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TV review: A Very British Scandal, David Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard, and Shaun the Sheep: The flight before Christmas

07 January 2022

BBC/Blueprint

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, and the 11th Duke, played by Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, in A Very British Scandal (BBC1, 26, 27, 28 December)

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, and the 11th Duke, played by Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, in A Very British Scandal (BBC1, 26, 27, 28 December)

BBC1 echoed the dying fall of 2021 with a prolonged death knell, tolling throughout A Very British Scandal (26, 27, 28 December), its lavish costume drama chronicling the sensational 1963 divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. The successful accusation was the Duchess’s multiple adulteries, evidenced by diary entries and a notoriously compromising Polaroid photograph.

As three hours was quite long enough to sate the audience’s eyes with the extravagances, dress, and décor of yesteryear’s toffs, the production had its work cut out in persuading us to care, as the leading characters were unremittingly unpleasant: the Duke was a violent drunken bully, and Margaret, his third wife after two previous divorces, was scheming and manipulative. Eventually, we did see in her some costly heroism as she refused to accept a settlement that would require her to acknowledge guilt: a refusal that was punished by lifelong ostracism from the class and society that were home to her.

The death knell didn’t sound for bodies done to death by increasingly gruesome means: here, the corpse whose obsequies we observed was that of an immemorial aspect of the British class system. We were witnessing the demise of the aristocracy’s automatic right to deference and respect from the lower orders. Doing their dirty washing in public made them objects of scorn and derision. Pop culture waited, impatient, in the wings: from now on, tabloids would focus on the antics of rock stars, hairdressers, and footballers.

The drama was sparked by its writer’s indignation at how British justice treated the Duchess: her infidelities excoriated, while the Duke’s were overlooked; her abuse condoned, while her abuser was let off; her branding as a woman of unnatural sexual desire, while her partners went unpunished. Righting such gender imbalance is, alas, still a work in progress.

More fossils were unearthed for our edification in David Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard (BBC1, 30 December). A quarry just north of Swindon has disclosed spectacular 215,000-year-old bones, a mammoth assemblage unparalleled outside Siberia, and a fine neolithic handaxe; so they were probably butchered by humans.

Sir David delightedly followed the successive deepening and widening of our understanding of the finds’ significance, and yet constantly set the science in its human context, including its splendid amateur-fossil-hunter discoverers, Sally and Neville Hollingworth. The humans weren’t Homo sapiens like you and me, but Neanderthals. Just like the Duke of — better stop there.

That scourge of contemporary society, a pair of online influencers, were decisively trounced by non-humans in Shaun the Sheep: The flight before Christmas (BBC1, Christmas Eve). Gloriously abounding in brilliant comic detail and highly sophisticated cultural references, it was far too rich and subtle to leave to the kiddies.

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