Warning: contains major spoilers for the Anatomy of a Scandal finale.
Legal drama Anatomy of a Scandal is less an exploration of consent than of a personality that assumes consent is a given because why wouldn’t it be when everything else – wealth, looks, status – always has been; a personality who assumes that if there ever is doubt, they’ll receive the benefit of it, because it was ever thus. It’s about the lack of accountability fostered in a class of men raised to believe that having the world at their feet was both their well-earned prize and the natural order. Given the current UK political headlines, that makes it a very timely release. Though this six-part courtroom series centres on a rape trial, it’s far flimsier on sexual assault than it is on its true subject: entitlement.
That much is made clear by the drama’s treatment of character Olivia Lytton, a parliamentary researcher who is raped in the Houses of Parliament by her former partner and current boss James Whitehouse MP (Rupert Friend). Played by Naomi Scott, Olivia only appears on the witness stand and in multiple flashbacks to the assault. After Whitehouse receives a Not Guilty verdict, Olivia isn’t seen again because she’s only a prop in this story. Its real leads are Sophie Whitehouse (Sienna Miller), wife of the accused, and prosecuting QC Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery).
Despite including repeated scenes of assault, Anatomy of a Scandal isn’t really a rape drama. Its true story is Sophie’s awakening from class privilege. Over six episodes, Sienna Miller’s character goes from supportive wife to Lady Justice. The scales fall from her eyes and she realises that the cycle has to stop; men like James mustn’t keep getting away with it and bringing up their sons to get away with it too. In the finale, Sophie breaks rank and asserts morality over tribal loyalty. It’s a triumphant ending for her, and to an extent, for Kate Woodcroft who ends the series with a smile to camera, despite having lost her high-profile prosecution case. For James’ other rape victim Olivia, there’s only a blank space.
Kate Woodcroft QC and the Real Holly Berry
That reads “James’ other rape victim” because there are two, one public accusant and one secret survivor. Kate smiles at the end because although she lost her case against James, he was still punished thanks to the actions of his wife. Kate had a vested interest in seeing James fall, as he had attacked her as a student when she went by a different name.
The big twist of this six-part legal thriller is that Kate Woodcroft, Queen’s Counsel barrister played by Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, started life as Holly Berry – an Oxford undergrad who was raped by James Whitehouse in the mid-1990s. Holly (so named because she was born at Christmas) was a clever working class Liverpudlian who studied English Literature at Oxford c1995, where she shared tutorials with Sophie, who would go on to marry James.
Sophie – like James, born to wealth, good looks and the confident ease of privilege – took advantage of Holly’s intellect and work ethic by using her notes and essays. When Holly disappeared after their first year at Oxford, Sophie didn’t think about her until the name came up as a potential second accuser during James’ trial. He denied all knowledge, but Sophie began to remember details that led her to suspect James was lying and that Holly Berry was now Kate Woodcroft (in part, due to Kate’s idiosyncratic handwriting and stationery). After James raped Holly, she left Oxford and enrolled at a red brick university under her middle name of Kate to study law, eventually becoming a prosecutor specialising in relationship rape and sexual assault cases. She later took her husband’s name, and so Kate Woodcroft erased any trace of Holly Berry. The only person who knew about Kate’s attack at Oxford was her best friend and fellow Oxford student Ali (Liz White), now a teacher.
When Olivia Lytton’s case against James Whitehouse came across Kate’s desk, she knew that she couldn’t legally take it on due to her personal connection, but decided to take a huge risk with her career by doing so, because she felt better qualified to prosecute Whitehouse than anybody else and wanted to see him punished. Whitehouse was punished, but not by a jury.
Alec Fisher, Heroin and the Omerta of the Libertines
In the end, what brought down James Whitehouse MP wasn’t Olivia Lytton’s report of rape, but the conscience of his wife Sophie (whose awakening may never have happened without Olivia’s courageous action). The British public and the jury wrongly found in James’ favour, but Sophie finally realised that James had lied in court and to her. A conversation with James’ mother mid-series deepened her conviction that his arrogance and easy ability to lie was inbred and that he was likely to pass it on to their son along with the egotistical belief of the family slogan that “Whitehouses always come out on top.” To stop James from continuing to fail upwards, Sophie leaked a story to the liberal press incriminating him and his long-time best friend, prime minister Tom Southern (Geoffrey Streatfeild), in a university scandal.
Like James and Tom, Alec Fisher was a member of the Libertines – a fictional Oxford University dining club inspired by the Bullingdon Club. At an end-of-term party, Tom and Alec smoked heroin. High, Tom encouraged Alec to jump from the college ramparts. Alec jumped to his death, and James made them run away from his body to deny any involvement, fearing expulsion and criminal charges because Tom had supplied Alec with the heroin, and James had disposed of it. When Alec’s death was investigated, Sophie – not quite knowing the full story – acted as James’ alibi and the cover-up worked.
