The Scapegoat Review: Trading Places…

THE SCAPEGOAT: Sunday 9th September, ITV, 9pm

Sunday night’s drama The Scapegoat is essentially a body swap film with slightly more subtle plot devices, except with period costumes and Rob Schneider nowhere to be seen, which I suppose is a fair enough trade. A Daphne du Maurier novel adaption for TV, Matthew Rhys takes on the role of both John Standing and Johnny Spence, two perfect lookalikes of no relation who meet by chance in a pub.

Spotting an opportunity, the conniving Spence gets the obligingly-gentle academic Standing blind drunk, before stealing his identity and going on the run, leaving the latter to pick up the pieces of his God-awful life, the many deprivations of which include sleeping with a brace of attractive women and having a quite delightful daughter.

The programme is the second film adaption of du Maurier’s book, with Alec Guinness portraying the two doppelgängers back in 1959. However this time round, the drama feels more like a farce, and is a bit like watching Frasier with everyone wearing bad suits from the past (or to put it more precisely, exactly like watching Frasier). As such, it suffers a bit in terms of believability- can absolutely every one of Standing’s protestations and exhortations that he is, in fact, someone else named Spence, be either attributed to his being drunk, or be taken as a slight by a huffy family member?

It’s beyond me as to why at no point does anybody say “Just a tick old chap, you clearly have no idea about this family, this business or what is going on, and what’s more you keep saying that you’re somebody else. I say, might it be the case that you’re somebody else?â€? The whole plot might well be convincingly resolved by a quiet discussion in the drawing room.

As a farce, the programme is full of classic horror-movie style ‘Don’t open that door!’ moments as the hapless John Standing bumbles about the country house owned by his more duplicitous doppelgänger. Yet instead of knife murderers lucking in the shadows, sadly for viewers it’s more likely a mildly-awkward social situation that awaits the character as he goes from room to room.

It all ends with a gritty fight scene with the two lookalikes kicking seven bells out of each other, and affording the viewer the rather marvellous spectacle of a chap beating himself up in the process. It’s only a shame that it has to be the rather excellent actor Matthew Rhys punching and kicking himself, and not, say, Nicholas Cage, for whom the only real drawback would be to deprive someone else of the pleasure.

But what brings this TV film to life is the superb acting, particularly from the likes of Alice Orr Ewing as Frances and Eileen Atkins as Lady Spence, who put in fantastic and exceptionally-subtle performances.

Sheridan Smith adds a well-needed bit of kick to these restrained characters, but unfortunately, through no fault of her own, I’ll always consider her to be Janet from Two Pints, and therefore expect her to chuck a pint of lager over the philandering Spence. Similar problems afflicted David Tennant whose Hamlet I secretly wished to declaim “What a piece of work is a Cyberman, how noble in reason….â€?.

Pleasingly though, Smith’s character work is good enough to make you leave behind such associations after only a few minutes, and the only thing stopping her being the best thing about this piece is a show-stealing turn from the nine-year-old Eloise Webb as the young daughter Mary Lou, who belies the phrase ‘never work with children or animals’ by bringing half the emotional heft of the entire film through a minor subplot involving a dead goldfish.

Sadly however, these fine performances are overshadowed by Phoebe Nicholls, whose bizarre cartoonish depiction of head maid Charlotte can’t help but remind one of watching Space Jam, or any one of Disney’s misjudged half-animated straight-to-DVDs. You half expect her character to be killed off by a falling anvil.

Strangely for a novel adaptation, I can’t help but feel it’s the acting that saves this drama from nose-diving due to a weak plot, and perhaps it’s telling that it’s based on just about the only novel Daphne Du Maurier hasn’t been accused of plagiarising. Still, for the performances alone, it’s an enjoyable romp, and worth a watch.