The Amazon Prime mini-series A Very English Scandal is the shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy to murder. As the leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) had a secret to hide and his gay ex-lover, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), threatened everything, leading him to scheme and deceive and eventually conspire to murder, which forced him to stand trial in 1979.
As part of the awards campaign for the series and with the Critics’ Choice Awards being held on January 13, 2019, British actor Hugh Grant spoke at a press conference for a handful of media outlets. During the interview, he talked about why this project in particular drew him back to TV, what he’s most recently binge watched, his reaction to this political scandal at the time that it happened, and the awkwardness of sex scenes whether they’re with a man or a woman. He also talked about how his time to do romantic comedies is over, whether he still might return to the world of Bridget Jones, the continued popularity of Love Actually, doing a Four Weddings sequel-ette, his desire to do a Martin Scorsese film, and whether he’d like to direct.
Question: You hadn’t done television in a long time, before doing this. What was it about this show that made you want to go back to television?
HUGH GRANT: I was snobby. I was the last of the snobs to get over the difference between film and TV. I was slightly horrified when these scripts turned up from Stephen Frears and I realized it was television, but it was just so good. The book upon which it was based was so cleverly blackly comedic. And then, Russell T. Davis, who wrote the screenplay for this and who reinvented Doctor Who, is a proper genius screenwriter. I don’t say that lightly ‘cause it’s very difficult to please me with writers, but I really think that he’s very brilliant. And then, there was Stephen Frears, Ben Whishaw and Alex Jennings. And I loved the tone. It’s dramatic, but it’s also irreverent and even slightly camp.
Is there anything that you’re currently binge-watching? Do you have any favorite shows?
GRANT: One of the reasons I was snobby about television is because I was behind the times. I didn’t really understand how it works anymore because I only ever watch motor racing or tennis. I hadn’t seen anything, at all. I’m the man who hasn’t seen The Sopranos. There’s something wrong with me. One of my children has now taught me to work the television properly, and I know how to get Netflix, so I’m rather proud of myself. I’ve watched The Crown, and I thought it was sublime. I just watched Big Little Lies, and I thought that was equally good.
Can you talk about the working relationship that you have with Ben Whishaw? He voiced Paddington, you worked together on Cloud Atlas, and then you were with him on A Very English Scandal. Do you feel like you just can’t get away from him, at this point?
GRANT: He has to die. I haven’t quite managed to kill him yet, but I will. I don’t know. It’s bizarre that we keep working together, and that I always seem to want to kill him. I’m lucky because he’s incredibly good. He’s one of the great genius actors of his generation, in our country, and he keeps me up to the mark. When I was preparing for this, I watched YouTube footage of the real Jeremy Thorpe, and I thought, “I wonder if I can do an imitation of him.” I couldn’t do an imitation because I was up against Ben Whishaw, and he was going to do proper acting, with three dimensions and emotion.
You’ve become very political, but what were your reactions to the news coverage of this, at the time that it happened in the late ‘70s?
GRANT: Everyone in Britain loved it. It was just such juicy stuff. He was this prominent member of the British establishment, in his beautiful suits. He’d been to the best schools, and he was famously debonair, witty, charming and well-connected. And then, all of this dirt came pouring out, that he had a secret life and gay sex, and that he attempted a bungled murder. It was fabulous. We all loved it. There were thousands of excellent jokes going around, that were actually pretty disgusting. “Join the liberals and widen your circle,” I remember that one. That was hilarious to schoolboys like me.
Since we’re in a different time now, what do you hope people will take from watching this? Do you hope that society has changed, in its reaction to homosexuality?
GRANT: It’s astonishing, what’s happened in our lifetime, really. I can even remember my own parents, when I was a boy, if the subject of homosexuality came up, my parents were nice people but they’d say, “We don’t want to talk about that. It’s horrid.” That was the attitude in the ‘60s, and early ‘70s. It’s amazing how far we’ve come. The guy who wrote this, Russell T. Davis, is a gay man, and he’s very involved in gay politics. I think that was one of the big interests for him, with this project. It demonstrates how far we’ve come and how terrible things were for gay men, hence the excursion, in the first episode, into the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain, which is a brilliant story.
Was it refreshing to tell a story like this while acting opposite an out gay actor like Ben Whishaw, playing this gay character?
GRANT: Not just Russell, but two of the producers were gay men, and they were all very keen that Norman should be a gay actor, so it feels right and proper that he is. But, it didn’t feel any different. A gay love scene isn’t any more awkward than doing a straight one. They’re awkward. At 8 o’clock in the morning, I’d say, “Hello, Ben, how are you? How was your breakfast?” And then, I’d have my tongue down his throat. I kissed him and threw him on the bed, and no one shouted cut, so I thought, “Christ, what do I do next?” So, I licked his nipples. Afterwards, it was, “So, what are you having for lunch?” It was quite weird.