Adapted from John Preston’s book of the same name, A Very English Scandal chronicles the true story of a member of the British Parliament, Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and his entanglement with one Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), including a trial for conspiracy to murder. Taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, and starting out when homosexuality was considered a crime in England, the miniseries (written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Stephen Frears) is a fast-paced and quirk-filled account of the lengths Thorpe went to to keep Scott silent about their relationship. Aided by his close friend Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), Thorpe ends up on a continuous collision course with the scorned Scott that takes outrageous twists and turns over three hourlong episodes.
The crux of this particular scandal is not drama though, but farce, as the toffs (Thorpe and Bessell) plot Scott’s murder nonchalantly, eventually hiring some of the most incompetent possible accomplices to carry out the deed (or at least, attempt to — badly). It’s high comedy if only because, ultimately, no one gets hurt. But even before that, during Scott and Thorpe’s alleged romance, there is no time for sentimentality or romance. “Turn around; all fours will do it,” Thorpe instructs Scott after entering his room one night and placing a jar of petroleum jelly matter-of-factly on his nightstand. “And then?” Bessell asks, intrigued, as Thorpe recounts the event to him later at a posh lunch club. “And then we did the deed,” Thorpe replies, with Bessell shaking his head and exclaiming “Gosh!”
The combination of the primness of Thorpe and his political world at that time versus the “vulgarity” that Scott brings to table with all of his pizazz is humorous, but it’s also representative of the larger societal views of homosexuality at that time. Thorpe jokes that he and Bessell are just “two old queens,” as Bessell explains he’s 80/20 in favor of women, sexually, whereas Thorpe admits he’s the opposite. But later, Bessell tells Thorpe that he thinks Scott — who is very open with his sexuality and doesn’t mind detailing all of his exploits to anyone who will listen — may be “the bravest man in the world.” And yet, Scott (like Thorpe) gets married to a woman, and has a son.
The story is filled with marriages, divorces, deaths (including suicides, or suspected suicides), but those deaths are not played for laughs. What makes A Very English Scandal land, and not careen too far into silliness, is how genuinely grounded it is. At one point, Scott breaks down in front of a kindly bar owner with the name Friendship, saying he doesn’t know why people are so good to him wherever he goes. Scott, as Whishaw plays him, is himself kind, charming, and unique. He can be a bit of mess, overly dramatic, and vindictive, but no one’s perfect. Everything in the miniseries comes down to Scott not having his National Insurance Card, which allows him to work or collect benefits, which Thorpe was supposed to get for him. It’s such a funny line, which Scott utters over and over again, because it’s also such a simple bureaucratic token that could have probably saved Thorpe a lot of problems if he had dealt with it from the start (Scott, who is still alive today, reportedly still does not have the card).
A Very English Scandal is, as advertised, very English. There’s a joke that hinges on a would-be killer looking for Scott all over Dunstable instead of Barnstable (can you imagine!) Davies’ script is light and witty, and Frears doubles down on jokes by often both showing and telling, to fantastic effect. The dapper discussions of murder techniques are one thing, and the snappy dialogue another (“He says somebody wants to kill me!” Scott wails to a friend. “Why have you changed your shirt?” she asks. “Well, he’s very good looking,” Scott says as he trots out the door), but the in its third hour things become ever so slightly more serious. It comes at the right time, in a series that probably could have been trimmed to two parts. Thorpe is asked why, after innumerable dalliances over the years, he chose Scott as the one to have a relationship with, and perhaps even love (before rather unceremoniously dumping him). Thorpe is thoughtful and careful, with Hugh Grant as inscrutably charming as ever. He theorizes, over quick scenes of his own meet-ups gone wrong (assault, theft, and more), that perhaps Scott — in his sweetness and boldness as a gay man — was “the best.” And also, in the end, his undoing.
A Very English Scandal premieres Friday, June 29th on Amazon Prime.