Russell T Davies’ astonishingly true story of the clash between “a liar and a fantasist” which rocked the British Establishment concludes
In 1979, the summer of Peter Cook’s career was well behind him. But when Amnesty International’s first ever Secret Policeman’s Ball was held, in extraordinary coincidence, the same day as the verdict in Jeremy Thorpe’s trial was handed down, inspiration struck. An hour in his dressing room produced the sketch that became known as “Entirely a Matter for You”. It was a damning condemnation of the trial judge, wielding a blisteringly hot scorn for the Establishment’s obsession with covering for each other. It became an acknowledged high point of his career. It’s iconic of the Thorpe scandal that it’s even briefly seen during the coda of A Very English Scandal.
Yet the simmering rage that powered Cook’s attack is largely absent elsewhere in the final episode of Davies’ masterpiece, though it’s no worse off for that. Even in his Doctor Who work Davies always resisted the simple ‘white hats vs black hats’ clichés. He strove to find all too human rationales for why the monsters acted as they did. In Boom Town he once dug under the stolen skin of a homicidal bog monster to the cruel childhood that shaped her.
So instead what really interests the writer isn’t outrage at Thorpe’s crime but the world and personal limitations that led him to it. In his hands Thorpe becomes a tragic figure in the Shakespearean mold. An Othello or MacBeth, who could have been a good man, even a great man. A man whose fatal obsessive flaw betrayed him into sordid deeds and scandal. His fall so complete that it seems cruelly ironic that he’s reduced to celebrating so humble a victory as escaping a prison sentence with all the joy he might once have reserved for the day he became Prime Minister.
Hugh Grant subverts his image as the classic bumbling Englishman
So we get the almost touching dinner between Thorpe and his wife Miriam (Monica Dolan). The no nonsense but deeply caring Miriam drags the full sorry tale out of her husband and then forgives him. Not just for his stupidity in his bungled cover ups, or his conspiracy to murder, but for his bisexuality. It’s a forgiveness Thorpe (Hugh Grant) has perhaps never heard. He’s lived his life in either hushed fear of exposure or jolly banter with like minded men. He almost but not quite breaks down, in that very English way, and thanks his wife for such a wonderful plate of food. It’s the subversion of the long line of emotionally constricted English gentlemen Grant has usually played for romantic comedy. If there’s any justice it will be a clip shown at awards ceremonies across the world over the next twelve months.
Davies produces a haunting portrait of pre-Pride gay life
We also get the scene of rare honesty between Thorpe and his barrister George Carman (Adrian Scarborough). Carman has similarly had… moments dancing at that end of the ballroom. And he’s simply flabbergasted by the inescapable conclusion that Thorpe genuinely loved Norman at some point. And it’s an opportunity for the dead eyed Thorpe, and Davies, to shine a light on the perilous existence of gay men in the middle decades of the 20th century. Of nods and winks from a parked car at a stranger, of the ecstatic release. But also the danger – the muggers luring you easily down dark allies. The homophobes who can’t leave it at a simple ‘no’ but feel obliged to dish out a beating. The unwanted rough sex from brutal men. In that world, reliable, available, gentle Norman seemed the best option.
It’s an insight into a thankfully shrinking world. And also into the pressures and terrors that drive Thorpe. Into how his largely unfounded paranoias about Norman led him down the dark obsessive path to attempted murder.
Brave heart, Norman
If this is A Very English Scandal’s case for the Defence, then what of the Prosecution?
While it feels like this episode struggles slightly to find the balance between Thorpe and Norman, with Norman’s side of the tale perhaps needing slightly more time, every single moment Whishaw is on screen is completely fabulous. His Norman is an almost unique blend of gentle dignity and unashamed showboating. His constancy in the face of police beatings and intimidation shows a spine of steel atop those wiggling hips. But it’s his glorious performance in the witness box that defines him. His refusal to be shamed, his insistence on being seen and on being heard.
It’s also, Carman notes, what makes him so lethal to the defence – why would someone so utterly unashamed of who they were ever feel the need to lie? The lawyer expresses his fear to his client that Norman represents the new world of gay pride. Thorpe in contrast represents the old one of sordid cover-ups and denials. We’re not just talking about this case, but the seismic generational fault line A Very English Scandal is built on.
Casting directors tend to be invisible to the public, but Leo Davis and Lissy Holm deserve to be singled out for their work on this series. Rarely has there been a mini-series where every single actor has been so superb. The sidelines of the drama are peppered with great actors.
A faultless cast hit the perfect tone throughout
Michelle Dotrice provides support as Norman’s landlady/mother figure Edna, but being more famous as Betty from comedy classic Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Him, she has form for this sort of caring for disasters in human form. Alex Jennings’ Peter Bissell and his almost mournful appearance for the prosecution is, again, amazing. Jennings and director Stephen Frears’ choose to depict Peter as almost grasping lifelines of self-incrimination from Carman. He happily admits to a “credibility problem” and being “somewhat addicted” to prescription drugs. It all suggests a secret hope that Thorpe will get off.
And so we come to the end of this extraordinary series. If anything, A Very English Scandal could have done with an extra episode. Certainly some important and dramatic events, like Thorpe losing control of the party, are either sped by or missed entirely. And the suddenness with which a new group of best friends for Norman spring out of the ground from nowhere is dizzying, even by his standards. Elsewhere the opposite is true and Thorpe’s nemesis Emlyn Hosoon simply drops off the face of the Earth between episodes.
But when the worst that can be said about a series is that you wish there’d been more of it, that’s faint criticism indeed.
This is a very different piece to anything Davies has done before, but it shares the same essential sense of heart, and that fundamental decency and insight that typifies all his work. As well as that playfulness and humour we recognize as his fingerprint. For Davies, as well as Grant and Whishaw and Frears, A Very English Scandal may well yet be remembered as one of their most essential works.
A Very English Scandal on DVD and streaming
All episodes of A Very English Scandal are now on iPlayer and released on DVD on the 2nd of July. Amazon Prime in America will premiere all three episodes later this month on the 29th of June. Russell T Davies will return with a new BBC One drama, Years and Years, going into production later this year.