Take power and privilege, add secrets and a dose of scandal, toss in some Law & Order drama with a stylish London townhouse and Old Bailey courtroom as a backdrop, and you have the perfect recipe for a weekend binge.
Based on author Sarah Vaughan’s best-selling book Anatomy of a Scandal, the Netflix series of the same name tells the tale of Sophie (Sienna Miller), the attractive albeit long-suffering wife of James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), an ambitious Tory MP in the British government. Whitmore has an affair with his aide Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott), is accused of assault, and a trial and cover-up ensues. The six-part psychological thriller series also stars Michelle Dockery of Lady Mary Crawley/Downton Abbey fame, who plays Barrister Kate Woodcroft, prosecuting the biggest trial of her career.
Set in London’s tony neighborhood of Mayfair, the designs of the couple’s modern townhouse become a metaphor. “We wanted a house that was Georgian to represent the traditional style of architecture as we wanted to tell the story that they come from generations of old wealth,” explains production designer Melanie Allen. “And we knew they would have employed their own interior designer and have a sense of past family heirlooms and artwork. I looked thoroughly at the designers they might have employed and that informed me how the house was going to look.”
The designer began her research with a look at the British bibles of design, namely British House and Garden and The World of Interiors along with various textbooks on Georgian design and room layouts for reference. The result is Georgian period architecture with a contemporary twist of modern. Allen referenced the work of Rita Konig, Beata Heuman and Rose Uniacke as possible interior designers the well-heeled couple would hire. She was also influenced by the lives of designer India Hicks and her husband David Flint Woods, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Samantha Cameron (wife of former British prime minister David Cameron and creative director of Smythson of Bond Street).
Since production design and set decoration are all about narrative storytelling, metaphors abound. Allen employed a pale-yellow color palette to depict the lightness and brightness of the “golden couple” that goes from light in the living room to dark burgundy as we enter husband James’ study. Tones of cream, green, and peach complete the soft tones anchored with traditional parquet and stone floors shot on a soundstage in Shepperton with exteriors filmed in Mayfair. “It was quite nice not to have just gone for the ‘picture box’ (house) of Notting Hill,” the designer details. Allen and set decorator Alice Felton (who won the BAFTA award and Oscar nomination for The Favourite) shopped London’s Design Centre Chelsea Harbour for high-end furnishings from Julian Chichester, a bespoke George Smith sofa, wallcoverings by Cole & Son and antiquities from Lots Road Auctions in London. “We selected things that would have been chosen by an actual interior designer,” says Allen. (Set decorators Verity Scott and Emma Field Rayner worked on the other spaces, including Jame’s parent’s home in Oxfordshire and the Old Bailey style courtroom.)
As for designing with metaphors, details also come into play. Allen worked with the filmmakers who positioned the rooms to center around the scenes in the script. For example, a tree- patterned wallpaper in the kitchen tells the story of Sophie adrift in the woods. The early scenes where the couple is seated on the sofa illustrate a character detail as the wall pattern behind them is an image of clouds, indicating that “the winds are coming.” Allen explains, “We worked with the architecture to tell the story very subtly. There is also a photo of the family behind her on the sofa with nothing behind him.” A telling detail indeed.
Anatomy of a Scandal is currently streaming on Netflix.