In "A Very English Scandal," streaming as of Friday on Amazon Prime, screenwriter Russell T Davies) and director Stephen Frears tell the story of the British politician Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Josiffe (later Scott), the former lover he allegedly tried to have killed.
Beyond the drama and, just as often, the comedy inherent in this story and the characters who inhabit it, what interests Davies (the creator of "Queer as Folk" before he went on to remake "Doctor Who") and Frears is the place the story holds in the legal and social history of homosexuality in Great Britain, a country where until 1967 same-sex sex could land you in prison.
Thorpe, played by Hugh Grant (whose also starred in Frears' "Florence Foster Jenkins"), and Scott, played by Ben Whishaw, met in 1961. Norman was working as a groom at a country house where Thorpe was spending a weekend. (Whishaw, when we first see him, shirtless against a backdrop of hay, does look remarkably teenaged.) The MP gave the stable boy his card, who looked him up in London, arriving with a suitcase and a small dog. (He has been, he confides, in a psychiatric institution; pills are duly taken.)
An affair began and ended. Norman, who possessed incriminating letters, began to seem like a threat to Thorpe, who had become the leader of the Liberal Party. He began to talk about having Norman killed: It would be "no worse than shooting a sick dog," he infamously suggested. (Dogs form a sort of thread through the story.)
With its kicky title fonts and jaunty score, “A Very English Scandal,” adapted from John Preston’s book of that name, takes a relatively light tack on the material, from which it occasionally descends into a darker place. (Stephen Soderbegh's Liberace film, "Behind the Candelabra" and Gus Van Zant's fact-inspired murder movie "To Die For" make useful points of comparison.)
It bursts out of the gate, with an animated, half-coded conversation between Thorpe and fellow MP Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), and continues to move fast; though nearly 20 years pass from when Jeremy met Norman to the trial that was their last point of contact, it feels more compact than that, a sprint from start to finish.
Grant, who has been displaying a lack of vanity in his recent choices, does not attempt to look dapper or sway us with his patented half-shy smile. Indeed, at 57, he is perhaps a little worn-in for the part — Thorpe was in his early 30s when he met Scott and 50 when the case went to trial — but he is very good, marshaling his charm against other characters while letting the viewer feel the limits of that charm.
Whishaw keeps you guessing as to Scott’s motives and state of mind — because the character imperfectly understands them, one would say — in a way that feels genuine; he earns your sympathy even when you’re not quite sure he deserves it. And the filmmakers are quite clearly on his side; even Thorpe’s friends and lawyer say nice things about him.
The character represents a first step into a freer future: "I was rude, I was vile, I was queer, I was myself," he reflects on his testimony at the series' climactic trial. ("All the history books get written with men like me missing, so yes, I will talk, I will be heard and I will be seen," the character tells the court, in as much as a speech as anyone makes here).
If he is not always the best shepherd of his well-being, and liable to overstep himself, he is also the story’s more genuinely aggrieved party. Norman gets an upward arc — he grows more solid with time — whereas Thorpe is concerned mainly with himself and his party as an extension of himself. He’s ready to cut people loose when they no longer protect or serve or amuse him.
Real life does not always lend itself to dramatic adaptation, but Davies and Frears manage to make of it something both thoughtful and antic, historical but only in brief asides a history lesson. They fill up the corners of the story with a roster of British eccentrics fit for an old Ealing Studios comedy — bumbling conspirators, a Lord with a house full of badgers (David Bamber), Thorpe's monocle-wearing mother (Patricia Hodge) and sometime jailbird lawyer (Adrian Scarborough) and a famously prejudicial judge (Paul Freeman, the villain in "Raiders of the Lost Ark") – who, paradoxically, make "A Very English Scandal" seem more lifelike than not.
‘A Very English Scandal’
Where: Amazon Prime
When: Any time
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)