In an era when many might think they have cornered the market in both political fallibility and sex scandal, it is reassuring to be reminded that our generation invented neither. A Very English Scandal (BBC First, Thursdays) is a polished piece of drama, sharp, delicious and arrow-through-the-bullseye on point.
Based on the book by John Preston, A Very English Scandal is brought to life as a three-part television series by writer Russell T. Davies, of Queer as Folk and Doctor Who fame, and director Stephen Frears, who directed the near perfect The Queen. In their hands this story is spun into television gold, easily the equal of, and perhaps even besting, The Crown. (Now, that's some tough talk).
Ben Whishaw stars as Norman Scott in A Very English Scandal
This is a love story, and also a story of political intrigue, of people who use others for ambition, seemingly as little more than pawns on a chessboard. And yet, somewhere in that, lies a glimmer of something profoundly more, of unacknowledged and very profound love.
In Jeremy Thorpe, played by Hugh Grant, we meet a (very real) British MP who was the leader of the Liberal Party between 1967 and 1976. In a historical sense, he is lifted straight from the annals of British political life. A Very British Scandal, however, explores a very specific seam of Thorpe's story: his relationship with Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), the circumstances surrounding the accusation that Thorpe tried to have Scott killed, to conceal their connection, and the scandal which followed.
What might have been another political thriller with a gay twist is, in the hands of Davies, turned in something so much more brilliant. Acclaim for Davies as a screenwriter is not new; he is widely considered one of the finest writers of his generation. But here there is something more in play here. A spark of the intangible which he has somehow crafted into bottled lightning. And maybe, just maybe, discharged into what is one of the finest pieces of narrative drama ever written for television.
A Very British Scandal nicely fulfils the promise that if you have the writing down, everything else will follow. Frears' direction is stunning. And Grant and Whishaw, as two men trapped in the cyclone of a relationship which manages all at once to be very sensual, profoundly manipulative and somehow still deeply tender, are excellent.
In particular, Grant, who might have just faded into a career of playing foppish cads in the style of Daniel Cleaver of Bridget Jones's Diary fame, is luminous. Of course, Grant's Thorpe possesses all of Cleaver's self-centred sleaze, and the kind of titanic ego one would require to mow through two wives and a male lover and still think it's all about him.
And yet Grant's Thorpe is no caricature. He is built, painstakingly, by Grant, and then broken down into pieces. It's breathtaking to watch, and confirmation of Grant as a fine, fine actor. (And his performance, in terms of emulating the real man, is spot on).
Neither is Whishaw's Norman one-note. He's a deeply complex man, almost out of time, whose perspective on his sexuality and his identity manages to be refreshingly unexpected. Alone these actors are great. But together they have a chemistry that may well have startled them as much as it impresses the viewer.
What is properly brilliant about this, however, is perhaps mostly due to Davies. A Very English Scandal seemingly does the impossible: kicking a very dramatic narrative into goal but lining it with some uproarious moments and a lot of humour. It will stun and move you, but most of all, it will make you laugh. Even in its darkest moments, Davies mines veins of great pathos and great hilarity.
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