An American Take On A Very English Scandal

by Rachel Bellwoar

Never has a national insurance card been at the center of so much drama as it is in A Very English Scandal. While there’s a light touch to Russell T. Davies’ miniseries, it can only go so far to mitigate the pain and horribleness surrounding this true story. Based on a book John Preston wrote on the outrage, A Very English Scandal operates under the understanding Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and Norman Scott’s (Ben Whishaw) affair took place.

Technically it’s alleged, since Thorpe never admitted that they had a sexual relationship and when he was tried for conspiring to murder Norman (yeah, that’s where this story is going), the jury found him “not guilty”. The way the show is structured, though, requires a decision and it’s not hard to imagine that events played out this way.

Norman Scott (BEN WHISHAW), Jeremy Thorpe (HUGH GRANT) – (C) Blueprint Television Ltd – Photographer: Ludovic Robert

Isolate any one of the bonkers details in this case and it’s pretty staggering. The show makes a point of keeping viewers abreast of where Thorpe is -where he’s eating, where he’s socializing. That way you can balk when he chooses those fancy and public places to discuss murder, or getting married to boost his polls. In both cases Thorpe’s language returns to animals – his nickname for Norman is “Bunny” (a point you can bet the press will cash in on) and “let the hunt begin” is how he commences his search for a wife. With Norman, of course, the hunt becomes literal when an attempt is made on his life.

Maybe in Britain the story of Thorpe’s political downfall is well-known. He was leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976 and a MP when he met Norman in the early 60’s. Homosexuality wasn’t legalized in Britain until ’67 (we see Leo Abse (Anthony O’Donnell) start to collect votes for the bill, but it passes without comment off screen) but while the law changed, public figures still had to deal with intolerance from the court of public opinion.

I’m across the pond, and came into this show having never heard of Thorpe before, but Davies is responsible for one of my favorite TV shows, Queer As Folk: UK (also a little show called Doctor Who during Eccleston and Tennant’s run) and the cast is nothing to sneer at (if you’re looking for another show to watch with Whishaw, London Spy deals with a murder conspiracy). What’s really refreshing is that the characters you often see walked over in these stories (the wives of both Norman and Thorpe) have scenes where they’re not just pawns or victims to their feud.

Murray Gold‘s music plays against the seriousness of Thorpe’s intentions with a showmanship’s flair. Jaunty and demented, like music you’d hear at a carnival, in this context it’s the music of privilege. Thorpe isn’t afraid, and the music is devoid of remorse.

Norman Scott (BEN WHISHAW) – (C) Blueprint Television Ltd – Photographer: Kieron McCarron

At three episodes, each hour of English Scandal aligns with a phase of their relationship: the affair, the murder attempt, and the trial. There’s a lot of foreshadowing and lines which end up being prescient, and the shorter length ensures you get to appreciate those connections. The biggest pay off comes from Thorpe’s friendship with Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings). A fellow MP, Bessell realizes the strength in Norman’s honesty but tries to protect Thorpe anyway.

Norman can be self-indulgent. His intelligence gets underestimated and he’s also sweet and trusting. Both he and Thorpe can be guilty of blaming the other for their own failings and enjoying the lime light. One of Norman’s chief complaints, and the one that has him trying to reach out to Thorpe again, is he needs his help obtaining a national insurance card. The card allows him to find work and get prescriptions. Fact is stranger than fiction but the fact that this hullabaloo could’ve been avoided if Thorpe had listened (and ‘hullabaloo’ is a fun word but there’s tragedy in this scandal) is the greatest blow of all. A Very English Scandal isn’t Queer As Folk: UK., in terms of being a show to turn to when you need a happy place, but it does allow its characters to have rough edges in a very, very wild account.

A Very English Scandal starts streaming June 29th on Amazon.