It’s said that when Americans wanted to make a TV series about their political class, they gave us The West Wing – a show full of upright, good-natured go-getters – and when the British wanted to make a TV series about their political class, they gave us Yes Minister – where hapless politicians find themselves trapped by the triangulations of the same civil service who once administered a quarter of the globe, dancing like puppetmasters over all. (It is, of course, a comedy.)
Yes Minister’s status as uncomfortably truthful political satire eventually gave way to the poetically profane The Thick Of It, reflecting the rise of spin doctors and media manipulation, with Peter Capaldi’s arch-bastard Malcolm Tucker serving as a thinly disguised version of Tony Blair’s notorious director of communications, Alistair Campbell. (In The Loop, the film adaptation, puts the 2003 war in Iraq largely down to Campbell’s machinations.) But in many ways this was the political class playing catch-up, particularly as British politics has a long and lurid history of press scandals. Bill Clinton proferring a weasely lie about how he didn’t get sucked off in the Oval Office simply can’t compare to John Profumo, the then-secretary of state for war, schtupping the same actress as a Soviet diplomat.
Despite Profumo’s wandering penis, he at least had the sense not to try and literally bury the matter. Not so Jeremy Thorpe, one-time Liberal leader and potential Parliamentary kingmaker who – I hasten to say allegedly – put a hit out on his former lover Norman Scott. Usually when politicians are involved, we use the double-buttocked word ‘assassination’. But in a case like this, when you’ve looked up a hoodlum to kill your old bit of rough who’s now blackmailing you, it’s definitely a ‘hit’ – barely a step above a common ‘bumping-off’.
A Very English Scandal takes these allegations as fact – which does of course make for a far better story, though it should be noted that, at trial, neither Thorpe nor his defence offered any alternative explanation as to why, in 1975, a gunman came after Norman Scott and shot his dog. And, thanks to splashy press coverage of the scandal, the court of public opinion (that less wiggy, far rougher-round-the-edges institution) had already found Thorpe extremely guilty. Hence, Thorpe lost his seat in the 1979 election, and the Liberal party as a whole returned to the fringes of British politics, where they would remain until a young man called Nick Clegg attempted to sup with the devil without having brought his long spoon – but that’s another story.
It’s impossible to avoid mentioning spoilers (like the huge ones above) in discussing a series like this, being as it is a dramatisation of true events – although whether they can be truly called spoilers is perhaps one for the philosophers, since even the details which technically remain alleged have all been a matter of public record for some forty years. Either way, the real meat of any such dramatisation lies in how those events are brought to life – and Russell T. Davies, Britain’s undisputed master of gay media and the first one to notice how ludicrously camp Doctor Who is, was definitely the man to do it.
The role of Thorpe himself seems almost tailor-made for Hugh Grant, whose string of leading-man roles in the 1990s became tainted by his much-publicised arrest on vice charges – by which I mean getting sucked off by a prostitute in a public place. While this didn’t completely torpedo his career, it was only after his 1995 arrest that he started playing cads, antagonists, and other forms of bad egg. Furthermore, the Grant of today, showing definite signs of aging (even though you’d never peg him for nearly 60), has a certain length of face and cragginess of jaw that strongly resembles the real Thorpe – and, by all accounts, has Thorpe’s mannerisms down pat.
Like much of Grant’s work, this is a period piece – but here that isn’t just an excuse to delve into the BBC’s formidable wardrobe and mock up some nicotine-stained ‘70s architecture. History’s visceral homophobia is on full display here, and is particularly relevant since it was only in 1967, well after Thorpe and Scott’s affair, that homosexuality was decriminalised (several members of Parliament having fallen foul of the relevant laws beforehand) – a change in the law which, ironically, the Liberals spearheaded, but a change which couldn’t stop even a whiff of gaiety being a death sentence in front-line politics.
Perhaps the most obvious dramatic tension in this regard comes from behind the camera, from Davies himself – torn between despising Thorpe the scheming politician, and sympathising with Thorpe the gay man closeted by circumstance, which is never clearer than in the section where Thorpe describes some other dalliances that ended with him being mugged and beaten up.
