The most compelling reason to tune into this series is the superb cast, led by Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw.
A Very English Scandal, available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
By Peg Aloi
This BBC miniseries (three episodes) has much to recommend: an amusing script, energetic pacing, and a sweetshop of delicious period details from the late ’50s through the early ’70s. The scandalous true story that inspired the teleplay is both shocking and fascinating, heartwarming and horrifying. Deftly directed by Stephen Frears, the tone careens widely (as one might expect from Frears) from warmly sweet and darkly comic to grippingly disturbing. But the most compelling reason to tune in to this series is the superb cast, especially the red-hot performances of Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, a progressive British MP who was tried and acquitted in 1979 of conspiring to murder his former lover, Norman Scott (Whishaw).
The series opens in 1962 with Thorpe, a popular Liberal politician (he is later voted leader of the party), dining in a posh men’s club with his close friend and colleague Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), another liberal MP. They have a breezy rapport, cheekily discussing their sexual conquests; but Bessell’s affairs are with his female secretaries, where Thorpe’s are with anonymous young men. Their bond seems strong; Bessell offers to protect Thorpe from any fallout generated by his homosexual indiscretions (prohibited by law in those days). But Thorpe’s desperate efforts to maintain his reputation drive even his best friend to question his fealty.
We then flash back to a time before this meeting: the narrative follows a fluid timeline, from past to present and back again). Thorpe meets Scott in 1961, when he is spending a weekend at the country home of a fellow MP. Scott is working in the stables and Thorpe walks in on him splashing his naked torso with water. The male gaze is gorgeously invoked in this scene: Thorpe is smitten (who wouldn’t be? Whishaw embodies youthful vitality). The MP offers Scott his card, saying he should look him up if he ever comes to London. Scott, unused to kindness, babbles his gratitude, hints at a difficult upbringing, and apologizes for talking too much. In a moment of foreshadowing, Thorpe tells him he should never be afraid to speak up. We soon learn, via a scene set in 1962, that Scott has sent a detailed letter about their affair to Thorpe’s mother. For the MP, fear of exposure becomes a constant peril. But first we are given a moving segment detailing how the two men fell in love.
Some months later, after their meeting at the stables, Scott shows up at the Houses of Parliament, carrying a small dog and a battered case. Thorpe nearly trips on the stairs when he comes down to meet him. He invites Scott to stay in his mother’s house and seduces the young man in a scene that can best be described as embarrassingly awkward. The tryst is accomplished via by-the-book sex that Thorpe has clearly mastered after some practice (though apparently without much imagination). Still, there is affection between them and the pair begin a passionate affair, furtively kissing in public, in alleys and on bridges.
Thorpe rents a small flat for Scott, who spends his days drinking, pacing, and popping pills. He can’t seem to get his life together. Thorpe is busy building his career and Scott resents their time apart. Thorpe begins to feel it’s time to move on. Despite his efforts to help Scott land a job, his young lover seems determined to struggle through life. These days he might have been diagnosed with ADD, or PTSD — he definitely displays some clinically narcissistic traits. But, at bottom, the man is an artistic, sensitive soul; as portrayed by the heart-stoppingly good Ben Whishaw, Scott is a decent person whose creative energies are constantly diverted towards maintaining mere survival.
The two men part ways and Scott ends up in what becomes a series of squalid living situations (but always with sweet canine companions, a fun theme that runs throughout the narrative), constantly struggling to make ends meet. He has a brief fling with fame and fortune when a clothing seller helps him land work as a fashion model — he’s a natural. This sequence is giddy and delightful, showcasing swinging ‘60s London by way of an explosion of color, music, drugs, and decadence. Despite Scott’s talent and success, his lack of discipline (Or is it focus? Or confidence?) leaves him penniless and hapless again. He is not above resorting to extortion; he is also willing to steal eggs and potatoes from neighboring farms. Watching Scott reinvent himself for the sake of keeping on — time and again — is one of the most satisfying narrative threads in the series. It must also be noted that the women Scott becomes involved with — platonically as well as sexually — turn out to be both nurturing and vampiric (sometimes at the same time).
Meanwhile, Thorpe’s political career flourishes, and he chooses to marry. He seems to have found genuine happiness, but that is quickly brought low by tragedy. Scott’s potential for seeking revenge ends up haunting the MP. No spoilers from me, but the “plot” to murder Scott winds up being one of the most bumbling, hilarious, and moving portions in A Very English Scandal. There was a trial for the attempt in 1979: Thorpe remains thoughtful and cool-headed (it is marvelous to watch Grant’s lined and still very handsome face convey buttoned-down emotion); Scott comes off as a witty and passionate advocate for the burgeoning gay rights movement. The latter enlightened stance alarms Thorpe’s barrister, well-played by Adrien Scarborough, who is concerned that Scott will become far too sympathetic to the court. Indeed, Scott becomes very likable. We can see a return of the same excitement that marked his days posing for fashion photographers, adored and on top of the world. It turns out that all that Scott ever needed, wanted, and tried ceaselessly to find, was love.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.