Billed as the raunchiest costume drama of the year, The Scandalous Lady W caught the nation’s attention when it aired on BBC Two in August this year.
Based on the book Lady Worsley’s Whim by HWA’s own Hallie Rubenhold, the true story of the Worsleys’ calamitous marriage and subsequent court trial was one of the greatest scandals of the 18th century and still has the power to shock.
The feature length drama got great reviews. With the DVD released this month, I talked to Hallie about her work and the experience of having her book adapted for television…
You’ve been involved in television work before, as a presenter and consultant, but I understand that The Scandalous Lady W was your first foray into TV drama. How did it come about?
Actually, The Scandalous Lady W wasn’t my first foray into TV drama – in 2008, I was closely involved in the creation of the Channel 4 drama series City of Vice, but having my book adapted was a different experience altogether.
It came about in a very random way – the screenwriter, David Eldridge was put in touch with me via a former tutor of his who had read Lady Worsley’s Whim (the book’s original title – now reissued as The Scandalous Lady W) and thought it might make a good play. David read the book and thought it would make a better TV drama. He contacted Eleanor Greene at Wall to Wall who also read it and loved it and from there it was a slow inching process towards getting a commission. I realise I was quite fortunate as so many ideas never make it off the starting block.
How much involvement did you have in the screen writing process?
David and I were very communicative throughout. Actually, the overall experience was hugely positive and collaborative. Because I had been involved in TV drama before I also knew that basically my job was to give David suggestions and just let him get on with it, but he always came back to me if something wasn’t working. There are so many people involved in the writing of a screenplay – commissioners and producers give endless notes and so I knew that my voice was one among several and that I wasn’t going to get everything I necessarily wanted or felt was appropriate into the TV version. Authors have to be willing to let go of their work when it’s optioned and allow it to evolve into something else.
What were the best and worst things about having your work adapted for television?
I don’t think there are any bad aspects to having your work adapted, unless you’re not happy with the on-screen version of your book. Of course the story as it appeared in Lady Worsley’s Whim had to be changed a bit to fit the medium of television and 90 minutes really didn’t give us enough time to tell this complex story with the rich detail it deserved, but ultimately I was elated that it even made it on to TV.
There were some truly wonderful moments along the way. I was on set quite a lot and I remember watching the filming of a scene where the dialogue was lifted almost verbatim from the deposition statements I’d read in Lambeth Palace Archives. To see and hear the words coming out of the mouths of these characters was absolutely surreal.
I felt that the Worsley’s story could have filled much more screentime. How did you feel about having to leave so much of the story out?
It was quite disappointing that we weren’t able to do justice to the entire story. Originally, the book had been presented to the BBC as a series, but they opted for a one off 90 minute version instead which left us all scratching our heads. Not surprisingly, after broadcast (which netted double the viewing figures they had expected) the BBC has shown interest in doing a sequel. Watch this space…
You’ve gone on record saying that Seymour was not a feminist or a woman ahead of her time but she’s been painted as such by coverage in the press. How did you and David Eldridge deal with the balance between presenting the history as you knew it, and creating crowd-pleasing dramatic tension for a 21st century audience?
This is such a sticky and fascinating subject. I knew I was going to have to cede ground on issues of historical accuracy. It’s a really fine balance when you’re creating TV drama between telling the absolute truth and creating a story that will hold viewers’ interest and sympathy. Time is a massive constraint. Sir Richard and Lady Worsley were two extremely complex and rather unlikeable characters. In my book I try to portray both sides of their dispute equally, but TV demands straight forward heroes and heroines, people you can instantly relate to, unless of course you have twelve episodes to explore deeply flawed but engaging characters such as Walter White and Don Draper. As an historical novelist, the idea of bending history (without breaking it totally) is something I’m quite familiar with and so I was comfortable to a degree with the idea of things needing to be simplified. However, I was a bit disconcerted at how the press and the public went a step further and embraced this TV version of Lady Worsley as the true Lady Worsley, when she was actually quite different.
You’ve written both non-fiction history and historical fiction. Why did you make the move to fiction?
I’d always wanted to write historical fiction but was actually encouraged to write non-fiction due to my academic background. I enjoy writing both equally, though there’s something really liberating about being able to fill in the blanks in history or creating completely plausible fictional characters who live in a historical landscape, as I’ve done with Mistress of My Fate and my forthcoming book, The French Lesson.
What are the main differences between the two in terms of your writing processes and experience?
I learned an awful lot in the course of writing The French Lesson about historical fiction and when to let go of research. I spent far too long researching the French Revolution (the period in which the book is set) and it ultimately ended up slowing me down and confusing my story. I was so excited by what I was reading that I wanted to include everything, but I eventually realised that the story wasn’t in the events taking place, rather, the events were the backdrop to a story about scheming and survival and personal relationships. With fiction, you have to know when to let go of the research and allow the story to rise to the surface. With non-fiction you have to find the story within the research. I generally immerse myself in the research and then from that, I can see where the natural narrative lies.
What are you working on now? Any passion projects?
I’d really like to make a sideways move into screenwriting and so I’ve written my first screenplay for a proposed three part period drama based on a relatively unknown work of fiction by a very well known 19th century author – but that’s all I’m saying for the moment. Who knows what will happen. In the meantime, I have another period drama series idea in development with Wall to Wall and the BBC.
I’m also getting on with my next historical novel. Following on from The French Lesson (which is out in February), The Adventuress is set in Italy and is a sort of feminine homage to Alexander Dumas.
My thanks to Hallie for such fascinating answers. I’ve got my fingers crossed for that sequel!
Hallie Rubenhold is a critically acclaimed author, social historian, broadcaster and historical consultant for TV and film. She published her first non-fiction title, The Covent Garden Ladies, in 2005 and followed up with Lady Worsley’s Whim (now reissued as The Scandalous Lady W) in 2008. Hallie is also the author of a series of novels set during the period of the French Revolution. The first of these, Mistress of My Fate was published in 2011. The second, The French Lesson will be published in early 2016.
The DVD of The Scandalous Lady W is released on 5th October 2015.