A Very English Scandal is a British three-part television miniseries based on John Preston's book of the same name.The series premiered on BBC One on 20 May 2018.
The series is a dramatisation of the 1970s Jeremy Thorpe scandal in Britain, in which MP Jeremy Thorpe was tried and acquitted of conspiring to murder his former lover, Norman Scott.
A Very English Scandal finale review – leaves you reeling, seething and laughing
5 / 5 stars 5 out of 5 stars.
Fabulous performances all round as Jeremy Thorpe finally comes to trial in a sea of hypocrisy, prejudice, ghastly snobbery, injustice and a chorus of tittering from the public gallery
Sun 3 Jun 2018 22.01 BST Last modified on Mon 4 Jun 2018 00.10 BST
Absolutely splendid … Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe. Photograph: Sophie Mutevelian/BBC/Blueprint Television Ltd
Where were we, then? That’s right, a lonely moorland road, where Andrew Newton, the airline pilot, has failed to shoot Norman Scott in the head because his gun jammed after he shot Rinka the great dane. And Norman – covered in blood, tears and rain and cradling his huge dead dog – is shouting that it was the leader of the Liberal party who dunnit.
Russell T Davies would have had a lot of fun making this up if he had needed to. He would probably have been told to ease off a little, in the name of credibility. We really don’t do political scandal like we used to; I can’t see anyone making a three-part drama about Jeremy Hunt’s property interests anytime ever.
Would a great dane really fit into the boot of a Morris Minor police car though? Possibly, pre rigor mortis, with some folding. Morris should have done an advertising campaign around it – Room for Rinka, too!
Justice seems to be closing in on Thorpe; he can plug one leak with a payoff, but another one opens up – there is too much out there. Letters emerge from him to Scott, with the killer word: “bunnies”.
“Bunnies!” exclaims second wife Marion, looking up from her morning paper, boiled egg and cigarette. Monica Dolan, who plays Marion, has made A Very English Scandal even better since appearing on the scene. Monica Dolan improves anything she is in. Rupert, Thorpe’s son, is dispatched to his room, to protect him from the contents of the newspaper.
Thorpe resigns from the party leadership and Marion makes cod in parsley sauce (one of many lovely 70s details), so they can talk. Before marrying, he dabbled (with men), he tells her. “To relieve myself,” he says, glancing down towards his dabbling area.
A lot has been said of Hugh Grant’s performance and what a departure it is from the usual. But is it really so very different? There’s com there; even rom, as well. He just shaves less often, has a side parting, and throws a cloak of evil over himself. Romcom Hugh plus bad hair plus shadows (five o’clock, lying, conspiracy to murder etc). Still absolutely splendid, though.
The evidence piles up, falls from the ceiling of Peter Bessell’s old office. Bessell is summoned back from California, Thorpe is arrested. It doesn’t stop him from standing for election while on bail for conspiracy to murder – that takes something, doesn’t it? Massive misjudgment mostly: he loses to the Tory candidate (this is the 1979 election, when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister). Incidentally, that was the Auberon Waugh (there was only one, unlike John le Mesurier, of whom there were two), receiving 79 votes as representative of the Dog Lovers’ party, ensuring that Rinka is not entirely forgotten. Thorpe was a pet hate of Waugh’s, hence the dogged hounding ...
So, to the Old Bailey, for the “trial of the century”. This is where Davies has some fun. Ben Whishaw, too. Was it quite like that, with Scott looking up, seeing his landlady friend Edna Friendship, suddenly gaining the courage to be smart and funny and to take on George Carman (Adrian Scarborough)? It doesn’t matter, he deserves the moment: it is a fabulous performance of a fabulous performance.
Not that it helps to convict Thorpe. Mr “Justice” Cantley sees to that in his extraordinary summing up. Wow, just wow, and just as it really happened, it seems. To sum up the summing up: it’s your decision, of course, jury, but try to find Thorpe not guilty, because he’s a jolly decent chap. Also pretty much as it really happened was Peter Cook’s sketch about the trial, a snippet of which appears in the postscript. More court reporting than satire.
