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.
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.