One of the most surprising things about A Very English Scandal is that it’s not a farce. On the face of it, the story of a high-ranking British politician in the 1970s tasking a woefully inadequate group of amateurs with killing a former gay lover who threatens his carefully constructed public image seems like a quintessentially British comedy. And yet, not only is this a drama — and a brilliant one at that — but it’s based on a true story.
A three-part miniseries, A Very English Scandal (}}}}) tells the tale of Jeremy Thorpe, leader of Britain’s Liberal Party in the ’60s and ’70s whose political career was brought to a crashing halt when he was charged with plotting to kill Norman Scott, with whom he’d had a tumultuous relationship. The revelation of the affair, Thorpe’s orchestrating of Scott’s assassination, and the subsequent fallout from the trial generated thousands of headlines at the time, but it’s only now, 40 years later, that writer Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk, Doctor Who) and director Stephen Frears (The Queen, My Beautiful Laundrette) have dramatized the events.
Stepping into the title role is an almost unrecognizable Hugh Grant — at least from a character point of view. Long saddled with the reputation of his rom-com past — Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary — here Grant takes the affable English bachelor that he made his name on and injects flashes of menace, cold calculation, and an ability to both change and mask emotions in an instant. Perfectly capturing Thorpe’s witty and charming public persona, as well as the isolation and desperation of a closeted man in a time when homosexuality was not only frowned upon but explicitly illegal, Grant is at turns creepy in his pursuit of Scott, dashing in his hunger for power, tragic in his loneliness, and chilling as he repeatedly demands the death of Scott when his secrets threaten to unravel. His Thorpe is as at ease delivering an impassioned speech on European integration in Parliament as he is telling friend and fellow politician Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings) that killing Scott would be “no worse than shooting a sick dog.”
Ben Whishaw equally commands the screen as Scott, portraying a man driven to desperation and ruin by Thorpe’s casual disregard of his feelings — Thorpe repeatedly asserts that two men cannot love one another, contrary to what he obviously feels. Thorpe initially takes care of Scott, but his busy schedule and Scott’s mental health problems drive them apart until Thorpe sends him on his way. Scott, angry and downtrodden, reports Thorpe to the police, moves to Ireland to try and become a model, and ultimately returns to England. All the while, when rock bottom keeps finding him, he reaches out to Thorpe for the one thing he needs to truly move on — his National Insurance Card, which, like a Social Security number, is essential to finding work and claiming state benefits.
This is where A Very English Scandal would not have worked as fiction. Thorpe could easily have procured Scott’s replacement card and cut all ties. Instead, Scott’s repeated contact drove Thorpe to near-madness, culminating in a desire to see him killed — and despite the ridiculousness of the facts, it’s all convincingly delivered by a first-rate cast. While Grant is enthralling in capturing Thorpe’s downfall, Whishaw steals every scene as his Scott gradually opens up, becoming more confident, more open, and ultimately less ashamed of his sexuality. Surrounding them is a cast of surprisingly fleshed out characters, given the relatively short runtime of the series — just shy of three hours. Jennings is sublime as Peter Bessell, he and Grant establishing most of the exposition of the relationship and its fallout over various meals at various gentlemen’s clubs in London. Adrian Scarborough is perfectly cast as Thorpe’s charismatic and intensely calculating attorney George Carman. Blake Harrison delivers a Carry On-esque performance as the would-be killer Andrew Newton in the runup to the assassination. Monica Dolan shines as Thorpe’s second wife, Marion. And the list goes on — while the focus is almost always on Grant and Whishaw, there’s no fat to be trimmed in the ensemble here.
Aiding all of this is a script by Davies that is witty, emotional, and suitably dark where necessary. The comedy is often black (and very funny) and the shifts in tone can be jarring, but it all serves a much deeper purpose. Forty years removed, A Very English Scandal is as much an essay on the criminalization of homosexuality and the public’s own bigotry as it is a dramatization of Thorpe’s downfall. Whether it’s journalists laughing as Scott details his and Thorpe’s first encounter — he was told to “Hop on to all fours, there’s a good chap,” in suitably English fashion — or hearing Thorpe’s fears of being outed, related to Peter in one of their chats — “If anything about me ever became public…I would put a gun to my head and blow my brains out” — A Very English Scandal never shies from showcasing the pressures and difficulties of being gay at a time when it was either illegal or immensely shameful.
As the trial draws to a close, Carman asks Thorpe the ultimate question: why Scott? Thorpe details the various one-night stands he’d had before finding Scott, which often resulted in violence before, during, or after the act. Grant, speaking in hypotheticals, masterfully reflects Thorpe’s struggle to admit that he loved Scott, instead saying, “Given those men, it may be, one could imagine, that Norman Scott was the best.” But beneath that stiff upper lip, the truth is clear. It’s a very English response, topping off a most intriguing scandal.
A Very English Scandal is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.
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