As well as the outrageous judge, there is so much going on in that courtroom. Oxbridge chums passing each other notes, doing each other favours. Hypocrisy, prejudice, ghastly snobbery, injustice and a chorus of tittering from the public gallery. The 70s, eh? Thank God nothing like it happens today – men of the establishment abusing their power for their own personal gratification and getting away with it.
I have heard the odd moan about the tone being wrong. Nonsense. Just because something involves serious matters doesn’t mean it needs to be dry. The trial recreation – the whole thing – leaves you reeling, seething and laughing, all at the same time. It’s both scandalous and very English.
Then the postscript, with the real Norman Scott, alive and well outside his cottage. Still no national insurance card, but finally some good news for dog lovers: he has 11. Woof.
A Very English Scandal, episode 3 review: Hugh Grant gives a Bafta-worthy performance as Jeremy Thorpe
Thorpe would have hated this drama, though, in that vain, sneaky way of his, been secretly highly flattered by Grant’s superlative capture of his personality
Having lived through a dramatised version of the real life of Norman Scott, the one-time male model who, it was alleged, the leader of the Liberal Party plotted to murder, it was a pleasant little surprise to see some contemporary footage of the real Scott at the end of A Very English Scandal, rather than Ben Whishaw’s rendering of this remarkable man. An enigmatic smile playing around those full lips – even at pushing 80 you can appreciate the allure Scott possessed in his youth – and it was confirmed that he is alive and well, living with 11 dogs (and dogs were quite a big part of this story), and still hasn’t recovered his national insurance card.
This document, by the way, was the means by which you could gain legitimate employment and benefits in the years before computers came along. Scott maintained that Thorpe had retained a replacement card, and would not release it back to Thorpe. Therefore, Scott was always out of work, short of money, and always going to be trouble for Thorpe.
The national insurance card fiasco ensured this quite superb production was maintained right to the end, and the drama and suspense with it. I especially relished the forensic attention to period detail – the authentic Hoovers, the Austin Allegro police car, the disco music – Gonzalez (“Haven’t Stopped Dancing yet”), Amii Stewart (“Knock on Wood”) – people smoking on the bus, and the BBC Radio 2 jingle. It took me back, I must say.
But what was clearly missing, for the sake of symmetry if nothing else, was some indication of the health and/or whereabouts of Scott’s alleged assassin – Andrew “Gino” Newton. This extraordinary figure, played with a sort of Eric Idle idiocy by Blake Harrison, according to Gwent Police had been dead for some time. However, subsequent reports indicate that he’s merely changed his name and lain low. Police have now reopened a probe into the scandal and the development has become subject to intense speculation. (The new investigation was prompted by the evidence of Tom Mangold in a previously unseen Panorama programme from the era.)
However, when all’s said and done, Newton was granted crown immunity from prosecution in return for giving evidence at the 1979 trial of the four coconspirators including Thorpe. A run-in between Scott and Newton is a tantalising though unlikely prospect.
Of course, like all biopics of famous historic personalities, we know how it all ends, though in the case of Jeremy Thorpe, the great establishment figure who endured such a painful fall from grace, much of the detail may have been forgotten, or, indeed, unknown to younger generations. After all, most of the rest of the people involved are dead, and no one under the age of 50 can remember the events firsthand. It was, even so, a massive story.
To borrow the expressions used by Thorpe’s barrister at his trial (for incitement to murder and conspiracy to murder), George Carman QC (played with huge, bustling style by Adrian Scarborough), of all the “bastards, liars, perverts, thieves, blackmailers, inbreds and arsonists” to make their way into the House of Commons, it was the Right Honourable Jeremy Thorpe who had the greatest of criminal charges levelled against him – an achievement of sorts.
Scott made an extremely brave and surprisingly credible witness. When he told the court that “Jeremy Thorpe lives on a knife-edge of danger” he summed up the entire scandal. There was much evidence against Thorpe about both the original homosexual and illicit relationship with Scott, and the subsequent events that were to end with a great dane, Rinka, being cared for by Scott, shot dead on the edge of Exmoor, on the dark rainy night of 23 October 1975.
