There are two ways to retell the amazing story of British politician Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott, the ex-lover he was accused of plotting to murder in the 1970s: as tragedy or farce. “A Very English Scandal” (Yes Edge, Tuesdays at 22:00, and Yes London) opts for the latter. But what it gains in laughs, it loses in gravitas.
This really is a story like no other, made all the more shocking because it is based on actual events (if we are to believe the source material – John Preston’s 2016 book “A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment”).
If you can imagine “House of Cards” with a conflicted gay man at the core of the story (OK, so maybe that’s not so hard to imagine) and with a streak of very broad, very English humor running through it, you’re close to picturing “A Very English Scandal.”
This BBC production is as high calibre as British television gets, blessed with the talents of director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Philomena”), writer Russell T Davies (“Queer as Folk,” “Cucumber,” “Doctor Who”), and actors Hugh Grant (pretty much every romantic comedy made between 1994 and 2000, and stealing the show most recently in “Paddington 2” – seriously, who knew the guy could act?) and Ben Whishaw (“The Hour” and “London Spy,” two excellent British shows of recent vintage).
I grew up in provincial England in the 1970s, and three things remain seared in my memory from news reports of the time: A crazy-looking Israeli general with an eye patch; a bouffant-haired woman with a penchant for blue suits who used to make my father swear every time she appeared onscreen; and a gaunt-looking politician who always seemed to be wearing a cashmere coat and brown trilby hat.
This was Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party. The fact he was head of Britain’s perennial political also-ran was not why he was on our screens so much, though. Rather, it was because he was one of the defendants in a salacious court case that the tabloids quickly dubbed the “trial of the century.” He was accused of plotting to kill Norman Scott, the young man he allegedly had a passionate relationship with in the 1960s – at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offense in the United Kingdom.
My memory of Thorpe was of a gray man, an establishment figure even if he wasn’t actually a Conservative MP like his father before him. After all, he had gone to England’s most exclusive private school, Eton, and studied law at Oxford like so many of his peers in the House of Commons and Peers in the House of Lords. Given that, Hugh Grant would not have been be my first, second or even 12th choice to play him.
But then I started reading about Thorpe and was struck by how similar to Grant he actually sounded. Take this description from Preston’s book: “Thorpe was terrific fun. Even when he was trying to be serious, a gleam of amusement was never far from his eye.” The Liberal Party leader was also seemingly a rather reckless character privately, especially with his sexual dalliances with other men. Even his politics were far from conservative: He conducted his October 1974 election campaign using a hovercraft as his main mode of transport; he was a passionate advocate for what would later become the European Union; and he was a tireless critic of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
He was also a fiercely ambitious politician, willing to marry a woman because he believed it might win his party 5 percent more votes in an election – even though he reportedly described himself as “80 percent gay.”
Then there is Scott, whom Preston breathlessly describes as “a remarkably good-looking young man – a striking mix of the cherubic and the saturnine.” There is little doubt that, for Thorpe, it was lust at first sight when he met the animal-loving young man (then going by his given name of Norman Josiffe) in North Devon in 1961.
While Grant is redoubtable as Thorpe, Whishaw delivers an astonishing performance as the complex Scott, who somehow manages to be both fearless and fragile, charismatic and pathetic, brilliant and stupid.
Over three hour-long episodes, “A Very English Scandal” goes from “House of Cads” in Westminster, to a cheeky comedy caper in which characters compete to outdo each other in dumbness, with it all culminating in a showcase trial at the Old Bailey.
Alongside the two main characters are a troupe of equally entertaining supporting players: Thorpe’s fellow Liberal MP Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), a man with his own vices but who will do almost anything to help his friend and colleague; David Holmes, the “Magic Carpet King” who also adores Thorpe and will, almost fatally, also do anything for him; and George Carmen QC (Adrian Scarborough), who arrives in the final act as Thorpe’s barrister and gets some of the show’s best lines (“These are the greatest charges ever leveled against a member of Parliament – and considering the House of Commons has had 270 years of bastards, liars, perverts, thieves, blackmailers, inbreds and arsonists, that really is quite an achievement!” he tells Thorpe when agreeing to represent him).
Embodying the almost unhinged craziness of proceedings is Lord Arran (David Bamber), an aristocrat who lives with his wife and a houseful of badgers on their country estate, and who played a pivotal part in getting homosexuality decriminalized in Britain. (When later asked how he had managed to get gay law reforms passed when his efforts to protect the rights of badgers had failed, Lord Arran memorably replied, “There are not many badgers in the House of Lords.”)
This is a show full of such larger-than-life characters, recreating barely believable events that actually happened. And I haven’t even got to the incompetent “hitman” eventually asked to murder Scott on behalf of Thorpe, because that’s a storyline that really does beggar belief.
“A Very English Scandal” is funny and constantly engaging, whether you know the real-life events or not. Yet I was ultimately frustrated that it could have been even better. There is so much low-hanging fruit on offer that the show doesn’t look up and aim higher, and really go for greatness (a recurrent problem with many British shows I’ve seen this year).
What’s lacking here is the drama. The show shies away from the darker elements of Preston’s book: the fact that Scott attempted suicide several times in the ‘60s; that he once took a razor blade and carved the word “Incurable” into his arm; the fact that Thorpe made a party political broadcast in 1971 with Jimmy Savile, the radio D.J. who would posthumously be unmasked as Britain’s biggest pedophile; the fact that Thorpe would refer to his plan to kill Scott (“No worse than shooting a sick dog”) as “the Ultimate Solution,” with no sense of awareness of its connotations – even though in 1973 he married Jewish violinist Marion Stein, who had managed to flee Vienna with her family just before World War II began.
So while I laughed a lot, I also wanted to be moved by the predicaments of both Thorpe and Scott, two ultimately tragic figures who deserve more than just our snickering at their crazy, messed-up lives.
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