When James was first accused of rape, Tom stood by him and sent him a note saying “nil carborundum illegitimi” – a faux-Latin phrase usually translated to ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ When the political water became too hot and Tom faced a backbench rebellion, he planned to dissociate himself from his old school friend until James blackmailed him with the Alec Fisher story. That was what Sophie eventually leaked to the press, promising to “implode her majesty’s government.” James was last seen being driven away in a police car while Tom was escorted out of 10 Downing Street. Previous to that, it looked as though James and Tom would prosper. He’d been given a new parliamentary role (somewhat ironically to do with drugs, considering his blackmail material against the PM) and his rape trial scandal was eclipsed by a carefully managed leak regarding a member of the opposition using male sex workers, all managed by spin doctor Chris Clark (Joshua McGuire).
Is The Libertines a Real Oxford University Dining Club?
No, but it appears to be inspired by the infamous Bullingdon Club, which the current British prime minister Boris Johnson, former prime minister David Cameron and former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, were members during their time at Oxford University. The Bullingdon Club was renowned for drunken vandalism and obscenely wasteful spending as seen in Anatomy of a Scandal’s flashbacks when Tom and James’ friends chant “Order the Bolly then pour it away”. The club also kept to an “omertà” code of silence, as heard chanted several times during the Libertines scenes, and a club photograph including Johnson, Cameron and Osborne was published in national newspapers when Cameron became prime minster, much like the one of James and Tom’s dining club found by little Emily (Amelie Bea-Smith).
Where Have You Seen Sienna Miller, Rupert Friend and the Cast Before?
Michelle Dockery, who plays Kate, is best known for playing Lady Mary in Downton Abbey, after an early role as Susan in Sky’s The Hogfather that led to several screen and stage parts including Red Riding, The Hollow Crown, Godless and Good Behaviour.
Sienna Miller, who plays Sophie, came to fame playing Edie Sedgwick in 2006 film Factory Girl, followed by a string of feature films and theatre roles including American Sniper, High-Rise and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Rupert Friend, who plays James, is best recognised for playing Peter Quinn in Showtime thriller Homeland, following on from a series of film and stage roles from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Hitman: Agent 47 and The Death of Stalin. He’ll soon appear in Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Naomi Scott, who plays Olivia, is best known for the role of Jasmine in the Disney live-action remake of Aladdin and Elena in the 2019 Charlie’s Angels remake alongside Kristen Stewart. Liz White, who plays Ali, is a familiar face from Life on Mars, Teachers, Call the Midwife, Ackley Bridge and Unforgotten. Joshua McGuire, who plays spin doctor Chris Clark, is best recognised for playing Angus in Lovesick after roles in The Hour and Love, Nina, and is currently in Cheaters opposite Susan Wokoma. Amelie Bea-Smith, who plays Emily Whitehouse appeared in Mike Flanagan Netflix horror The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Is it Based on a True Story?
No, it’s fiction adapted from a popular novel by journalist and author Sarah Vaughan, partly inspired by her own experiences at Oxford University in the 1990s, and her subsequent work as a journalist for The Guardian. That said, you don’t have to look far for scandal of its sort in parliament at the current time, not by any means exhaustively including former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s well-publicised affair with an aide and subsequent resignation, convictions for sex offences by MPs Ahmad Khan and Charlie Elphicke, plus allegations of sexual assault that have resulted in the whip being removed from two further conservative members of parliament. Vaughan’s novel was adapted by Melissa James Gibson and David E. Kelley, and directed by Life on Mars, Jessica Jones and The Defenders director SJ Clarkson, who’ll soon be directing Madame Web.
What Happened to Olivia Lytton?
Absolutely no idea. Like Sarah Vaughan’s novel, the Netflix adaptation doesn’t follow accusant Olivia (Naomi Scott) outside of her appearance in the witness stand. We don’t see Olivia’s reaction to James’ not guilty verdict, or follow what happens to her afterwards. As James admitted on the stand, it’s unlikely that Olivia bringing this charge against him would ever aid her political career, especially given the trial’s outcome. That said, Sophie leaking the Alec Fisher story to the press caused a turnaround in James and Tom’s political careers that could have changed public opinion in Olivia’s favour. As far as the story goes though, we just don’t know. Anatomy of a Scandal doesn’t seem as interested in rape survivors as it is in the moral heroism of a wealthy and privileged woman who finally realises that her husband’s a villain.
Anatomy of a Scandal is available to stream now on Netflix.