Much of the script was based on documents, memoirs and the trial transcript, complete with its explicit references to anal penetration, Vaseline and “biting the pillow”.
Yet I wondered how fanciful some parts were. The conversation between Thorpe and his second wife, Marion, for example, over a supper of cod in parsley sauce (all the rage in the late 1970s). So the choice of dish was believable, but how much did he tell her about his prior sex life and affair with the man nicknamed “bunny”? Was there some wary chat with Carman about bisexuality, and how you could get beaten up after picking up random guys? I’m not sure Thorpe’s possessive and domineering mother Ursula, devoted to him but sharp-tongued with it, really did say to him after his acquittal: “Of course, you’re ruined. You know that, don’t you?”
Clever as Carman was, the reason Thorpe got off was the disgracefully loaded summing up to the jury delivered by Mr Justice Cantley. The drama’s producers cleverly included at the end a little clip of the “Biased Judge Sketch” by Peter Cook (catch it on YouTube), which was inspired by the case, one of the finest ever examples of British satire: “And now you must retire to consider your verdict of not guilty”.
Thorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the 1980s, and would live until 2014. The drama, however, and his public life, ended in 1979, fittingly. Thorpe was then still only 50.
Thorpe lived for far longer than the doctors gave him, he survived his political and judicial crises far more easily than anyone thought possible, and, as we witnessed in the earlier episodes, he scaled British politics much more successfully than seemed likely. In 1959 he was elected a Liberal MP for North Devon; by 1974 he had almost broken the mould of British politics and made it to the cabinet.
Thorpe would have hated this drama, though, in that vain, sneaky way of his, been secretly highly flattered by Hugh Grant’s superlative capture of his personality, with the inevitable Bafta to follow. A Very English Scandal, then, and despite its sympathy towards Scott, can be counted yet another, albeit pyrrhic, victory for Jeremy Thorpe.
'Hugh Grant is uncanny': Liberals glued to A Very English Scandal
Grant is remarkable as Jeremy Thorpe and the basic thrust is right, say people linked to the story. Shame about the cars ...
Sat 2 Jun 2018 10.00 BST
Hugh Grant contacted David Steel for advice on the kind of person Thorpe was.
Watching Hugh Grant’s TV portrayal of Jeremy Thorpe, it is almost impossible to believe that such an extraordinarily reckless public figure could really have prospered in 20th-century British politics. But he did.
The insouciance, the exhibitionism, the darkness and the utter unreliability that Grant captures so brilliantly in A Very English Scandal may seem like a grotesque caricature of Thorpe. But it isn’t.
Forty years on, and especially in the social media age, it seems inconceivable that a major politician could have led a double life as a promiscuous gay man and a pillar of the parliamentary and social establishment, without his colleagues cottoning on. Especially when he tried to have his former lover murdered. But he did – and they didn’t.
Did you know at the time that Thorpe was gay, I asked his successor as Liberal leader, David Steel, this week. Steel’s response, speaking from his home in Scotland, was instant, vehement and almost astonished. “No. Absolutely not. It was a surprise when it all came out.”
On paper, Thorpe was a mid-20th-century Tory politician from central casting. Male, white, Eton and Oxford, son and grandson of Conservative MPs, socially well-connected, brought up in Knightsbridge in a house with a cook, chauffeur, four maids and a nanny. But an admiration for David Lloyd George, whom Thorpe met several times as a boy, led him early into the Liberal party.
“He was a very substantial radical,” Steel recalls, “especially on foreign policy, but also on issues of individual liberty. I admired him rather than liked him, but he was very charming, always fun to have around. He was not someone you warmed to. But until the end everyone was very loyal to him.
As well they might have been, given Thorpe’s early achievements as Liberal leader. When he succeeded Jo Grimond as leader in 1967, the party had 12 MPs and had won 2m votes at the previous election. Seven years later, in February 1974, Thorpe tripled the Liberal vote to more than 6m, though still with only 14 MPs, coming close to forming a coalition with Edward Heath’s Tories. But hubris lay just around the corner in the shape of his trial for conspiracy to murder his former lover Norman Scott.
