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People are losing their minds over Disney’s ‘Rivals’ cast

It‘s ‘Succession’ with posh people

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Anyone alive and of reading age in the ’80s will have come across a Jilly Cooper novel. Dubbed ‘bonkbusters’, the English novelist’s ripe, pre-’50 Shades of Grey’ tales full of powerful executives, horny polo players and sexy showjumpers questing after other men’s wives and businesses, they often leaned heavily into the dual meaning of the word ‘stud’. 

Like hot Bovril or red phone boxes, they feel like they belong to a bygone era of British life: somehow both more innocent and more problematic all at the same time.

The internet’s interest has definitely been piqued, then, by news that Cooper’s bestseller ‘Rivals’ is coming to our telly screens in a new Disney+ series. And it’s richly cast, too, with David Tennant, Emily Atack, ‘Poldark’s Aidan Turner and Danny Dyer all appearing.

What happens in Rivals?

Part of Jilly Cooper’s racy 10-book ‘Rutshire Chronicles’ series – named after the fictional county in which its set – ‘Rivals’ follows members of England’s ruling elite as they fall in and out of bed with each other and claw each other’s eyes out to get ahead. 

It’s set in the ‘ruthless world of independent television in 1986’, with two powerful men – the rakish ex-Olympic rider and Tory MP Rupert Campbell-Black and his ambitious TV station controller Lord Tony Baddingham – vying for control over that station, Corinium Television.

Photograph: Simon & SchusterJilly Cooper’s ‘Rivals’ was first published in 1988

The book was first published in 1988, but Disney is promising to give it a contemporary skew in its eight-part adaptation. If that doesn’t just involve sticking all the lead characters in government, it’s likely to mean a slight dialling back on the book’s very 1980s sexual politics.

‘“Rivals” is a joyously mischievous rollercoaster ride, steamy in its love stories and packed with larger-than-life characters,’ runs the Disney synopsis. ‘Yet beneath the spectacle and fun, the series brings a 2020s lens to the 1980s, offering a raw exploration of a complicated moment in British history when class, race, sex, wealth and sexual liberation meant that, for the very privileged few, there were no limits to what they could achieve.’

Who is in Rivals?

As Disney’s epic announcement tweet demonstrates, this is a cast that’s almost as rich as its character. Leading it is Cooper’s lustily charismatic antihero Rupert Campbell-Black is Alex Hassell (‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’). ‘The minute we met with Alex we knew he’d perfectly embody my all-time hero, the iconic, racy, ruthless, and devastatingly handsome, Rupert Campbell-Black,’ says Cooper. ‘Viewers are in for a treat!'

Turner plays fiery TV presenter Declan O’Hara and ex-Dr Who David Tennant is Baddingham, who lures O’Hara to Corinium but fails to make good on his promises to him. Revenge is so brewing.

Danny Dyer, meanwhile, is swapping ‘Eastenders’ for the countryside to play Freddie Jones, a noble-minded self-made electronics millionaire who, along with his wife Valerie (Lisa McGrillis), finds himself victim of Rutshire snobbery. At least, until Rupert and Tony need some of his dosh for a business proposition. 

Cooper wrote plenty of formidable female characters too. Many of them appear in ‘Rivals’, including former actress Maud O’Hara, fickle wife to Declan, and their daughter Taggie. They’re played by Victoria Smurfit and ‘Sex Education’s Bella Maclean respectively. In the book, romance blossoms between the 20-year-old Taggie and Campbell-Black, who is in his late thirties. 

Nafessa Williams, who played Robyn Crawford in ‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody’, is Cameron Cook, a talented American TV exec brought to Corinium by Baddingham to produce Declan O’Hara’s new talk show. ‘Sherwood’s Claire Rushbrook is Lady Monica Baddingham, Tony’s posh, dependable wife, while Emily Atack (‘The Inbetweeners’) is Sarah Stratton, the ambitious new wife to Deputy Prime Minister, Paul Stratton (‘W1A’s Rufus Jones). 

When is Rivals on Disney+?

No word of a release date yet but it’s filming now, so 2024 seems a likely timeframe. 

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