'A Very English Scandal': TV Review

Tight, bright and brilliant.

Amazon's thoroughly winning, shocking and funny miniseries from the BBC, Stephen Frears and Russell T. Davies has to be seen to be believed.

There is an eccentric bit of electricity that runs through A Very English Scandal, one of the tightest and brightest and most sublime miniseries — running at a meager three hours, one hour per episode — that you're likely to see on television in 2018. It has, for starters, four people exercising their considerable talents in an almost effortless way: director Stephen Frears (The Queen, etc.), screenwriter Russell. T. Davies (Doctor Who, Queer as Folk) and actors Hugh Grant (About A Boy) and Ben Whishaw (London Spy). And it's all based on a true story almost too weird, funny and heartbreaking to be real, complete with a bizarre twist that popped up just this month after it aired in England.

Created by the BBC and airing on Amazon starting Friday, A Very English Scandal is based on the book by John Preston that documents the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe (Grant), the British MP who was the leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976 before he was accused of conspiracy to commit murder in a case involving his former lover, Norman Scott (Whishaw).

Thorpe was an upper-class, highly educated man from a family with a long history in British politics. His career took off in the early 1960s when the country had very strict laws against homosexuality (the laws weren't changed until 1967 and Thorpe, still hiding his past, was there to help usher in the change).

What makes A Very English Scandal such a weirdly fascinating romp through history is that Frears and Davies make a brilliant decision to tell this story as a careening, jaunty tale that is darkly funny throughout but spends its most powerful moments lingering on the despair of gay men during those times (not just Scott and Thorpe) — while very subtly illustrating that Thorpe's entitlement and upbeat public persona hid the coldness of a sociopath. While it's indeed very English to have a stiff upper lip and hide feelings publicly behind a smile for the sake of appearances, Thorpe was a special case. His zeal to hide his sexuality (he was married twice) had some elements of shame but was mostly based on keeping his career afloat.

Grant's tremendous performance rests importantly on his ability to convey that Thorpe talked openly about having Scott killed without ever giving the impression that this was either wrong or a terrible and unnecessary idea.

In fact, one of the strangest, funniest parts of A Very English Scandal is that Thorpe had Scott's National Insurance Card (essential for Scott to work and get healthcare, especially the pills he needed to combat the mental illness was suffering from) but likely misplaced it and never had the time or inclination to do the work necessary to replace it — which might have kept Scott, a sweet but troubled loose cannon, from causing him untold amounts of trouble through the years.

Grant's performance, by the way, at first seems so stilted and mannered as to be a parody, but according to the British press (where the series was highly acclaimed) everybody close to Thorpe agrees its spot-on — and Grant is already being mentioned as a slam-dunk BAFTA nominee. Indeed, Grant's performance is a tour-de-force, mostly because Thorpe himself was such an odd bird. But Grant does fine work in the subtler moments that humanize Thorpe, such as when Thorpe allows himself to realize that he really did love Scott and that his earlier, closeted and dangerous days hiding his sexuality were some of the saddest of his life (and that his sham marriages have left him more alone than ever).

Whishaw is also fantastic in bringing multiple shades to his portrayal. When we first meet Norman his last name is Josiffe (how and why he eventually changes is it is both funny and sad), he's fresh from a psychiatric hospital and working in the stables in a remote farm tending horses. Norman loves animals and people and his naivete — you might argue that he's more dim than innocent — means he's forever broke, desperate and vulnerable. Norman is also fearlessly gay at a time when there was a lot to be fearful of, which makes him both stronger than he's perceived to be and risky, which is probably why Thorpe believed there was only one way to deal with him (of course, if he'd only just returned the National Insurance Card…).

Series that are based on true history shouldn't be protected from spoilers, and it takes nothing away from A Very English Scandal to know that Norman wasn't murdered. In fact, the absolute bungling of the attempted murder is part of British lore — the would-be assassin, Andrew "Gino" Newton, was a rural pilot who was convinced to do the killing after drinking 16 pints at a pub. Later, his lame-brained scheme involved driving Scott to a remote countryside area and killing him, but the guileless Scott brought along his Great Dane, Rinka, and Newton, afraid of dogs, ended up shooting Rinka first before the gun jammed, allowing Scott to flee.

Newton served a short time in prison for killing the dog (he lied initially about his run-in with Scott, protecting Thorpe), then sold his story to the press upon being released, implicating Thorpe and three others.

(Somewhat hilariously, the events of A Very English Scandal returned to the headlines this month after another man said he had told police he, too, was approached, probably before Newton, to kill Scott. The case was being considered for reopening. The man's initial statement appears to have been covered up and he alleged that it was a police/political scandal to protect Thorpe and the Liberal Party. That prompted the investigation to be moved to a separate police department, which dropped the inquiry when they determined Newton was dead. He wasn't. He had changed his name and was living in another small village, calling into a radio station about the best way to remove mold from a shower curtain and writing articles for a magazine dedicated to pilots. The British press said Newton, now living under that new name, was found rather easily via Google.)

There are so many true moments in A Very English Scandal where it's hard to believe Thorpe wasn't found out years earlier. In fact, the trial is full of forehead-slapping moments and led to a legendary British comedy bit about it. There are also so many oddball elements — both funny and shocking — that you sometimes can't believe how strange the lives of Thorpe and Scott actually were. As Frears and Davies almost whimsically tackle this story — if it were fiction nobody would believe it — they succeed most impressively in cutting through the absurdity to find the innate sadness within.

In a mere three hours — it could easily have been stretched to six — that's an impressive achievement. And maybe the brevity of it all and the stylistic choices are what make it work. A Very English Scandal is almost absurd, except that the story is both true and deeply tragic.

Cast: Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings
Written by: Russell T. Davies
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)