The Scandalous Lady W: Adapting Hallie Rubenhold's book into a drama for BBC Two

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Natalie Dormer as Lady Seymour Worsley (Photographer: Laurence Cendrovitz, Image credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Productions)

How did you get involved with the project to write a screenplay based upon Hallie Rubenhold’s book?

Well it was my idea! My old professor from University, Peter Thomson, had read “Lady Worsley’s Whim” (now republished as “The Scandalous Lady W”) and corresponded with the author, Hallie Rubenhold. He put Hallie in touch with me as she wanted to know whether the book might make a stage play. I remember vividly finding the book in amongst a pile of post when I returned home to rural Lancashire (where I was living at the time) and mentally composing an email to Hallie saying it might take me a few weeks to get back to her. But the following morning when I was prevaricating over a rewrite of something else I started reading the book and I couldn’t stop. Looking back through archived emails I can see I actually emailed Hallie that evening saying how much I was enjoying her book and that I’d be in touch properly very soon. I got in touch with Hallie a week later and when we met Hallie gave me permission to talk to some producers about the idea of basing a TV drama on the true story of the Worsley’s marriage and its scandalous demise. I was convinced it was TV rather than theatre.

The prospect of a court trial at the heart of the story made it feel ripe for drama, as the court room has long been a fruitful crucible for drama, because the contest of plaintiff and defendant is inherently dramatic. But what made the narrative feel right for the small screen was its fantastic story (TV eats story) and also that I instinctively felt memory, and its particular impact on point of view, may be important in the telling. The muscular narrative made the tale feel right for TV rather than cinema, but I was very much inspired by the way Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar played with time and memory in his films. One of the things I found 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.

Natalie Dormer as Lady Seymour Worsley (dressed to match the painting by Joshua Reynolds at Harewood House)(Photographer: Laurence Cendrovitz Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Productions)

One of the first TV producers I talked to was Eleanor Greene at Wall to Wall, as we’d recently been in touch after she very much enjoyed my stage play for the AlmeidaThe Knot of the Heart”. Although Eleanor and I joke about it now, that she’d said in the meeting she wasn’t too keen on producing a costume drama. But I was convinced that she would respond to the story of Lady Worsley positively. Lady Worsley is a genuinely complex, intriguing and unique character. She displayed remarkable courage and modernity and went to great lengths and made huge sacrifices to achieve her ends; and yet she was often startlingly naïve about the consequences of her actions. She was used by her husband, Sir Richard, to please his sexual peccadillos and yet she revelled in her own sex appeal. Like much of fashionable society at the time she embraced the idea of liberty and living as “a modern” and yet she craved marriage with the lover she eloped with, George Bisset.

She also eloped without her young baby, believing that her bid for freedom would just succeed as she wished. In the late eighteenth century the high rates of infant mortality meant that parents often had a different attitude to their children. But it remains shocking that Seymour Worsley fled with her lover from Lewes to London, leaving behind her three month old daughter Jane. She believed the love-child she shared with Bisset would be brought to her. She was wrong. Seymour’s complexity enthralled me and it’s something I’ve tried to bring to the screen. I did not always admire what Seymour did, but I always rooted for her and loved her. I feel I’ve often made some of my best work when I’ve written for women. Creating a heroine rather than a hero at the centre of drama, has always enabled me to write something more complex, freed from the more conventional vagaries of masculinity. I’ve been long fascinated by the mature dramas of Henrik Ibsen; a man who created one of the most iconic feminist moments in the history of drama, when Nora leaves her husband and her children and slams the door on her marriage. I knew I had to write “The Scandalous Lady W”. I had a hunch Eleanor would want to produce it, and she did, and luckily for us Lucy Richer and Maxine Watson at the BBC agreed.

The Scandalous Lady W - George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer), Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)(Photographer:Laurence Cendrovitz Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Productions)

Were you already aware of the story of Lady Seymour Worsley? Your theatre work has focused on “ordinary” people, what appealed about this story of 18th Century aristocrats?

No, I wasn’t aware of the Worsley’s; in my view it’s a gem of hidden history. But I was absolutely compelled by their story. I was stunned by the marriage of Lady Seymour Fleming and Sir Richard Worsley, its modernity and tale of psychological abuse; and then subsequent destruction, culminating in a very public scandal and court trial. And a “Criminal Conversation” trial itself wasn’t something I had seen on television before. The archaic term which has fallen out of use isn’t helpful. “Criminal Conversation, what’s that?” was something I got used to hearing. I opted for layman’s terms; “Basically if someone ran off with or shagged your missus then you could sue them for damages because at that time she was in effect your property”. And this remarkable common law tort was at the heart of what interested in me in telling this story for the small screen.

