“It’s a story of sex, scandal and divorce”: Bringing ‘The Scandalous Lady W’ to the screen

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

Natalie Dormer stars as Lady Seymour Worsley (C) Wall to Wall Productions Ltd - Photographer: Laurence Cendrovitz

Natalie Dormer stars as Lady Seymour Worsley (C) Wall to Wall Productions Ltd – Photographer: Laurence Cendrovitz

In summer 2011, a book written by author and historian, Hallie Rubenhold, arrived at playwright and Birkbeck lecturer David Eldridge’s door.

‘Lady Worsley’s Whim’ (as Rubenhold’s book was known before being republished as ‘The Scandalous Lady W’), told the nigh-unbelievably-dramatic story of Seymour Worsley, an 18th century British noblewoman who was at the centre of a scandalous court case.

In 1782, when Lady W’s husband, Sir Richard Worsley, brought a ‘criminal conversation’ case against her lover – George M Bisset – it backfired. In retaliation, Lady W disclosed to the court and the media many shocking details of her marriage with Sir Richard – including the 27 lovers she had kept in total, in large part to satiate the voyeuristic desires of her husband.

It was a court case which wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of today’s tabloids, but for the time, it was incendiary stuff.

David received Hallie’s book through a circuitous route, with his old professor from Exeter University recommending him to her as a playwright of real talent, and who, alongside his own original work, was ever on the lookout for works to adapt for the stage and screen.

“The morning after the book arrived, I was meant to be doing something else,” David explained to me as we sat together in his office at Birkbeck’s School of Arts where he lectures in creative writing.

“I began to read and I couldn’t stop. It was brilliant. It was just a fantastic story. One of those stories that felt genuinely extraordinary and unique. I keep thinking my memory plays tricks, but looking back through archived emails, I see I did write to Hallie that evening: ‘I’m enjoying your book hugely. I’ll be in touch’.”

Four years later, Seymour Worsley’s story is set to be told to a fresh audience, this time in the form of a 90 minute BBC drama, ‘The Scandalous Lady W’, starring Game of Thrones and The Tudors actor, Natalie Dormer.

In the run up to the drama’s transmission date of Monday 17 August at 9pm on BBC 2, I spoke to David about the gripping real-life story, the process of bringing it to the screen, and what lies ahead for the prolific playwright and screenwriter.

Hi David. What was your main aim in writing this piece and how does it link to Hallie Rubenhold’s book?

The aim was just to tell the story really well in dramatic form. One of the things that’s very interesting about Hallie’s book is that she’s done something quite unusual in terms of its narrative: she withholds information, which is really a fiction writer’s trick.

For example, in the court trial which is at the centre of the story, there’s a big reveal. Hallie tried to find a way to replicate that in her history book. That’s not the kind of thing a historian would usually do in a nonfiction book. Normally you just set out the facts in chronological order. So I thought that was very interesting, and something I could develop in the script.

What did you want to achieve in writing about the central female character, Seymour Worsley?

One of the things that appealed to me was that Seymour Worsley acted in a very modern way for the time. It took great courage, because she was trying to fight a legal battle, but also overcome the expectations of polite and fashionable society of the time.

I’ve done a lot of research into the work of Henrik Ibsen, and I saw Seymour in this same light. Like Ibsen’s heroines she’s very complex. She was used by her husband in terms of his sexual peccadilloes, but she also revelled in her own sexuality. She wanted to live an unconventional way of life with her husband – although it was hidden from view – and also wanted to break out of that and to have her freedom to live as a ‘Modern’. But on the other hand, she also wanted the conventionality of a marriage with George Bisset.

So she’s a very complex character. She does some things in the course of the story that are hard to admire. You can admire her courage and chutzpah, but then she really did humiliate her husband, and also left her three-month-old daughter at home. And I think that’s where a lot of the tension is in the film: you really do admire her, but equally there are moments when you question her.

(L-r) Aneurin Barnard as Captain George Bisset, Natalie Dormer as Seymour Worsley, and Shaun Evans as Sir Richard Worsley (C) Wall to Wall Productions Ltd

(L-r) Aneurin Barnard as Captain George Bisset, Natalie Dormer as Seymour Worsley, and Shaun Evans as Sir Richard Worsley (C) Wall to Wall Productions Ltd

The press coverage in the run up to the film’s broadcast has focused a lot on the sex and scandal of the story. How does that sit with you?

I think it’s right, because that’s what it’s about. It is about sex, scandal and divorce, though of course it’s about other things as well. But she did after all have – including Captain Bissett who she eloped with – 27 lovers. And her husband did have voyeuristic tendencies. But also, the way that the press has covered it, I don’t think that’s obscured other elements. They have talked about common law and ‘criminal conversation’ at the time. I don’t think those things have been ignored.

What role did you play during the production process itself?

Although I wasn’t executive producer, I was treated a bit like one. I was involved in all of the creative decisions that were particularly relevant. In TV, one of the things that’s very different than writing for theatre is that it’s about working with the practical circumstances of the shoot, both in terms of budget and locations. As writer, I did four set visits during the three weeks of shooting.

But your role is more about being at the end of the phone or email. For example you might need to rewrite something if it’s going to be too expensive to shoot, or if a particular location allows you to do something much more with it. As a writer you are responding to the practical issues of making the film. Screenwriting is always an artistic process, but it’s an incredibly practical and pragmatic craft.

You must have been delighted that Natalie Dormer was cast in the lead role. What has she brought to it?

First and foremost, she’s perfect for the role. She’s really brought the impetuousness, sexiness and naivety, but also a really principled core which is really important to this role. She’s absolutely a team player and she really believes in the character. She’s really passionate about the themes of the film and what they say about the role of women at that time.

Is it strange hearing the words you have written spoken out loud?

Not anymore, no. When I first started, when I had my first plays on back in the ‘90s, it was very strange. But it’s part of the joy of it now. It’s what it’s all about. I write the script, but it’s not a drama until it’s embodied by a performance.

What’s next for you?

There are a couple of things I can talk about. I’m adapting (Birkbeck colleague) Benjamin Wood’s first novel, The Bellweather Revivals, for BBC films. It’s a really great book. And I’m also adapting a contemporary novel for the West End, for a show with the Michael Grandage Company.

David Eldridge (C) Photographer: Keith Pattison

David Eldridge (C) Photographer: Keith Pattison

That sounds exciting. Is the ideal situation for you to be constantly alternating between writing for the stage and screen?

I’d like that, yes. I’m the kind of writer who does maybe one completely original piece every 18 months, but I have a lot more energy for writing than that. So the question is, ‘what do I do in the meantime’? The answer has been in ‘found stories’ – things I read about, true stories, and novels I would like to adapt because they would make good dramas.

Lastly, how does your teaching role at Birkbeck fit into the broader picture of your career?

I’m about to start my fourth year as a part-time lecturer at Birkbeck, but I’ve always done a lot of teaching throughout my career. It’s very important to me in my own practice and craft. The very act of teaching and communicating leads me to reflect on my own practice and to change my own ideas with what works and what doesn’t.

Plus it’s wonderful for the student too.

One of the things that’s really great about the teaching staff on the creating courses here is that we’re all professional writers who are making work now. It’s not a programme taught by washed-up writers who have decided to go into education. I think it’s really important that our students are benefiting from being taught by lecturers who are doing in the real world what we are asking them to do in the seminar room.

The Scandalous Lady W will be aired on BBC 2 at 9pm on Monday 17 August

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