The Riveting Tragicomedy of 'A Very English Scandal'

Hugh Grant BBC A Very English Scandal

Part British farce, part Shakespearean tragedy, the BBC miniseries packs a profound and resonant emotional wallop.

A Very English Scandal would be impossible to believe were it not true. Based on the national scandal of the 1970s, the series chronicles the relationship between Member of Parliament Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and charming drifter Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), as well as the botched assassination attempt and trial that followed. The story is as preposterous as it is heartrending, a darkly comedic tale about the crippling power of shame.

It’s also important that American viewers know up front that the BBC’s three-part mini-series is indeed very English.

It’s very English in its style and structure, which elegantly vacillates between sharp farcical comedy and devastating Shakespearean tragedy.

The inherent ridiculousness of the scandal makes for a perfect farce. Once Thorpe and Scott’s relationship ended, Thorpe embarked on a journey of political ascension – one that required a thorough snuffing out of any dormant scandal. With Scott loose and loose-lipped within Great Britain, Thorpe ordered a team of amateur hitmen to murder his former lover (emphasis on amateur).

The murder plot is delightfully convoluted, undertaken by an inept team made up of an assistant treasurer to the Liberal Party, a carpet salesman, a fruit machine salesman, and an airline pilot. When the time came to kill Scott, the pilot, who was tasked with pulling the trigger, accidentally shot Scott’s dog instead. Then he drove away.

Six years earlier, as the plan was first being hatched, Thorpe had insisted, “It is no worse than shooting a sick dog.” One truly could not make this up.

With a cast of characters so buffoonish they border on caricature and a plot so outlandishly improbable it feels like an episode of Fawlty Towers, much of A Very English Scandal is a brilliant, incisive work of farce.

But the rest of the series makes for excellent drama. It’s a story of power and demise, a cross-section of a particular historical moment that transcends time. In many ways, A Very English Scandal is a perfect Shakespearean tragedy. Thorpe is our tragic hero, a man of power and status brought down by a fatal flaw. He believes his flaw to be homosexuality; in reality, it’s his narcissism, sociopathy, and ruthlessness – all activated in the interest of self-preservation.

Despite these flaws, Thorpe earns our empathy. Because at the root of his misdeeds are universal experiences: shame, self-loathing, the trappings of era and circumstance. Had the affair been heterosexual, there would have been no assassination plot; his faults would have taken a less violent form. But in England, the crime of homosexuality ended careers and ruined lives. Desperation is a powerful dissociative drug.

We owe our sympathy for Thorpe entirely to Hugh Grant, who delivers a masterful performance – the best of his career – as the tortured Liberal Party leader. In gray tones and brown contacts, he dominates every frame with his slumped posture, permanent frown, and five-o-clock shadow. Grant understands the constant performance that comes with politics, the eloquence and charm that can never be completely turned off. Thorpe crafts a publicly impenetrable façade, all comb-over and calibrated composure. But in his private moments, he is a fascinating stew of ego and ambition, longing and appetite, even occasional tenderness. Grant is nothing less than remarkable.

A Very English Scandal is also very English in its cultural lexicon. For example, there is a running joke in the series about how one of the conspirators shares a name with British character actor John Le Measurer, famous for his turn on a popular sitcom. Allow actual Brit Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker to put this in perspective: “Imagine that one of the Watergate burglars had been named Alan Alda and you will get a sense of the almost surreal confusion.” References to Benjamin Britten, King Charles, and National Insurance Cards are thrown around with abandon. Even the series’ depiction of life in California – a rundown shack on an endless, palm tree-lined beach – is endearingly British.

But perhaps the most English aspect of the series is its subject matter, which extends beyond Thorpe and Scott’s relationship to interrogate the nation of Great Britain itself.

Paired with a superb script from Russell T. Davies, director Stephen Frears thoroughly captures a particular sociopolitical moment with a keen sense of universal experience. His visual flair and expert pacing propel each episode forward with exhilarating gusto, and his intimate filmmaking style weaves a sensationalist scandal into a profound exploration of the deep-seated tensions at the heart of British society. Davies and Frears make a perfect pair.

Frears has long been an astute observer of English culture and history, delivering perhaps his most insightful rumination with 2006’s The Queen. In many ways, The Queen bears interesting parallels to A Very English Scandal. Like Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Thorpe and Scott represent the growing schism between two diverging generations. Both political figures, Elizabeth and Thorpe exercise extreme emotional restraint and repression, while younger generations find power in public vulnerability.

In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver joked about emotional repression being native to all Britons: “I’m British, so obviously I repress any powerful emotions of any kind in relation to anything.” This makes the case of Jeremy Thorpe all the more compelling, as he not only had to repress his emotions publically but also repress his sexuality privately. Even in the confidence of close friend and MP Peter Bessel (another conspirator and a fellow homosexual), Thorpe – though transparent about his physical transgressions – firmly conceals his emotions. “Did you love him?” Bessel Asks. “Well he’s a man,” Thorpe scoffs. “That doesn’t even exist.”

Indeed, the series explores the more sinister consequences of the British motto to simply “keep calm and carry on,” a saying that sprang from World War II and thus shaped the generation that lived through it. Norman Scott did not. In one of the most stirring moments of the series, Scott delivers a vulnerable and timely declaration of existence as resistance: “Men like me are shoved into corners and masturbated in the dark, and then thrown out the door like we’re dirt – like we’re nothing like we don’t exist. And all the history books get written with men like me missing. So yes, I will talk, I will be heard, and I will be seen.”

Despite its decidedly English setting, subject, and sensibilities, A Very English Scandal touches on universally shared experiences – desire, stigma, ambition – in profoundly and surprisingly resonant ways. It examines the intricacies of a first love; the beginning, the end, the root of the initial attraction. It explores shame, which is always the product of external forces; Thorpe, like many of us, learns to adapt to these forces (Bessell says his colleague has “perfected the art of hiding in plain sight”) in ways that prove self-destructive. It ponders the role of sacrifice in the pursuit of power, from a good night’s sleep to an authentic life. Ultimately, the true story of Thorpe and Scott is a cautionary tale, one that condemns the use of shame and punishment to enforce social pressures and norms.

As Thorpe considers the question Why Norman Scott?, Grant masterfully delivers one of the most poignant moments of the series. In circumventive terms, he reflects on many years of sexual encounters, many of which turned violent or hateful. “Given those men, maybe, I supposed one could imagine that Norman Scott was the best.” With a single fragile glance, Grant loads the phrase with furtive meaning: Norman Scott loved me. In Thorpe there is a flicker of us all; desperate for connection, aching to be seen. His dilemma transcends time or place or status: how can we find authentic love if we cannot be our authentic selves?

Thorpe publicly denied the affair until his death.

Watching the series, I frequently thought of Oscar Wilde. Not just because of its Wilde-esque comedic sensibilities, but also because of the parallels between Wilde and Thorpe. Three months after the premiere of his seminal farce The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde was arrested, imprisoned, and sentenced to two years of hard labor for the crime of homosexuality. He died shortly after his release. It was under this same threat — of imprisonment, punishment, and ostracism — that Thorpe met Scott, sixty years after Wilde’s death. Thorpe took great pains to avoid meeting the same fate as Wilde; what did it cost him?

“The truth,” declares the protagonist of The Importance of Being Earnest, “is rarely pure and never simple.”

Writer, college student, television connoisseur.