Virtually everyone in Britain of adult age will remember what happened on the night Prince Andrew gave his ill-fated interview to Emily Maitlis on Newsnight in November 2019, with the intent of restoring his reputation, mired in scandal about his involvement with the disgraced paedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
It is impossible to forget Maitlis’s forensic and, at times, appalled questioning, the Duke’s evasiveness and bluster, and some of the most bizarre comments ever made by a senior public figure ever seen on television: that he was incapable of sweating after his time in the Falklands, or that he could not have had improper relations with a younger woman on the night in question because he was at the Pizza Express in Woking at the time?
It was brilliant, unmissable car-crash television at its finest, and it’s no wonder that it was announced earlier this year that it would be filmed by Netflix and that the drama would be named Scoop.
Yet despite the Netflix project having been filmed earlier this year, Amazon has come forward to make their own version of the material, titled A Very Royal Scandal. This one follows on from the widely acclaimed A Very English Scandal and the less well-received A Very British Scandal, and is said to be a three-part limited series rather than a one-off film, focusing closely on Maitlis and “her personal and professional journey” that led to her sitting down with the Duke of York at Buckingham Palace.
It is likely, though, that neither will be taking the subject as irreverently as Prince Andrew: The Musical, last year’s all-singing, all-dancing satire, with Kieran Hodgson as a splendidly dim, and tuneful, Andrew.
There have been competing versions of real-life stories before; there were two separate documentaries revolving around the Fyre Festival – Fyre Fraud and Fyre – and the life story of the con artist Anna Delvey was fought over by both Netflix and HBO, with the Netflix version – starring Julia Garner – eventually winning out. And sometimes, it is quicker and easier to ditch a project if it’s likely to be steamrollered by another; the dreadful 2022 film Persuasion, with Dakota Johnson, put paid to another interpretation of the Austen story, starring Sarah Snook.
But it seems like both Scoop and A Very Royal Scandal are definitely going ahead, so which is likely to come out on top? We assessed the likelihood of success in each relevant category.
Both versions of the story feature all-star casts. Scoop stars a prosthetics-sporting Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew, Gillian Anderson as Maitlis, Billie Piper as Sam McAlister – the Newsnight producer who wrangled the interview, and later wrote the book on which the drama is based – and Keeley Hawes will play Amanda Thirsk, the Duke’s former private secretary.
A Very Royal Scandal, meanwhile, will boast Mr Biography himself, Michael Sheen, as Andrew, the intriguing casting of Ruth Wilson as Maitlis and Alex Jennings (The Queen, The Lady in the Van) as the Queen’s former private secretary Sir Edward Young. Thirsk will be played in this production by the great Joanna Scanlan: known for The Thick of It and the Larkins.
Each of the ensembles is extremely strong, but if we had to plump for one superior one, we’d probably go for A Very Royal Scandal. Fine actress though Anderson is, she does have a default setting of languid superiority (as seen in The Crown and Sex Education) which she is likely to bring to her version of Maitlis.
The charismatic and handsome Rufus Sewell is probably too flattering casting for Andrew; anyone who has seen him in The Man in the High Castle or the recent The Diplomat will know that he can do patrician sneering with the best of them, but hapless bumbling seems closer to the not-so-grand Duke of York. The idea of Piper as Sam McAlister, though, seems excellent – anyone who has seen her in Collateral or I Hate Suzie will know that she nails the character of a successful, dynamic professional woman who finds herself in over her head.
But it’s the Sheen-Wilson pairing that seems the most interesting. The chameleonic Sheen has been brilliant as power figures from Tony Blair to his recent performance as Colleen Rooney’s dynamic barrister David Sherborn, and his truly uncanny transformation into Chris Tarrant in 2020’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire drama Quiz shows his ability to work with relatively minimal make-up, prosthetics and wigs to disappear into a well-known real-life figure.
As for the ever-brilliant Wilson as Maitlis, she can do no wrong on screen or on stage. She has generally steered away from playing real-life characters, but her recent performance as the Norwegian politician Mona Juul in the HBO drama Oslo, for which she was nominated for several awards, showed how she was able to take on the role with great conviction and a superbly convincing accent. There is little danger that she will not excel in the role.
Winner: A Very Royal Scandal
This is the clearest deviation between the two stories. Scoop is an adaptation of McAlister’s book, Scoops: The BBC’s Most Shocking Interviews from Prince Andrew to Steven Seagal, and is likely to focus as much on the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that led up to obtaining the Prince Andrew interview as it will the car-crash encounter itself. The casting of Piper, in particular, suggests that it will be a penetrating examination of journalistic ethics and how, exactly, the so-called “booker extraordinaire”, as McAlister’s publicity describes her, managed to convince the Duke to commit reputational hara-kiri on television.
A Very Royal Scandal, meanwhile, is vaguer about details, but its emphasis and focus on Maitlis suggests that it will cleave closer to a biopic about the tenacious journalist. However, the casting of Jennings in a major role – to say nothing of the title – also indicates that there will be a post-Crown focus on how the wider Royal Family and their courtiers reacted to the interview. It could work brilliantly well, or it could end up being too diffuse; we shall see. For the time being, Scoop seems the more straightforward of the two stories.
A Very Royal Scandal is, perhaps unsurprisingly, being made with the full cooperation of Maitlis herself, who is even serving as an executive producer for the show. This not only gives it the vital sense of verisimilitude, but also suggests that she will be able to advise Wilson minutely on her portrayal; it is unclear whether Anderson has been given the same level of access to the journalist. Scoop, meanwhile, will be trusting in McAlister’s memories and experience to give it the edge, although there could be pitfalls here.
James Walton, reviewing the book for this newspaper, praised its details of the Prince Andrew interview, but also described it as an “over-detailed and sometimes uncomfortably boastful account as to why [McAlister left the BBC] remains a distinctly patchy read.” Stick with Maitlis, whose (pre-Andrew) memoir Airhead was one of the best books in recent years written about the media and her place in interviewing its most famous – and infamous – denizens.
Winner: A Very Royal Scandal
A Very Royal Scandal comes from screenwriter Jeremy Brock and Julian Jarrold, who previously worked on the so-so 2008 film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited together. Jarrold undoubtedly knows his way around a British saga, with his earlier pictures including A Royal Night Out – telling the story of Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth escaping for the night on VE Day – and another true-life drama about a notorious incident, 2013’s The Great Train Robbery. Brock, meanwhile, has written everything from the Queen Victoria biopic Mrs Brown to the excellent Idi Amin thriller The Last King of Scotland.
Meanwhile, Scoop is directed by Philip Martin, who has worked on numerous episodes of The Crown – although given the show’s cavalier attitude towards fact, this might not offer him much insight into the Royal Family – and other fact-based dramas including Einstein and Eddington, and Mo, about Labour politician Mo Mowlam.
The show’s secret weapon, however, might be its excellent screenwriter Peter Moffat, who was responsible for the excellent legal dramas Silk and North Square, as well as the Bryan Cranston vehicle Your Honor. Moffat knows everything there is to be known about the ways in which the law can – and can’t – be wriggled about, and so this is likely to be rich in fascinating procedural detail about how close the Newsnight team was sailing into the wind while they made the show.
Scoop will presumably be broadcast first – and it’s on Netflix, so it has an in-built advantage of universal accessibility, as well as The Crown connection – but it would be a mistake to write off A Very Royal Scandal, which could end up being the more thoughtful and cerebral of the two. However, either way, we win, and the not-so-grand Duke of York is likely to end up looking even more ridiculous than ever.