The retelling of a buried scandal about the former Liberal Party leader reveals much about class, politics and culture, with trademark British humour.
The Golden Globes-nominated mini-series tells the story of former UK Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and his attempts to silence his troublesome, unstable former lover, Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw) – in the end, by plotting his murder, a sensational 1979 court case alleged.
Perhaps it feels more like a dramatic creation because, for all its sensation, it hasn’t really survived in popular memory.
As writer Russell T Davies noted, “it’s actually quite buried … Everyone’s lives were ruined, so they dropped out of history, and I also think slightly it dropped out of history because it’s a gay story. There’ve been a few straight scandals that keep being told again and again, because that’s seen as more normal somehow, whereas a gay scandal is perhaps seen as more niche and not as likely to be told in the history lessons.”
Although the production was funded by Amazon (and hence American money), what Davies does is fetch up the story’s innate Britishness. It’s about class, politics and culture as much as it is a murder plot. Ironically, Davies believes the affair’s disappearance from history was a key to the series’ success.
“People were astonished that there was this story that had been sitting underneath their noses for decades and they hadn’t heard about it, so weirdly, it had a great effect. It galvanised people and invigorated the audience. It was great fun in the end. I was very lucky that I was the one who got to tell it.”
He’s helped enormously in the telling by the lead performances. Grant, who made his name playing fops, emanates darkness and ambiguity as Thorpe, and Whishaw is pretty, tormented and desperate as Josiffe.
Perhaps what’s surprising – and terribly British – is how much room is left for comedy.
As grim as the depiction of Thorpe is, both Davies and Grant have emphasised in interviews that they felt some sympathy for the Devil – and for the tragic paradox of a brilliant, articulate man who was never socially permitted to explain who he was. It’s that sympathy and sense of social context that help make A Very English Scandal such complex, compelling viewing.
A Very English Scandal (SoHo, Sky 010, Wednesday, 8.30pm)
This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.