As one might expect of someone who is portrayed in A Very English Scandal, Steel has been hooked on the series, the final episode of which will air on Sunday on BBC One at 9pm. “They have obviously compressed a lot of the story,” Steel says, “But the basic thrust of it is right. It’s reasonably accurate in most respects. And Hugh Grant is genuinely remarkable.”
Months ago, Grant got in touch with Steel to ask him for advice on the kind of person Thorpe was. The two men met at the House of Lords – exactly the sort of grand setting that recurs so plausibly in the series. During lunch in a dining room overlooking the Thames, Steel reminisced to Grant about the events of the 1970s and gave the actor some tips about Thorpe’s character and quirks, his ways of talking and behaving. Steel is delighted with the result. “Uncanny,” he says of Grant’s performance.
Steel also has his gripes, though they not political ones. Mainly they are about the cars that Thorpe drives in the series. “Jeremy drove a Humber Super Snipe, but they showed him in a Rover 3 litre. And in the second episode Thorpe is driving a white Triumph Stag when he sees Scott again. That should have been a white Rover 2000.”
“That scene where I interview Scott at the House of Commons isn’t right either,” he continued. “Emlyn Hooson [played by Jason Watkins] wasn’t actually there at all. He had another commitment and asked me to stand in. It was just me and Scott. I went into the meeting thinking that Scott was going to complain about Peter Bessell [played by Alex Jennings]. It was only during the meeting that it became clear he was talking about Jeremy.”
Steel may have had a ringside seat at some of the political events as Thorpe fought to save his doomed career, but he is certainly not the only former Liberal who has been glued to the TV the past two Sundays and will be again on Sunday. “I’m pretty sure all Liberals are watching it,” says Paddy Ashdown, who succeeded Steel as leader and who was an aspiring MP during the Thorpe scandal. “But I think some of them have been dreading it.”
It is true that some of those old enough to remember Thorpe or who have connections with the real people depicted in the series, have been worried by the portrayals. Norman Scott, still living in Devon at the age of 78, could be one of them. But, just as Grant talked to Steel, so Ben Whishaw sought out Scott before the series got under way. Scott was worried that the series would be “a second trial”, but according to the Radio Times last month he was “very moved” by the results. “He was very pleased, he laughed and cried,” reported the director, Stephen Frears.
Alex Carlile, who followed Hooson as the Liberal MP for Montgomery, is less pleased. “I thought that the portrayal that [Watkins] was forced to give by the script was rather unfair to Emlyn,” he told the Shropshire Star. “He was portrayed as devious and conniving whereas in reality he was extremely frank and never underhand.” Carlile nevertheless joins enthusiastically in the chorus of praise for Grant’s portrayal of Thorpe.
“We looked on with incredulity,” recalls Tom McNally, now a Lib Dem peer but from 1974 to 1979 political secretary to Labour’s Jim Callaghan as foreign secretary and prime minister. “I sat in on meetings he held with Jim in the 1970s. He was very funny. A great mimic. But I was never remotely aware in any way of what was happening in his private life, and I’m not aware that Jim was either.”
Thorpe’s career never recovered from the trial, at which – spoiler alert – he was acquitted in 1979. He lost his parliamentary seat the same year. Developing Parkinson’s disease, he died in 2014. For a while, he haunted party events. Almost to the end, he would attend memorial services for former colleagues.
“He spent 30 years trying to persuade every successor as party leader – right up to Nick Clegg – to nominate him for the peerage he craved,” Steel recalls. But the peerage never came and was never going to come.
In his final years Steel visited Thorpe in his house in Orme Square, Bayswater. He was physically weak but still focused. “He was difficult to understand. He spoke through a little microphone thing.” Ashdown also recalls meeting Thorpe at a memorial service during those bleak later years. “I put my arm around his shoulders. He was just a bag of bones.”
A Very English Scandal concludes on Sunday at 9pm on BBC One