Immaculately crafted and endlessly clever, A Very English Scandal Episode 1 is propelled along by a tour de force from Hugh Grant as Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, who, in the 1970s, conspired to kill his troublesome young boyfriend.
I quickly lost count of all the wonderful lines in A Very English Scandal Episode 1, the first in a three-part dramatization of the events leading up to the real-life trial for conspiracy to commit murder of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Here Thorpe, as played by Hugh Grant, is a funny, charming, media-savvy personality; he also happens to be gay. “Hop onto all fours, there’s a good chap,” he tells his neurotic, unstable young boyfriend, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), “that always works best, don’t you think?”
Thorpe’s quintessentially English manner – weaponised by Grant in perhaps a career-best performance – makes such a line twice as funny. That scene is vaguely predatory, of course, but somehow feels less sordid than it does farcical. A Very English Scandal Episode 1 could pass as one long, extended joke at the expense of stuffy British propriety and politics; you often have to remind yourself that the story is true. But there’s an underlying sense of jangled nerves and desperation, especially as the first hour progresses, the tone veering pendulously from outright comedy to political drama and back again. It’s a testament to the sheer quality of the writing and of Grant’s performance that Episode 1 works at all, but here we are.
Excellent, too, is Whishaw as the troubled and troublesome Norman, who is taken in by Thorpe at his most vulnerable, quickly comes to idolise the man and then resent him for his repeated work-related absences, and eventually starts blackmailing him with various revealing correspondences when their relationship breaks down. Thorpe turns to his best friend Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings): “Tell him not to talk. And not to write to my mother describing acts of anal sex under any circumstances whatsoever.”
Norman is a victim, in a sense, but he’s wilier than Thorpe initially gives him credit for, providing proof of their relationship to the police, which is swiftly passed from the Met to Scotland Yard to Special Branch and, finally, to MI5. When his modelling career takes a downturn, he calls Thorpe’s wife, whom he married in large part because nobody trusts a bachelor, much less one in politics, and informs her that he desperately needs the national insurance card Thorpe promised him in order to secure benefits and prescription medication.
What is a man to do? That’s the question that Thorpe grapples with throughout A Very English Scandal Episode 1, and by the end he thinks he has a solution: Norman Scott must be killed. This doesn’t seem like much of a leap for a Member of Parliament, even a progressive one, but there’s the majesty of Grant’s performance again. If he doesn’t necessarily make Thorpe likable to a contemporary audience, he very much communicates why he might have been likeable and politically vital in the 1970s. He’s pro-Europe, pro-immigration; clever and roguish and perennially ready to adopt whatever façade the voting public requires of him.
For all the resonance of A Very English Scandal, and for how ably it skewers the archaic British establishment, particularly as it lumbers towards finally legalising homosexuality, what it all really comes down to is immaculate craftsmanship. Episode 1 was hysterical, clever, and most importantly human; a terrific, justifiably confident bit of storytelling, with a leading performance to match.