UK TV review: A Very English Scandal
James R | On 18, Jun 2018
The Hugh Grant renaissance is officially a go. One of the great pleasures of the last 15 years has been seeing the Notting Hill and Four Weddings star find a new groove, from a cannibal warrior in Cloud Atlas through to a generous supporting role in Florence Foster Jenkins and a scene-stealing villain in Paddington 2. His comeback climaxes, perhaps, with his glorious starring role in A Very English Scandal, a BBC One drama that fits the actor like a glove.
It would be easy to label it a revelation or a surprisingly performance against type, but Grant’s versatility has always been lingering beneath his polite, blustering surface – and as political Jeremy Thorpe, he displays the familiar charm and likeable smile, which seamlessly morphs into a more calculating grin, as he first seduces a young stablehand, then goes to increasingly dark extremes to cover their affair up.
His lover is Norman Scott, played with a strength and fragility by the ever-brilliant Ben Whishaw. Swept away by Thorpe’s whirlwind charisma, he finds himself in a world of modelling, photography and fashion, lapping up the thrills of 1960s London, and the rush of a new romance. But things turn sour quickly, and while the world is changing, homosexuality remains illegal – and so, as Jeremy’s career goes from strength to strength, Scott goes from a fun diversion to an unwanted skeleton in a closet that’s already crowded.
Adapted by Russell T Davies, the scandal that erupts makes for gorgeously gripping television – a three-parter that lingers deliciously on details and covert conversations, while racing through to the final courtroom confrontation. The pacing allows the series to shift gear like Thorpe’s own moods, one minute enjoying the slightly creepy sight of Grant’s bedroom manner (he christens Scott his “bunny”, while lasciviously lunging for a jar for vaseline) and the next wallowing in the tragic heartbreak of rejection – a blow made doubly powerful by the added shadow of discrimination.
Davies has great fun with the whole torrid thing, relishing in the gossip and the domestic fall-outs in between the serious social disadvantages faced by Scott – a balance that comfortably fits the former Doctor Who showrunner’s sense of humour and earnest sentiment. There is gut-wrenching in pathos in seeing Whishaw’s Scott trembling in the rain one night, after an attempt on his life results in a loss that’s just as agonising – even just while hanging on the telephone, Whishaw’s naive vulnerability threatens to make your TV screen tremble. And yet there are giggles in the way that his wife, Marion (Monica Dolan), approaches the matter by cooking cod in parsley sauce, so they can chat sombrely over dinner. This is a very English scandal, with the emphasis on all three words – and an invisible exclamation mark to boot.
Alex Jennings as Thorpe’s confidant, Peter Bessell, brings a welcome slice of slithering disdain, as well as a touch of camp bitterness. It’s in his conversations with Thorpe that the show perhaps really finds itself, as we get a sense of even these privileged men scurrying to avoid prejudice and shame. Thorpe, of course, was a liberal politician, and Davies doesn’t hesitate to sprinkle the drama with progressive speeches and pro-European lectures, all of which only tempt us to sympathise with the dastardly man. But Grant’s eyes twitch between the modern political mottos, giving away the fear, greed, snobbery and slippery morals that drive him to take each fresh step to secure his shot at becoming Prime Minister. He’s matched, finally, by Whishaw, who plays someone who’s playing the part of a jilted lover with total abandon, inspiring pride and a winning sense of style. It only makes the trial’s verdict even more impactful, although the series maintains its lightness of touch all the way through to the end credits, which leave you with a wry smirk on your face.
The result is slight, but surprisingly weighty, a timely but spryly entertaining piece of TV that packs a lot into its limited runtime. Even at just three hours, to see Hugh Grant in his element like this is a pleasure. To see see him at his peak in the same programme as Ben Whishaw? A Very English Scandal is a consummate delight.
A Very English Scandal is available on BBC iPlayer until August 2021