In 1781 when the then Lady Seymour Worsley eloped with her lover Captain George Bisset, English law defined the role of a wife as under the “protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord”. Upon marriage husband and wife became one person and the property of the wife became her husband’s and the wife’s legal identity ceased to exist. Seymour was Richard’s property and George Bisset had debased it and stolen it from him, and the cuckolded baronet wanted compensation. Remarkably the “crim con” common law tort was only abolished in England in 1857 and married women remained “feme covert” until the Married Women’s Property Act received Royal Assent in 1882 – a century after the Worsley’s found themselves in the Court of the King’s Bench.

At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century suits for “crim con” peaked where large sums of between £10,000 and £20,000 were demanded in recompense. Astronomical sums of money in today’s terms. But what made the Worsley’s case so unusual was that with no means to pay off Sir Richard if he won the case, Seymour Worsley embarked upon a remarkably modern course of action to save her lover from the fate of debtor’s prison. Lady Worsley decided she would prove she had not been worth £20,000 long before she met Captain Bisset.

I don’t think my work is exclusively focused on “ordinary people” in Essex and east London, and whose life is ordinary really? I’d written a single drama for BBC4 in 2005 called “Our Hidden Lives” set in the immediate post-war period and also written new versions of Ibsen and Strindberg’s plays and my most recent stage work “Holy Warriors” spanned a thousand years of turbulent history in the Middle East. I like to think of a football analogy for my working life; I “play at home” and I “play away”.

Shaun Evans as Richard Worsley (Photographer: Laurence Cendrovitz Image Copyright: BBC/Wall to Wall Productions)

How did you work together with Hallie Rubenhold on the adaptation?

Well it was much as you would expect. For months and months on end over the three year process from first meeting to the shoot I was just getting on with writing and rewriting the screenplay, working with the teams at Wall to Wall and the BBC and then the director Sheree Folkson. But at key points Hallie would read a draft and give excellent notes, mainly on the history, but often wisely about the drama itself. Hallie was always at the end of a phone or email if I needed her to be but she was always generous and respectful of me getting on and doing my job.

As I began work on the screenplay I found when I occasionally embellished the real history I always ended up returning to the facts in the end rather than guild the lily. The focus of a ninety minute drama inevitably means that I haven’t respected or realised every full stop or comma of history but I’ve never wanted to do anything but to serve this singular true story and that’s something that was plain for Hallie to see. The playwright and screenwriter Patrick Marber said of adapting Strindberg “At times I have been unfaithful to the original, but always conscious that infidelity might be an act of love”. The sentiment couldn’t be more striking in the context of the Worsley’s tale of sex, scandal and divorce.

What are the universal themes that are still relevant in the story of Lady W?

Well as Natalie Dormer (who plays Seymour) has said it’s incredible “in terms of women's rights, a woman was considered her husband's property and couldn't own or even inherit her own property until 1882 when the Married Woman's Act was passed. Most girls walking around on the street [now] tweeting and ordering on their net-a-porter app have no idea how minute the time is that we have had the equality that we have had”. There are still many cultures and societies where this is still the case, even to a degree. I think too the way that when a marriage ends in acrimonious circumstances and results in litigation and a kind of mutually assured destruction is something BBC Two audiences will be familiar with.

We’re used now to seeing celebrities adorning the pages of tabloid newspapers as their relationships fall apart and messy divorces and custody battles are fought out in the public domain for perceived advantage. But it was highly unusual at the end of the eighteenth century for an aristocratic woman to defy the conventions polite society demanded, and instead reveal the salacious and voyeuristic details of her marriage in court. Seymour wanted a divorce, her daughter, and what she believed rightfully belonged to her. And she decided, much like a celebrity of our times, she knew how to go about winning her case. Seymour, however, underestimated Sir Richard’s stubbornness and the extent to which she had hurt and humiliated him and a divorce was not quickly forthcoming.

Aneurin Barnard as George Bisset and Natalie Dormer as Lady Worsley (Photographer: Laurence Cendrovitz Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Productions)

How vital are the sex scenes to the story?

