‘A Very English Scandal’

British politics are rocked every decade or so with a sex scandal – the Profumo affair in the 1960s is, to date, the highest profile with the most far-reaching of consequences. But former leader of the Liberal Party Jeremy Thorpe’s trial, in 1979, accused of conspiracy to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott, is certainly up there.

The BBC’s three-part miniseries sees a revelatory Hugh Grant as the manipulative, duplicitous, odious, yet seemingly charming Oxford educated politician, a sitting Liberal Party MP for North Devon from 1959, first make contact with Norman Josiffe in the early 1960s. Thorpe was already a star in ascendency and seen as a future leader of the Liberals. Josiffe was a naive, unstable and neurotic stableboy.

Yet, within a year or so, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Thorpe had secretly set up Josiffe in a London bedsit on call for his sexual satisfaction. But the older man soon tired of the arrangement.

Over the next decade or so, Norman Josiffe popped in and out of life in London and North Devon. Just how manipulative he was, or whether a victim, is moot – Ben Whishaw is magnificent as the fey, delicate Norman Scott (a name change due to a successful but short modelling career in Dublin). There’s no question about Thorpe. His quest for power is laid bare – even to the extent of deciding to marry to help his political career. It’s at this stage that Thorpe, in conversation with fellow MP and closest friend, Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), raises the view that Scott’s death may be beneficial to the Liberal Party as well as its leader.

And so the compelling, salient narrative develops. At its centre is the repercussions of the relationship – so short in terms of time on screen – but A Very English Scandal and its director, Stephen Frears, contextualises events. It was a time of upheaval and social demand for change, with the very real threat to the two-party political system (it’s immediately prior to the rise of Margaret Thatcher). The Liberal Party under Thorpe was on the cusp of genuine political power. Lunchtime conversations and snippets of Thorpe in action in the House of Commons relate to the moves to legalise homosexuality, Britain’s joining of the European Common Market, immigration. But that’s all background noise to the central premise.

It’s a fascinating slice of political history and insight into a certain aspect of privilege and the English establishment at the time. It’s also a very English engagement.

Rating: 72%


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