State of the Arts

Netflix’s Scoop brings a new perspective on the Newsnight royal saga – and bucks TV’s worst trend

These days, TV series based on true stories are seemingly announced before the story itself has finished, says Katie Rosseinsky, but a new film exploring the making of Newsnight’s notorious Prince Andrew interview proves that this genre can still be worthwhile

Saturday 06 April 2024 07:16 BST
Drama: Keeley Hawes as Amanda Thirsk, Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew and Charity Wakefield as Princess Beatrice in ‘Scoop’
Drama: Keeley Hawes as Amanda Thirsk, Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew and Charity Wakefield as Princess Beatrice in ‘Scoop’ (Netflix/Peter Mountain. All Rights Reserved)

Right now, TV is in thrall to five little words: “Based on a true story”. Events that have barely had time to, well, happen are immediately snapped up by production companies and turned into shows that are forgotten almost as quickly. Scammers, court cases, celebrity scandals: they’re all fodder for the content mill (and a great excuse for beautiful actors to experiment with dodgy prosthetics). We’ve had a drama based on the Wagatha Christie trial, Kenneth Branagh in horrifying Boris Johnson cosplay for Michael Winterbottom’s Sky series This England and a whole spate of shows about start-ups gone very, very wrong (see Apple’s WeCrashed and FX’s The Dropout). And that’s just a tiny, tiny cross-section.

It has all got so out of hand that whenever anything remotely newsworthy happens, everyone on social media makes the same joke: that ITV is on the verge of casting Sheridan Smith in a three-part ripped-from-the-headlines drama (aptly, it’s a gag that was quite engaging the first three times, but now just feels a bit derivative). So forgive me for rolling my eyes when Netflix commissioned one-off drama Scoop, depicting the events leading up to Emily Maitlis’ notorious Newsnight showdown with Prince Andrew in November 2019. It is based on a memoir by Sam McAlister, the Newsnight booker who secured that fateful interview, who’s played by Billie Piper, alongside Gillian Anderson as Maitlis and Rufus Sewell as the prince. And it’s ended up proving my preconceptions wrong, showing that, when they’re done well, true-story dramas can bring nuance and new perspectives.

Scoop trailer

Initially, I’d wondered: did we really need a TV reconstruction of… a TV interview? Wouldn’t it be a bit “inside baseball”? Hasn’t every possible meme about Woking Pizza Express been made? The fact that Amazon then announced their own drama called A Very Royal Scandal, with Michael Sheen and Ruth Wilson in the palace hot seats, just seemed to further prove the industry’s mania for true-story IP (and lack of fresh ideas). This rival project, a three-part series, is being produced by Maitlis, so will inevitably be geared towards her personal experience.

But once you get past the eye-catching wigs, the fake jowls (apparently Sewell spent about four hours in the makeup chair to transform into Andrew) and the fact that, several years post-Crown, Anderson’s voice still has an uncanny touch of the Thatchers about it, Scoop is actually much greater than the sum of its parts. The film bucks this trend of turning recent events into bland streaming fodder, by re-framing an incident we think we know inside out: it takes out much of the sensation and sniggering from a story that, thanks to all those jokes about that branch of Pizza Express and the prince’s miraculous inability to sweat, has become a bit of a punchline.

In that infamous interview, Andrew was being questioned over his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier and convicted sex offender, as well as allegations that he sexually assaulted Virginia Guiffre on three occasions, when she was aged 17 (the prince has always denied the allegations, and the case was settled out of court in 2022)From the start, Scoop gestures towards Epstein’s victims. We see paparazzi photos of young girls leaving his New York home, which act as a reminder of the human cost and, as they re-appear throughout the film, of the urgency behind McAlister’s quest for an exclusive.

In the feverish aftermath of the Newsnight interview, especially the online scramble to have the hottest take or to make the best joke about Andrew’s bizarre pronouncements, the victims often seemed to become an afterthought. It was as if, collectively, we all conveniently forgot that this was a story about alleged abuse, not “straightforward shooting weekends” and excesses of adrenaline. Scoop goes some way to re-address that. Perhaps it helps that a good few years have elapsed since the interview, allowing the writer and producers to wade through the hysteria and see things in a different, clearer light.

Billie Piper plays ‘Newsnight’ producer Sam McAlister (Peter Mountain/Netflix)

And although Sewell’s Andrew has plenty of screen time (did we really need that shot of him in the bath?), the story has been re-framed to focus on the women who made the interview happen. We see the sacrifices that McAlister has to make in service of a job that exhausts and exhilarates her, and there are gestures towards the inscrutable Maitlis’ motivations, too: screenwriter Peter Moffat imagines that her failure to grill Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky during a past interview might have galvanised the presenter to push Andrew for answers. Keeley Hawes is especially strong in the tricky role of Amanda Thirsk, the prince’s private secretary who became McAlister’s contact at the palace. In different hands, it might’ve been easy to play up the “what was she thinking?” angle or present her as a caricatured simpering courtier. But instead, Hawes plays her as someone who has perhaps over-invested in her job and become blinkered to reality.

Of course, some of the clichés of the based-on-a-true-story industrial complex are still present and correct. Personally, I could’ve done without the self-congratulatory scene towards the end, when the Newsnight editor played by Romola Garai rallies the troops to deliver a speech about how the programme tells “stories that need to be told” while Anderson and Piper nod approvingly. I’m yet to work in or hear of a newsroom where this sort of Hollywood set-piece moment actually happens (we’re all too busy refreshing Twitter and thinking about what to have for lunch).

But for the most part, it’s refreshing to be reminded that the true story drama doesn’t have to be a case of flat re-enactments and diminishing returns – it can make us re-interrogate the stories we think we know. And when Prince Andrew seems to be cropping up at royal events despite his apparent retirement from public life, that interrogation feels particularly important. Now the pressure will be on for Amazon’s drama to top it: Sheen and Wilson, the ball’s in your court.

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