Stephen Frears and Russell T Davies’ masterful collaboration A Very English Scandal continues. Beset by loss and setbacks, Thorpe nurses a growing obsession: Kill Norman Scott.
Patrick Ness, creator of the sadly ill-fated Doctor Who spin-off Class has a type of maxim. “Always, always, kill the dog.” Killing the dog isn’t usually Russell T Davies’ style (killing the God, yes, but rarely the dog) but that opening title card on each episode of A Very English Scandal – “Based on a True Story” – means that in this case history, rather than shock tactics, forces his hand. And so the fate of a sweet, adorable, Great Dane called Rinka is sealed.
Rinka’s death is the ultimate signpost for the shift in tone in episode two of A Very English Scandal. Some criticized episode one for its jovial, almost whimsical, tone when dealing with such dark deeds. But the second instalment proves why it was absolutely right. As the comedy pitches blacker and blacker, it allows us to share in the characters’ bewildered sense of things getting out of hand and getting much too serious.
Last week was very much Hugh Grant’s show, but now the focus moves to Ben Wishaw’s Norman Scott (formerly Josiffe). Norman tries to put his ill conceived dalliance with blackmail behind him and rebuild his life. A snake hipped ingenui, he’s simultaneously unashamedly highly sexed yet a wide eyed babe in the woods of life. And so he lives his life like a cross between Mick Jagger and Frank Spencer. He crisscrosses his way across the British Isles leaving a trail of ruin in his wake, even though it’s hard to see how any of it’s his fault. Yet always landing on his feet.
“I just don’t know why people are always so nice to me,” he says as yet another helpful stranger randomly offers him a job and a home. It’s got to be said, he has a point.
The life and many loves of Norman Scott
Along the way he has a doomed, and short, marriage into the in-laws of comedy star Terry-Thomas. (Making him the husband of the sister-in-law of the cousin of the Chief Caretaker of Paradise Towers, Doctor Who trivia quiz fans). After that he moves to a caravan park in Wales. Soon he moves down the road into the house and bed of Gwen (an apparently ageless Eve Myles). As with Episode One’s Irish actors, Myles’ casting lends a sense of truth and reality to the Welsh scenes. Her performance as the fearless, liberated, but deeply troubled Gwen is a highlight of the series so far. She proves every bit the match for acting heavyweight Whishaw’s delightfully heightened, yet totally believable Norman.
Gwen’s local MP, and Thorpe’s main rival in the Liberal Party, is Emlyn Hosoon (Jason Watkins) . It’s almost boring at this stage to say Watkins turns in another brilliant performance. But his career is littered with them and he doesn’t seem to be able to help himself. Here he delivers a deliciously slimy and reptilian as Hosoon. He’s the type of politician that suddenly develops a broad Welsh accent whenever his local constituents are in the room. An accent which is almost entirely absent the rest of the time. And when Thorpe suffers a devastating personal loss, he practically licks his lips in anticipation of the chance to ‘temporarily’ take control of the Party.
When Gwen persuades Norman to take his story to Hosoon, it’s clear it’s not justice he’s interested in but leverage. It’s a tribute to both script and performance that Hosoon feels like the Iago style villain of the piece. Even though he’s merely the normal amount of evil for a politician, it’s our rabble of failed blackmailers and reluctant assassins that keep our sympathy.
Director Stephen Frears finds beauty even in the most unlikely of places
But the direction is no less skilful that the script. Twice Oscar nominated Stephen Frears owns credit for A Very English Scandal’s success just as much as Davies and Preston. This is a serial almost relentless in the quality of its composition and colour. A Californian beach, Westminster, even the glorious dun and burgundy of a 1970s carpet showroom; all soar under Frears’ eye. One shot of Pedro (Alex Jennings) hiding an incriminating briefcase in the ceiling space of his office is so improbably beautiful you could frame it and put it on your wall.
Let’s not kill him and say we tried
Pedro does a bunk stateside halfway through; escaping a half million pound debt from an unwise egg investment (yes, really). But he and Thorpe’s conspiracy still loom over the episode. We follow Thorpe as his political fortunes rise, and he comes within touching distance of becoming Deputy Prime Minister. And as he overreaches himself and faces dissent from within his own party. It’s in times of trouble and distress that he returns, again and again, to the “Scottish question” of Norman Scott like a dog with a bone. At one point, Pedro and Thorpe’s other underlings even fake a failed murder attempt to try and buy themselves time. “He forgets Norman Scott every few years,” says Pedro, “let’s keep putting him off until he forgets for good.”
But Norman has become an icon of poison and malignancy to Thorpe. Whenever he suffers a political or personal blow, his mind twists and turns and tears at its own cogs. And again he convinces himself the solution to all his problems is the death of Norman Scott.
Perhaps Thorpe really would have forgotten Norman forever, but a chance encounter at a Devon road junction, and the sight of Norman alive, happy, and moving on, unhinges Thorpe. Suddenly a murder plot in slow motion for six years goes into fifth gear.
And so we come inevitably to Norman and Rinka on a rain soaked night on Exmoor. To a man with a gun. And the moment that will rock 1970s Britain to its core. This very English scandal is about to go public.
A Very English Scandal concludes Sunday on BBC One. Episodes One and Two are available on iPlayer now.