Well, including Captain Bisset, it’s said Lady Seymour Worsley had twenty-seven lovers; and Seymour found herself having to satisfy her husband’s voyeuristic desires while gradually coming to a place where she revelled in her own sexuality as she sought to find a kind of freedom within the constraints of her marriage and society. So the sex is important to the story. But it’s not salacious, it’s just part of a story which is really about a strikingly modern woman who with extraordinary courage and risk-taking seeks to find herself, and a place within society on her own terms, and how she slightly loses herself along the way.

Were you involved in the casting or visit the set? Did you know Natalie Dormer from The Tudors, Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games?

I made four set visits in all over the shoot and I was involved in many of the important creative decisions in the production of the film. I’m not an Executive Producer on “The Scandalous Lady W” but fortunately Eleanor Greene treated me a bit like one so we talked about the feel of the film, the appointment of a director and the casting, and I enjoyed very much that part of the process in TV, as I do when I work in the theatre.

I knew Natalie had become a star but I hadn’t seen any of that work on screen! Actually I knew her work as an actress from “Silk” on BBC One and from appearing in Patrick Marber’s updated version of Strindberg’s play “Miss Julie”. Natalie’s perfect for the role of Seymour; she plays the principled core of steel alongside the lighter, sexier and impetuous side of the character peerlessly in my view.

Aneurin Barnard as George Bisset, Natalie Dormer as Lady Worsley (Photographer:Laurence Cendrovitz Image Credit: BBC/Wall to Wall Productions)

How would you summarise the differences in writing for TV compared with Theatre?

Well on stage you’re often trying to sustain dramatic actions and on screen you’re often cutting away. The cut itself often tells the story. Physical action is important in both forms of dramatic writing, but the way you tell story in pictures on screen is remarkably different. An image of a single tear rolling down a cheek is massive in close up on TV. At the back of the Olivier stalls at the National Theatre no one has even noticed that moment because the audience can’t see it. But it’s all drama. What strikes me is what the different forms of successful dramatic writing have in common. A compelling narrative, with compelling characters whose story is told through dramatic action. You can write a screenplay full of punchy short scenes, beautiful images and elegant screen direction but if there’s no story, interesting characters or drama then you’re screwed.

Watch a clip: "I have lost everything"

You’ve said “the world is full of rejection for writers” can you offer any advice on how to deal with these or any advice generally for other budding writers?

You just have to accept the rejection and move on. Otherwise you just end up whining in an annoying and unproductive fashion like someone who has been dumped by their boyfriend or girlfriend, and who doesn’t seem to think that they may have been part of the problem. I think you have to know what you’ve written, so that when bum notes come your way you can ignore them, but that self-knowledge also facilitates a greater openness to the ideas of your key collaborators. Knowing what you’ve written can only come through a lot of hard work on your own, including a number of drafts on your own before you show someone else what they say is a first draft and what is in reality your third or fourth draft. I agree with Graham Linehan who says “Even the dumbest person in the room can help your script, because if that person felt the need to open his big dumb mouth, it’s because your script didn’t hold his attention enough to keep him quiet”.

Don’t think of writing as a career, it’s not; think of it as a “writing life”. A writing life is way too unpredictable to map out like a career, and I think writers’ should be open to what comes next, and where their nose and gut takes them as far as possible. I’d keep on the day job for as long as possible because experience tells me when writers do things mainly motivated by money they often don’t do their best work or fulfil their potential. I’m a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London – a role I very much relish as a part of my writing life. Dramas that I have written from the heart are the ones that have done well and earned me money. That’s not to say there isn’t value in thinking of writing as work that puts bread on the table. I just think writers have to try and make wise choices about what they devote sometimes significant parts of their lives to.

Don’t write what you think is fashionable as it will soon be out of fashion. Write from the heart in everything you do. When you’ve decided what story you want to tell in dramatic form, from then on only write for actors and your audience. Give all that love in your heart away to them.

Watch 'The Scandalous Lady W' on BBC Two, Monday 17th August 2015 at 9pm and on BBC iPlayer for 30 days

Find out more about the Cast and Characters

Watch an interview with Natalie Dormer on playing Lady Worsley

BBC TV Blog: Hallie Rubenhold with 5 shocking truths about life for women in Lady Worsley and Jane Austen’s era

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