Russell T Davies is back. He brings with him scandal, blackmail and murder at the heart of British politics.
Famously, Russell T Davies once said that had Doctor Who legend Robert Holmes’ career not been spent in the landscape of science fiction and crime dramas his gift for character and language would have seen his name whispered in awe alongside the likes of Dennis Potter. But that’s a fate that was never going to befall Davies himself. And even if there had been any doubt before, A Very English Scandal snuffs it out.
An adaptation of John Preston‘s incredible but true book, this feels different from anything he’s done before.
Queer as Folk shone a light on the struggles and triumphs of gay men working in supermarkets and offices. Cucumber similarly looked at squat living LGBT millennials and mid life crises. But A Very English Scandal, like The Crown, peels back the public mask of mid-20th century Britain political elites. There’s even an inevitable light sense of crossover when Thorpe bemoans the wedding of Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones (he’d hoped “to marry one and seduce the other”).
Jeremy Thorpe is a man on top of the world. And on the edge of it.
Davies always finds the warmth and humour in flawed people and most flawed of all is Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant). He’s a happy man (and intends to be “very, very happy, many times” in the future). The twitch of an ironic smile is always at the corner of his mouth as he bounces his way around the corridors of power in 1960s London. He’s set to become the next leader of the Liberal Party and perhaps even the next Deputy PM. All is right in his world.
Describing himself as “80% gay,” in contrast to trusted friend and confident Peter (Alex Jennings) being “80% for the ladies,” he’s a man shaped by the two worlds he lives in. The one where homosexuality is both a crime and a disgrace, and one as a member of a privileged elite. He feels entitled to the willingness of others to look the other way. He steals brazen kisses on a public bus and openly ogles the Westminster staff. If Donald Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue then Jeremy Thorpe can fire off shots of an entirely different sort, so to speak, next to Westminster Bridge.
This house of cards held together by the glue of discretion is soon buffeted by the unpredictable hurricane that is Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw). A lost soul arriving in London with nothing but a terrier called ‘Mrs. Tish’ he’s soon Thorp’s kept lover. Later dumped, he becomes a petulant blackmailer after a stint as an improbable supermodel.
On both sides there’s a naivety that makes the whole business almost charming and, yes, a very English scandal. Norman’s opening gambit is a seventeen-page letter to Thorpe’s mother and he misplaces his blackmail material on a train. When he’s dispatched to intimidate the younger man into silence, Peter is marvellously ineffectual and apologetic about it.
Hugh Grant heads up a cast with no weak links
It’s too late to call Hugh Grant a revelation. He’s already established years ago that he’s a much more gifted and subtle actor than anyone initially thought. But nevertheless, his role here is a career high point. There’s a moment when, as part of his initial seduction of Norman, Thorpe claims horse riding is a “passion.” He reaches out to stroke the horse but stops just short and pulls back, afraid of the horse’s rejection and the humiliation that would cause. It’s a tiny gesture of genius in a performance littered with them. Supported by the no less wonderful Jennings, and the likes of Patricia Hodge as Thorpe’s severe, monocle wearing mother (looking so like William Hartnell, she could have done David Bradley out of a job).
It’s testament to Grant that we like Thorpe so much despite his darker side. While his and Norman’s relationship is depicted as loving if dysfunctional there are some horrifying moments. For instance,the midnight visit where Thorpe makes the price of his patronage clear with a jar of petroleum jelly significantly placed on the bedside table. So, the episode’s end shouldn’t be the surprise that it is.
Grant looks straight into the camera, every trace of a smirk banished, and declares he’s going to have Norman killed.
A Very English Scandal continues on BBC One, Sundays at 9pm.