As the title suggests, A Very English Scandal is riddled with symptoms and symbols of the British Establishment. The three-part miniseries has dogs. It has monocle-sporting aristocrats and long lunches at the Carlton Club. It has grown men referring to each other affectionately as “bunny.” And, most prominently, it has the central storyline of an ambitious, Eton-educated, closeted politician conspiring to have his ex-lover murdered by a squad of amateur hit men, in an assassination plot so farcical it involves nipple tassels, whipped cream, and the sitcom Dad’s Army.
Truth is stranger, etc. etc. The real-life scandal of Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of Britain’s Liberal party, consumed the tabloids in the late 1970s, when he was charged and tried for attempting to arrange the murder of Norman Scott, an itinerant former model and stable hand with whom Thorpe had a sexual relationship. Scott survived the bungled late-night shooting in the middle of Exmoor (his Great Dane Rinka, sadly, didn’t, which led to popular jokes about “the dog in the fog”). And the two eventually faced off in court, during which time the U.K. newspapers dissected every salacious detail of Scott’s testimony.
A Very English Scandal, whose three episodes are released on Amazon Friday, stars the inimitable Hugh Grant as Thorpe, in the first significant television role of the actor’s career. In the series, Thorpe is already established as a Liberal politician when he meets Scott (SPECTRE and London Spy’s Ben Whishaw) in 1961. From the beginning the relationship between the two is based on an imbalance of power, which Thorpe fully exploits, both emotionally and sexually. He pays for Scott to live in a dingy studio, and writes him letters in which he refers to them both as “bunnies”—a reference to how Scott looked like a frightened rabbit on their first night together.
Soon, the relationship goes sour, and Scott, who’s suffered from anxiety and nervous breakdowns in the past, reports Thorpe to the police as having “infected” him with homosexuality (which was a crime in the U.K. until 1967). From there, the conflict between the two escalates. The writer Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk, Doctor Who), who adapted the series from John Preston’s novel, unfurls the story from Thorpe’s perspective at first, conveying the awkwardness and the risk involved in Thorpe trying to find someone he can confide in. His initial chats with his fellow Liberal MP Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings) are cheerily risqué, but as Scott becomes a more urgent threat to Thorpe’s reputation, Thorpe reveals the stakes. “If anything about me ever became public ... I would put a gun to my head and blow my brains out,” he states. “Then I shall protect you,” Bessell replies.
A Very English Scandal continues to swing back and forth in this manner between madcap farce and historical tragedy. It’s a tone that reflects how British tabloids have always engaged with the immensely profitable act of public shaming, showcasing personal disgrace and downfall with a wink and a nudge. But Davies—and the director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen)—reminds viewers that the exposure of a closeted Englishman is more serious than it might seem. During the first episode, Bessell consults Lord Arran, an eccentric Conservative politician trying to decriminalize homosexuality. The scene is played for laughs (badgers and paté feature prominently), until Arran reveals the reason for his mission: His own gay brother killed himself, and he’s determined to try and save other men from the fear of being outed.
Still, the tone doesn’t always jibe. Grant is intriguingly cast as Thorpe, portraying the politician’s general geniality and charisma as well as his penchant for risk-taking and his sense of entitlement. What isn’t always apparent, primarily because of the humor of the writing, is the kind of malevolence and desperation that could compel a man to try to have another man killed. There are flashes of murder in Grant’s eyes, and he’s most persuasive when communicating Thorpe’s devastation. But the assassination plot is treated with such a light touch that it’s hard to take much meaning from it.
Playing Scott, Whishaw deftly shows how the younger man is both Thorpe’s opposite and his peer. Scott is depicted as an unstable fantasist at first, repeatedly seeming to blackmail Thorpe (and writing Thorpe’s mother a seven-page letter including details about their affair). What Scott and Thorpe appear to have in common is an ability to hold others in thrall, relying heavily on their ability to manipulate people. But Whishaw also conveys Scott’s desire to be loved, and how his anger at the way Thorpe has treated him is more about sadness than revenge. Thorpe’s limited comprehension of his own sexuality is based purely on physical acts—he doesn’t seem to have the capacity or the luxury to imagine that men might actually love each other.
As an autopsy of one of the darker moments in recent British political disgrace, A Very English Scandal is a spry and surprisingly funny work. In under three hours, it includes all the relevant tabloid focal points (the “sick dog” comment, the witless petty criminals, the infernal National Insurance card). But it’s most effective at rendering how tragic and needless the whole Thorpe affair was, turning public bigotry into private shame into ritual mortification. In court, Scott maintains that he never cared about Thorpe’s money. What he does care about, he says, is how “all the history books get written with men like me missing.” In A Very English Scandal, he’s at last given equal billing.