tv series

‘A Very English Scandal’ revisits the shame and secrecy surrounding homosexuality in Britain

The three-episode BBC series stars Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw.

In 1979, a senior leader of Britain’s Liberal Party was charged with the attempt to murder a former same sex lover. Jeremy Thorpe was acquitted of the charges to get Norman Scott killed, but the fracas finished his political career, which had shown much promise after a burst of success in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Stephen Frears’s BBC One show, A Very English Scandal, by revisits the outrage and gossip surrounding the affair, which began when Thorpe met Scott – who worked as a stable hand – in 1961. This was a time when homosexuality was outlawed in Britain and for a politician to be out was next to impossible.

A haggard-looking Hugh Grant plays Thorpe, while a suitably ravishing Ben Whishaw plays Scott. The duo makes for an unlikely pair, in accordance with the difference in ages between Thorpe and Scott. Grant, in particular, is almost non-recognisable, his youthful attractiveness hardened into a rictus of cunning.

After Scott was fired from his job, he found his way to London, in particular the House of Commons, where he sought out Thorpe, who provided him accommodation. The relationship, which grew quickly, was conducted on the sly, and the show leaves open the question of whether the pair was ever in love. It is to Grant’s credit that Thorpe – even when he is contemplating murder – leaves enough hints about gentler feelings having once existed.

Concerned that he was getting nowhere with Thorpe, Scott left for Ireland, where he found success as a model. But his National Insurance Card remained with Thorpe, who refused to give it to him for fear that the record would show an association between the two men. With no lawful name to give their relationship, Thorpe had shown Scott as an employee when they were together.

Over its three-episode run, the show charts the increasing aggravation between the two men. Without the card, Scott could not find work or claim benefits, and this became a persistent sore point between the two. Peter Bessell (played by Alex Jennings in the series), another MP and Thorpe’s ally, played the go-between, to no avail. When things risked getting out of hand and torpedoing Thorpe’s political career, he plotted murder (which did not ultimately come to pass because of the ineptness of the hired assailant).

Whishaw is excellent as the mercurial Scott, who refused to give up even in the face of a grave threat to his life. The series portrays him as somewhat unstable, dependent on psychiatric drugs, but it is still an update on how the press portrayed the real Scott at the time of the trial. The show, even as it keeps an eye focused on the plot, allows the larger debate around homosexuality to permeate the narrative.

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A Very English Scandal.

In the first episode, a conversation takes place between Labour MP Leo Abse and Conservative peer Arthur Gore (The 8th Earl of Arran). It’s 1967, and Abse intends to bring a private member’s bill before the House. This bill would ultimately become the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults.

Abse is told Gore would like to help. When they meet, Gore movingly recounts the life and death of his gay brother: “When we were children, in the nursery, I’d reach out every night, held his hand until he slept; he was such a clever boy… the deaths go on, by hanging, by poison, by gas, men killing themselves through fear and shame. And I don’t think it’s suicide. I think it’s murder. They are murdered by the laws of the land.”

It’s a cleverly drafted piece of dialogue, ringing with subtlety and poise, in clear contrast to the botched murder at the heart of the show’s plot, which happens to be a more clearly demarcated act of violence than the kind Gore refers to. But it is one that, springing from the same shame and secrecy that ruined countless gay lives, is ultimately no different.

Interestingly, the series has spurred the British police to reopen the case. There is information that Scott’s assailant who was believed to be dead, may be alive. High drama rarely bleeds from the reel to the real but by jogging people’s memory about Britain’s retro social codes, A Very English Scandal may serve a more august aim than mere entertainment.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.