Last Sunday saw the conclusion of BBC 1’s hit political drama A Very English Scandal. Written by veteran TV screenwriter Russel T Davies (Dr Who, Queer As Folk), the three-part miniseries follows the scandal that enveloped the career of Jeremy Thorpe MP (Hugh Grant), leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976. Having engaged in a brief affair with the former model Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), Thorpe is believed to have plotted the death of his ex-lover in order to put an end to Scott’s attempts at blackmail. Spread out over nearly two decades, Davies’s script follows virtually every detail of the case from the first meeting of Scott and Thorpe in 1961 to the infamous trial and subsequent (spoilers) acquittal of the latter in 1979.
It is Grant’s astonishing performance that, more than anything else, propels A Very English Scandal. Gone is the floppy-haired bumbler of Richard Curtis romcoms, his place filled by a darkly charismatic creature that shuffles around beneath the smoky fug of 1970s London. Sporting double-breasted waistcoats and obscenely well-parted hair, Grant slips into the role of the ill-fated Liberal leader with alarming ease. Indeed his successor David Steel noted in an interview with the Guardian that Grant’s mastery of Thorpe’s mannerisms was considered ‘uncanny’ by those who had known the man himself.
Although perhaps less compelling than Grant’s Thorpe, Whishaw’s Scott is equal testament to the production team’s excellent choice of casting. Troubled and lonely, Whishaw gives off a sense of confused vulnerability only occasionally broken by his savagely witty asides (“I thought I was being sawn in half!”) Davies constantly nudges the audience onto Scott’s side, making the most of his sweetly pitiable character. For all his faults (blackmailing? Chronic lying?), Scott remains sympathetic throughout, clinging to his dog-loving innocence despite the danger heading his way.
Praise should also go to director Stephen Frears. His rapid cutting allows for eighteen years of story to be condensed into three hours of television, slicing between Westminster offices, Welsh caravans and working men’s clubs with seamless precision. Coupled with an upbeat background score and stunning vintage aesthetic, A Very English Scandal is more like a Wes Anderson film than a serious political drama.
But then, of course, it isn’t a serious political drama. One of the show’s greatest strengths – its humour – is also its greatest weakness. The Thorpe-Scott case is presented as a farce, albeit one interspersed with moments of sadness. Thorpe is presented as a conniving villain, guilty from the start of wishing Scott dead (a matter never conclusively proven) and subjected to squirming humiliations as the scandal reaches the tabloids. Although the audience retains a degree of sympathy for the beleaguered Liberal - particularly when he explains to his barrister the misery of being secretly gay during the 1960s - Davies’s writing still portrays Thorpe as unquestionably criminal.
Equally problematic is the casting of Blake Harrison (Neil Sutherland in The Inbetweeners) as the would-be assassin, Andrew Newton. A braindead macho man whose main occupations seem to be drinking and casual sexism, Harrison’s Newton is too strikingly similar to his Inbetweeners role. His idiocy, whilst possibly accurate, removes any sense of genuine threat from the attempt to murder Scott on that dark, rainy night in 1975. No wonder the only victim of Newton’s bungling was the unfortunate Great Dane, Rinka, whom Scott had been looking after when Newton opened fire. His gun jammed before he could fire another shot.
Factual accuracy does not seem to greatly concern Davies. He clearly plays the story for its personal drama, sweeping aside Thorpe’s political life in order to focus on his outlandish reaction to Scott’s behaviour. One could likewise critique the agency ascribed to Thorpe. According to Michael Bloch’s biography of the Liberal leader, Thorpe was something of a fantasist who, whilst probably wanting Scott dead, did little other than make vague remarks regarding an assassination to friends who took him seriously. Davies moves away from this 'Turbulent Priest' version of events, instead portraying Thorpe as harrying his confused friends David Holmes (Paul Hilton) and Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings) until they set plans in motion.
Yet perhaps the farcical nature of A Very English Scandal suits the subject matter. The Thorpe-Scott affair was a headline writer’s dream, combining political disgrace with illicit sex (homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1967) and a good old-fashioned murder attempt. Much to Thorpe’s chagrin, the court case played out in 1979 was tinged with a wry humour that shattered his reputation as a serious politician. Within months the comedian Peter Cook had performed his famous ‘Biased Judge’ sketch, tearing into the embarrassing way with which Sir Joseph Cantley abandoned all judicial objectivity to favour Thorpe in court. Tellingly, Davies includes a clip of the sketch in the closing credits.
The fall of Jeremy Thorpe was a scandal of epic proportions, an episode of crushing absurdity perfectly captured by A Very English Scandal. Supported by a superb cast, Davies’s drama will leave you far less certain in your convictions than you might have expected. Yet its sharp humour and snappy direction also reveal its one critical weakness. A Very English Scandal remains, for all its strengths, safely embedded within the canon of farcical interpretations of Thorpe’s downfall. Nothing new is offered, only a fresh face on the same sordid image of the Norman Scott affair.
Auberon Waugh, writer and creator of the Dog Lovers’ Party (in honour of Rinka), was no friend of Thorpe’s. Writing in Private Eye in 1982, he opened with six words that may forever sum up the image of the Liberal leader in public memory: ‘Jeremy Jeremy, bang bang, woof woof.’ Despite its brilliance as a piece of drama, A Very English Scandal will only perpetuate this myth.