Figuratively speaking, I imagine that somewhere in the underground vaults of the BBC there must have been a creative team meeting where, hooked up like the precogs from The Minority Report (2002), experts with algorithms popped out pristine spherical orbs, each one etched with the names of popular shows and formats. The job of the British Tom Cruise then, is to combine this data and anticipate where future hits might occur. He’s tired, what with all the BBC budget cuts that the British government are threatening; so he needs to demonstrate that his organization is both traditional: it can still deliver prestige products which do rather well abroad, and progressive: it can still remain relevant to the license fee payers.
In this meeting, three globes roll down a Perspex tube and come to rest on a soft satin cushion: Period Drama, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Game of Thrones. Looking at these statistical gifts, Tom remembers that period dramas have always been moderately successful. “Mr Darcy sexily strolling out of the lake in the 1995 BBC version of Pride & Prejudice did rather well with the female demographic, and the 2008 film The Duchess — in which Keira Knightley played Georgiana Cavendish, a feisty Duchess from the late 18th century, also seems quite empowering and modern in it’s own way. We’ll take those parts and ditch the boring wordy bits. Also, I’m not sure how much a woman can be sexually objectified, but if we throw in a scene where she discusses Alexander Pope and writes some poetry, then our heroine might still look like she’s secretly in control because she’s intelligent.”
“Furthermore,” Tom continues, “if we also add in several garbled and jarring references to Lady Worsley being a ‘modern’ with a ‘new kind of love based on liberty [and] free will’, then the viewer at home will hopefully think to themselves: “Wow, this is just like those modern reality shows that I watch, which I can totally relate to, but with more tight britches and lace being dropped to the floor. Nice.” At the least, they might not consider how shallow a male character that can only robotically spout ‘do my bidding’ is when juxtaposed with a wife whose dastardly idea of revenge is primarily to spend lots of money on pretty hats and ribbons.”
“To add legitimacy to the show,” Tom considers, “we should also add the title card: ‘This is a true story’, because in abridging Hallie Rubenhold’s novel, Lady Worsley’s Whim: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce, some of the motivations might appear … somewhat incredulous.” Thinking for a moment, Tom also realizes: “It would probably serve us much better to turn our tale into a mini-series”, but then he remembers: “We don’t have the budget of ITV’s Downton Abbey, and won’t have their audience; especially when we air at 9pm on a Monday. But we might catch some headlines and gain quick cultural traction if we air a one-off TV film at the exact moment that the government is examining how we spend our funds.”
Picking up the next ball, and thumbing over the name in his sweaty palm, Tom gives a jolt. “Fifty Shades might be a bit too strong for our television audience,” he laughs to himself; but “it’s okay; we’ll have a riding crop in several scenes (kinky naughty!), people using the adjective ‘fuck’ in the 1780’s (historically naughty!), and a husband masturbating outside of a bedroom door whilst peeping on his wife who is having sex with any number of other men (‘Is this a period drama or porn?’ naughty!). Just to be safe, we’ll present every one of the sex scenes in softly-lit montages whilst harp music plays over the top; that way, when we cut to shots of writhing torsos, it will look super classy, and is surely what women want to see despite the later matrimonial prostitution context.”
“Anyway, we’ll be fine with the sex if it’s titillating,” mused Tom, “especially if we use comically dampening British expressions such as ‘He has us by the nutmegs’ and ‘Married, my arse’ to counterpoint the most introspective lines from the script. Phrases such as ‘Are you not satisfied with looking upon me through the keyhole?’ might seem quite Blackadder the Third (1987), but I’m certain that nobody will laugh out loud when they hear it spoken with absolute solemnity. With all of the explosive keyhole action, the viewers might also consider that the show is positioning them as hypocritical voyeurs of forced/cajoled sex scenes, which again, we might want to avoid making too obvious. The tensions between sexuality/pleasure and ownership/power are still very interesting — like in Secret Diary of a Call Girl (2007-present) or Belle de Jour (1967), but it might be presented in a confusing fashion within our story, because like Mary Antoinette probably said in Sofia Coppola’s version of events: ‘Let them eat sexy yet judgmental cake.'”
As for the last sphere, Tom thought hard and debated with himself: “Yes, Game of Thrones is the most successful show on television at the moment, and it does contain it’s fair share of bed-hopping, which people like, but we simply don’t have that kind of budget.” Tom paces around the room; the other creatives look anxiously at him whilst the precogs on the floor inaudibly murmur to themselves that their visions are often quite fallible. Nobody cares. Then Tom has an idea — a flash of budgetary inspiration. “Instead, we’ll simply get the actress that plays the headstrong Margaery Tyrell from Thrones. Natalie Dormer. She was also the headstrong Anne Boleyn in that other period drama, The Tudors, and the headstrong Cressida in those Hunger Games films. She didn’t take her kit off for the kid’s film, but she might for us when she finds out that she’ll be playing another headstrong woman. If we also employ Aneurin Barnard, the Welsh chap who played King Richard III in the BBC mini-series The White Queen, then it’ll look like a bona-fide prestige production. A brilliant idea would be to have him dressed up in militia regalia at first, exactly like Mr Wickham did in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, and then echo his elopement with Lydia Bennet. In doing so, we can use the visual shorthand set-up by better stories, and then we can twist the plot later on.” The last suggestion seems quite convoluted, but the room erupts into applause nevertheless.
“Which is just as well,” Tom interjects and sighs to himself, “because after the first third of the script, in which the viewer can take a good look at some of the grand estates of Britain (Clandon Hall, Chiswick House, and Ham House), we’ll have to spend the remaining two thirds locked into one set for budgetary reasons. We’ll use a courtroom because when we combine that with the period drama, it will make our show look like a feminist version of Belle (2013), where Lady Worsley can cheer on the court, proving that she is literally worthless in the eyes of the law and no-one will feel at all conflicted about what that type of statement actually means. Luckily, if we include phrases such as ‘my misfortune [was] to live in an age of men, I will not belong to any man ever again’, then the audience might infer that despite being shown to have birthed (then lost custody of) a ‘bastard’ baby, obtained a number of venereal diseases through being pimped out by her ‘rantum scantum’ loving husband, and having been exiled to France, she is still all about female empowerment and so can also be shown to be rather enjoying her subjugation to at least 26 men.”
Tom knows that the limited budget means that Lady Worsely’s tale will be cut too short to actually make his last thought make perfect sense, but again, he finds two quick and easy solutions: “We’ll have her power walk out of her husband’s house and towards the screen — very meaningful — and then we’ll have the end titles state that ‘She married again, a musician 21 years her junior, but she didn’t take his name. He took hers.” Tom muses, “With this, it will appear as though ‘Woman’ has finally defeated ‘Man’ and that will make everything okay somehow. And if we finish with a slow tracking-in shot of the actual portrait of Lady Worsley, hanging in Harewood House, Yorkshire, then if we end up producing a hollow, pretty looking, but absolutely confused piece of entertainment, at the very least we’ve also done our part in boosting the tourist economy of the North of England; something which the government oversight committees will be very happy about. So let’s make it!”