Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal”

A Very Eng­lish Scandal.

There’s a won­der­ful­ly seduc­tive and dark­ly com­ic dra­ma avail­able on the BBC and RTE at the moment which delves into sex­u­al mores and pol­i­tics in a refresh­ing­ly mature man­ner. A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal is a drama­ti­za­tion of the non-fic­tion book of the same name by John Pre­ston, chart­ing the Jere­my Thor­pe affair of the 1970s. 

Very much of the you-couldn’t‑make-it-up vari­ety, and, with­out giv­ing any­thing away, it’s the sto­ry of the leader of the Lib­er­al Par­ty in Britain at a time when there was a real pos­si­bil­i­ty that they might have end­ed up in gov­ern­ment there. 

Incon­ve­nient­ly though, one of his for­mer male, ahem, friends refus­es to leave him in peace, and so he decides to take defin­i­tive and decid­ed­ly dras­tic action.

Ben Whishaw, left, as Nor­man Scott, right.

I have to con­fess, the idea of watch­ing a dra­ma revolv­ing around a for­got­ten leader of a defunct British polit­i­cal par­ty from the 1970s, and star­ring Hugh Grant, was about as appeal­ing as, well, watch­ing a dra­ma about a for­got­ten British politi­cian from the 1970s. And I gave it a wide berth first time around. So I’m real­ly pleased to have caught it this time round as it is, as one of its char­ac­ters might have put it, an absolute hoot.

There are all sorts of rea­sons as to why it all works so well. For starters, and very sur­pris­ing­ly, Grant gives a career-defin­ing per­for­mance as the bril­liant, dri­ven if flawed Thor­pe. Then there’s the tone it strikes. Pret­ty much every­one involved seems to have been some class of an eccen­tric. But instead of play­ing this for laughs, showrun­ner Rus­sell T. Davies and direc­tor Stephen Frears play it large­ly straight. Which, of course, makes it all the more comedic.

Then there are the var­i­ous sub­plots which com­pli­cate the cen­tral plot, broad­en the story’s hori­zons and add lay­ers of envelop­ing irony. Thorpe’s search for a wife, and then for her replace­ment. His sup­port, as a staunch Lib­er­al, for the bill to have homo­sex­u­al­i­ty decrim­i­nalised. And his rise through the Lib­er­al Par­ty and up the greasy pole of British pol­i­tics, and the pol­i­tics of par­ty pol­i­tics that that creates.

Nor­mal Peo­ple, love­ly view.

The con­trast with Nor­mal Peo­ple couldn’t be stark­er. The lat­ter takes a two han­der, bereft of sub­plots, and tries for­lorn­ly to stretch it out over a nev­er-end­ing six hours. So it’s forced to paper over the dearth of plot with an over-reliance on famil­iar and exot­ic locations.

A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal also makes won­der­ful use of its loca­tions, but they are nev­er any­thing more than the back­drop to a won­der­ful­ly dynam­ic sto­ry that’s con­stant­ly build­ing in momen­tum. And the fact that its events are both true and accu­rate­ly recount­ed only makes the series all the more remarkable.

You can see the trail­er for A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal here.

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