What is it about British political scandals that invariably involves sex?
A Very English Scandal is the dramatisation of one that envelops Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 – 1976. Educated from a privileged upbringing, he was a fine orator and skilled violinist.
Yet he harboured homosexual tendencies which, in the late 1960s were yet be decriminalised. Those activities were carried out furtively so as not to ruin his public persona.
A Very English Scandal, based on the book by John Preston, surrounds Jeremy’s (Hugh Grant) meeting with a young stableboy Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw), who later become known as Norman Scott. Such was Jeremy’s affection for Norman that he offers support when the young man is down on his luck, with a room at his mother’s residence -of all places. There the two develop a romance that serves its purpose for each.
But the boyish Norman is needy and unbalanced, and after Jeremy decides to cut him loose Norman spills all to the police.
“I was a victim of his lust,” he reveals.
Over a lengthy timeline in this drama there is blackmail, threats, denials and a plot to murder, all set against a backdrop of rising political fortunes.
Jeremy also divulges his clandestine ways to fellow politician Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), with wild and frank plans to silence Norman.
Hugh Grant is monstrously good as a corrupt politician, smiling through his double life and removed of all good conscience. This is one of the best things he has put on screen. He is matched by Ben Whishaw as the unhinged young man out of is depth and with an equally fragile sexual identity. Alex Jennings gives wise counsel as Peter Bessell, but I did have to keep reminding myself he wasn’t the abdicating King Edward VIII in The Crown.
There is a formidable supporting cast, some of whom put bring shining performances to minor screen time, including Eve Myles, Blake Harrison, Patricia Hodge and Michele Dotrice. Such is the skill of director Stephen Frears to elicit such performances. The music by Murray Gold lifts a fine work to another level again.
Russell T. Davies, who rarely disappoints with such works as Queer as Folk & Doctor Who, again delivers a tale that is captivating and challenging, with touches of dialogue that are pure theatre. At just three episodes this sorry story never drags.
Like most British dramas, this is all about class…. behaving beyond its barriers and a desperate fight to retain it.
A Very English Scandal airs 8:30pm Thursday on BBC First.