By contrast, Ben Whishaw’s Andrew Scott is somewhat disappointing – not bad per se, but it can’t escape the fact that it’s Whishaw doing it, and ends up somewhat marred and stereotypical for it. When Thorpe first meets Scott, he’s mucking out the stables on a friend’s estate, so the dynamic is clearly meant to present Scott as Thorpe’s bit of rough, not as the foppish, Jaggerish character Whishaw gives us. Indeed, the real Scott publicly rebuked being characterised as a “poor, mincing, little gay person”.
This is perhaps understandable on the basis that Scott does, throughout the drama, come across as a fairly pathetic figure – and I use ‘pathetic’ in its most literal sense of having a good helping of pathos. If Thorpe, a powerful and influential politician, had a rough time of it being gay, you can imagine how bad it was for Scott. Further, when their affair began, Scott had to leave his job in a hurry – and as a result lost his National Insurance card (the UK equivalent of a Social Security card). Thorpe promised to replace it, but didn’t, and although Scott’s blackmailing did involve demands for money, it was mainly intended to get Thorpe to follow through on this. He never did – and a title card after the conclusion reveals that Scott, to this day, still doesn’t have a National Insurance card.
The rest of the cast are solid enough, although I extend especial praise to Blake Harrison as Andrew Newton, the hired gunman. Harrison first came to fame as the lovably oafish Neil in the unapologetically puerile comedy The Inbetweeners, and brings more than a little of the same amiable dimwittery to this role – which, really, is the only possible explanation for Newton’s bumbling approach to murder-for-hire.
Despite his wideboy shell, in the clutch Newton seems almost as vulnerable and helpless as Scott himself, which is only partially explained by his nervousness around Rinka, Scott’s doomed Great Dane – he’s so desperately out of his depth you could either laugh or cry. As hapless crims go, Harrison here is up with the best of the Coen brothers’ output.
Almost certainly because the show was butting its head against a finite runtime, the journalist and provocateur Auberon Waugh is only granted a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it non-speaking role – running against Thorpe in the general election of 1979, representing the Dog Lovers’ Party. (Thorpe lost his seat, although not to Waugh.) Granted, this was probably the most salient moment of Waugh’s involvement, but he had been one of the most prominent media voices to comment on the Thorpe affair, threatening to ‘reveal some of the things in my file on this revolting man’ in a 1974 issue of that respected organ Private Eye, following the shooting and the subsequent revelations closely, and ultimately writing a book, The Last Word, on the scandal as a whole.
The plot moves along at a fair old lick – it has to, covering as it does events from 1960 up to 1979. While it generally doesn’t feel overly rushed, Scott’s two marriages really speed by, with his first wife showing up for a grand total of three (fairly brief) scenes. This calendar-page-turning pace also makes Thorpe’s plot seem to be more hot-blooded, more like a crime of passion, than it was – actually thinking through the dates, he had been brooding on Scott for nearly five years after their last contact.
Again, this is all covering matters which have been public knowledge for some decades, which gives the narrative license to breeze through the plot points. Most people will, going in, at least know the essential details, and as such there is a sense of grim inevitability about it all. When we are first introduced to Thorpe, explaining his relationship with Scott to a confidant, we already know that in this lies the seeds of the man’s downfall. Even if you don’t know the story, the title of the piece is a bit of a giveaway.
Much like A Very English Scandal’s close cousins Yes Minister and The Thick Of It, there is perhaps inevitably a humorous edge to the proceedings here – not least in the portrayal of Newton, but mainly from the audacity of the public figures involved, the inescapable idea that these people should not be behaving like this, which by extension gives it all a side of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’.
The real Scott criticised the show for taking this comedic tone – understandable, since the events will always be close to the knuckle for him, but from the outside there will always be some yuks to be had from seeing the supposedly great and good brought low, revealed as creatures of flesh and fluids and bad decisions just like the rest of us. And as for the Scotts of the world? Hell, it’s comedy. You’ve got to have your fall guy.