Warning: contains spoilers for all three episodes
You couldn’t make it up. Well, Russell T. Davies could, because he’s brilliant, but he didn’t. As advertised at the beginning of all three instalments, A Very English Scandal is based on a true story, one told first by the national press and then retold by John Preston in his 2014 book of the same name, subtitled Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment.
If it sounds outrageous, that’s because it was. The conspiracy to murder Norman Scott, the secret ex-lover of former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, was balls-to-the-wall bonkers. This retelling written by Davies and directed by Stephen Frears, revels in the farcical details – Thorpe’s repeated insistence on the murder, the ineptitude of the co-conspirators, the failed assassination attempt that resulted in a dead Great Dane and a still-alive Norman Scott… It was, by any measure you wish to use, a ludicrous series of events.
The scandal’s absurd twists and unlikely characters are played here for knockabout laughs. The three-part drama is lively and funny and joyously irreverent, a thumbed nose to propriety that delights in showing the old boys’ club with its knickers down.
Alongside the comedy, and—always Davies’ particular genius—not a bit undermined by it though, is the utter tragedy of it all. The devastation wreaked in gay lives by criminalisation. The law’s insistence on furtiveness and secrecy that made such a practised liar of Jeremy Thorpe. And most of all, the unjust mechanism that allowed the establishment to pull up the drawbridge and protect itself from outliers like Scott.
Thorpe and his pals were acquitted of all charges, thanks to a ruthless (and no doubt ruthlessly expensive) barrister, and a judge so partisan he might have been written for an episode of Poldark instead of an episode of real life. The toffs closed ranks, Thorpe punched the air and kissed his wife, then the cameras stopped rolling.
You come away from the final episode amused, yes, but feeling the human toll. Dotted across this vibrantly told tale are patches of earnestness that trip you up. Lord Arran’s moving speech about his gay brother’s suicide. Jeremy Thorpe’s hesitating, caveat and flashback-filled explanation of what, aside from the obvious, he saw in Scott. Peter Bessell admiringly calling Scott, who was publicly ridiculed and attacked for his sexuality but nonetheless refused to hide it, “the bravest man in Britain”. It might have the momentum of a high-speed train and a bubbly Murray Gold caper score, but this drama is no lightweight.
The direction, music and editing all keep things moving expertly, but the writing is the thing. I love a Russell T. Davies script. They feel like being driven very fast by someone wearing a clown suit, who knows all of humanity’s saddest secrets. One as exhilaratingly done as this, and with such a fine cast has been like Christmas every Sunday night for the past three weeks.
The cast is very fine indeed. Hugh Grant has all the brains and comic timing needed to make Thorpe a convincing prospect in every situation—in parliament, in members’ clubs, at the dinner table and in the bedroom, towel and tub of Vaseline in hand. By all accounts, his performance is a remarkable mimicry as well as everything else. Ben Whishaw as the pathetic yet flinty, funny yet endearing Scott would be a revelation were he not always this bloody good. Alex Jennings as Peter Bessell, David Bamber as Lord Arran, Jason Watkins as Emlyn Hooson… there are no weak links.
If the men are good, then the women keep stealing the thing out from under them. With only a handful of scenes, it’s remarkable what an impression Eve Myles makes as Gwen Parry-Jones in episode two. The same goes for Monica Dolan as Thorpe’s second wife Marion, and Patricia Hodge as his mother Ursula.
It was exhilarating and dynamic, this tragicomedy of errors, without sacrificing the ability to say something serious amid all the madness. A sensational adaptation, in every sense of the word.
A Very English Scandal is available now on BBC iPlayer.