Contributed by Matt Donnelly
If there is one recurring theme in TV drama over the last month or so it has been the appearance of Sheridan Smith. Since the autumn schedules began to churn out new drama we have seen Smith portray who has been slightly evil nurse in Accused and an innocent wife in Mrs Biggs. Here the talented actress adds a third drama to her impressive résumé with The Scapegoat the adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel in which she stars as the central character’s flirtatious sister-in-law Nina. Though The Scapegoat is set only sixty years ago, beginning in the autumn of 1952 going through to The Queen’s coronation in 1953, it looks and feels more old-fashioned. This interpretation of The Scapegoat is adapted by Charles Sturridge, who made his name by directing and adapting the 1981 mini-series of Brideshead Revisited, who it seems has taken some liberties with Du Maurier’s source text by changing the setting and the fates of the characters.
The start of The Scapegoat seems to insinuate that the early 1950s were all about bringing in the new and getting rid of the old as a television is delivered to a ghostly-looking mansion while schoolteacher John Standing (Matthew Rhys), who specialises in teaching the classic languages of Greek and Latin, is being moved on after the school decides that the boys should learn French instead. In a moment of pure coincidence John runs into his doppelganger Johnny Spence (also Rhys) who comes across as a caddish businessman who we previously saw have some sort of mystery deal rejected. The two men spend the night drinking togetherand when John wakes up it seems that Johnny has completely stolen his identity. When he goes outside Johnny’s chauffeur is waiting for him and despite his pleas that he doesn’t know who he is he takes him to the mansion in the opening credits where he is confronted by a whole host of women who wonder where he’s been. The premise of The Scapegoat is a difficult one to swallow but then this is light Sunday night drama so maybe I’m being overly picky.
As time goes on John tries to repair everything that is wrong with Johnny’s life. Though John seems to have done a lot of good Johnny’s return to his family home can only cause problems for everyone as we find out why he needed to escape in the first place.
The one thing I couldn’t get my head around as far as The Scapegoat goes is why everybody so easily bought into the fact that John was Johnny and why he went along with it so willingly. It wasn’t as if John particularly needed a whole new life, he was about to enjoy a walking tour of France which sounded fairly jolly. Having a read a quick synopsis of the book I can tell Du Maurier fans that you probably won’t recognise what you’ve seen here as Sturridge has made some fairly drastic changes by shipping the action from France to England, changing the ending completely and even altering the hair colours of the female characters. If you can get around those two points then The Scapegoat is an enjoyable, if slightly preposterous, drama which looks spectacular due in part to the costumes belonging to the female characters who all look fantastic throughout which to me highlights how this family were losing money in the first place. I’m assuming that the mansion itself, which looks ghostly both outside and in, was also an important aspect of the book as Sturridge has gone out of his way to make it as memorable as possible with its large steeped staircase, plenty of small corridors that reveal hidden rooms and plenty of drawing rooms for all of the female characters to lounge around in.
Once I got into the swing of things I quite enjoyed Matthew Rhys’ central performance as he does his best bewildered face as this simple school-teacher suddenly having to assume the life of someone who has a very complicated personal life. He also excels in the few scenes where he has to play Johnny the cad as he becomes a lot more animated and in the latter scenes also demonstrates plenty of malice. Jodhi May seems to have had plenty of fun playing Blanche whose main role is just to snap and swear at her brother as well as wear an array of slightly unflattering beige jumpers. Eileen Atkins is right at home playing the sharp-tongued matriarch who constantly berates all of her family, with the exception of Johnny, and won’t get out of bed despite not having that much wrong with her. I also thought Phoebe Nicholls delivered a subtle but memorable performance as housekeeper Charlotte who has her suspicions about John throughout the piece and has a great speech at the end of the drama which was probably inserted into the script for her especially seeing as she’s married to the writer. Ironically the cast member who I felt was wasted the most was Sheridan Smith who doesn’t have a lot to do other than try to wrap herself around John at a moment’s notice or try to ignore the fact that she’s married to his boring brother . Sherlock’s Andrew Scott has to tone down the intensity slightly to play the slightly wimpy Paul who does eventually stand up to his brother which allows the actor to show off his many talents.
Putting the disbelief aside, The Scapegoat did boast. a lavish style and a great cast who kept things ticking over and Sturridge’s script at least makes you want to find out how the drama will actually end even if the pace drags about halfway in. As I already mentioned though Sheridan Smith has little to do thankfully though you’ll only have to wait till Wednesday to watch her act her socks off again as she returns to play Mrs Biggs once again.