcissistic and there’s a marked discrepancy between the historical research and the drama. Eldridge’s clear attempt to stress the modern, forward thinking, feminist aspects is all well and good but when you change key details – like the fact that in the drama Lady W has only a daughter who she fights for in her divorce when in reality she had a son as well – it should perhaps have said that this drama is “based on a real story”.
Still, there is much to enjoy and, despite the large array of nookie on show, the sex scenes are atmospherically shot and not gratuitously titillating. Which you may consider good news. Or you may not.
Evans fails to elicit much sympathy for his Sir Richard (not an easy task, especially when the belching drunkenness kicks in) and Barnard (below) makes for a just about believable lover in this quite extraordinary tale (you’ll see what I mean by extraordinary when the courtroom scenes start).
It’s not a lavish production – in fact all the interior shots make you suspect that the budget was quite tight, and you can easily imagine the production team removing the red-ropes in various rooms in assorted National Trust properties and getting on with the filming. At times it feels like it would work just as well as a stage play, and some of the lighting is a bit duff.
But in an August typically denuded of quality British drama, it’s worth watching an unusual piece of telly which very much belongs to Dormer.
She’s a performer who clearly wants her moment in the spotlight and here proves that, following supporting roles in a range of telly potboilers such as The Tudors and Game of Thrones, she can really hold a drama of her own and fashion a character more than capable of following her whim’s desire.
The Scandalous Lady W is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm