Is Anatomy of a Scandal Based on a True Story?

Developed by Melissa James Gibson and David E. Kelley, ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is an anthology thriller drama series. Its inaugural season revolves around a sexual scandal that takes place in Britain’s corridors of power. James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) is a home office minister in the Tory government led by Prime Minister Tom Southern, who has been a close friend of James since they were both at Oxford together. The two are also part of the Libertines, a fraternity made up of equally privileged and entitled students.

James and his wife Sophie (Sienna Miller) belong to the upper echelon of British society and have made a seamless transition to the political sphere. But their carefully crafted world begins to fall apart when James is accused of rape by his former political aide, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott). Although James admits that he did have an affair with Olivia, he vehemently denies the allegations of rape.

Prosecuting him is QC Kate Woodcroft (Michelle Dockery), a determined and resourceful barrister who is absolutely certain of James’ guilt. With its intense depiction of courtroom proceedings, believable characters, and a realistic narrative, ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ seems to have been ripped from the headlines. If you are wondering whether the Netflix series is inspired by actual events, this is what you need to know.

Is Anatomy of a Scandal a True Story?

No, ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is not based on a true story. It’s the television adaptation of the eponymous 2018 novel by Sarah Vaughan, the pseudonym that British author and journalist Sarah Hall uses. However, certain elements in the show, as well as the book, were inspired by real interactions and institutions. For instance, the Libertine fraternity is reportedly inspired by the Bullingdon Club, a real and controversial all-male dining club at Oxford University.

Sarah is an Oxford alumna herself and has worked at The Guardian for over a decade as a political correspondent, health correspondent, and senior reporter. Since leaving The Guardian, she has been active in the freelance sector. Sarah has always wanted to write a book like ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ and has no qualms in declaring that she felt more passionate about it than all other things she had ever written. The book is reportedly based on Sarah’s years of experience as a political correspondent for one of the most prestigious publications in the world.

Sarah has written on her blog and stated in various interviews that a 2004 telephonic conversation with Boris Johnson — right after he was fired by the then-Conservative leader Michael Howard from his positions as Vice-Chairman and Shadow Arts Minister for reportedly lying about his alleged affair with Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt — served as an inspiration for ‘Anatomy of a Scandal,’ a novel about an Oxford-educated British politician at the epicenter of a sex scandal.

However, the author clarified that James is definitely not based on Johnson. “Not that Boris is in any way my fictitious James Whitehouse, a man accused of raping a parliamentary aide with whom he’s been having an affair, in a lift in the House of Commons,” Sarah wrote on her blog. “For one thing, James is an athletic, former Oxford rowing Blue who is conventionally handsome with his chiseled jaw, green eyes and six foot three rower’s frame. For another, for all his faults, I never thought the former foreign secretary [Johnson] abusive at all.”

What really piqued Sarah’s interest is Johnson’s attitude toward truth — James as a character was developed from that. According to Sienna Miller (Sophie), who was at the epicenter of a scandal herself in 2005 after her then-fiancé Jude Law admitted that he had an affair with his children’s nanny, ‘Anatomy of a scandal’ is a commentary on the disastrous effect of entitlement. “If you look at our government, [David] Cameron and Boris Johnson, and all of them went to Eton [College], and then they all went to Oxford, and they are friends,” The ‘American Sniper’ actress told Vanity Fair.

She further added, “They’ve been given the best education, the best leg up in life from the start. I sort of feel like they, in moments, have acted with impunity or a different set of rules for them than for everybody else.” Incidentally, both Johnson and Cameron are past members of the Bullingdon Club. The book spawned out of this conversation, and in 2020, Netflix announced that it would be developing a series out of the book.

Plans have reportedly been made to develop future seasons based on other scandals including high-profile members of the public. In the post #MeToo era, ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ strives to tell a story about consent, politics, and entitlement and is therefore incredibly relevant. So, it’s perfectly understandable if someone thinks that ‘Anatomy of a Scandal’ is based on a true story, even if that isn’t really the case.

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