THE SERIES "A Very English Scandal"
WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), a rising star in England's Liberal Party, seduces a stable boy, Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw), on the estate of a supporter. A torrid affair follows but nearly a decade after it ends, Josiffe — who changes his name to Norman Scott — wants help from Thorpe to get a National Health Insurance Card. Thorpe, now on the cusp of leading the party, wants no part of Scott, and goes to his close friend, Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), for counsel. Bessell goes to Ireland (where Scott is living) to ward him off. When that fails, Thorpe comes up with a fresh idea — to have Scott killed.
This three-hour miniseries — based on the true story of Thorpe's ruinous plot, and adapted from John Preston's 2016 book of the same name — was written by Russell T. Davies ("Doctor Who," "Queer as Folk") and directed by Oscar nominee Stephen Frears ("The Queen").
MY SAY Grant hasn't had a starring role on TV since the mid-’80s, so it's reasonable to ask, why now and why this one? The reasonable, or obvious, answer is Davies and Frears, which is the sort of creative collaboration that doesn't come along often. This one in fact bore fruit — a sharp, incisive and (above all) funny script and direction to match.
Yet that's hardly the whole answer. Grant had his own famous scandal to deal with, though hardly on the scale of Thorpe, who stood accused of attempted murder. He too has had an uneasy kinship with stardom and fame, with the libel suits to prove it. But maybe TV simply offered the kind of intimacy this portrait demanded. Up close and personal, Grant's Thorpe is repressed and ruthless, charming and cunning, loving and homicidal. Presented with evidence of his ex-lover's obstinacy, and singular determination to have Thorpe get him that National Insurance Card, the leader of England's Liberal party sees no alternative other than to have him murdered.
It's a brutal calculus and "A Very English Scandal" leaves no doubt that it's the one Thorpe set in motion. But to order a hit and actually carry one out are entirely different matters, which is where the "very English" of the title comes in and, incidentally, where Grant does too. He's made a career of playing his fellow Englishmen with a mixture of bemusement and self-mockery — a pitiable Old World type with perfect diction, randy impulses and encrusted mannerisms.
For example, Thorpe's second wife, Marion (Monica Dolan), wonders why both he and Scott once playfully referred to each other as "bunnies."
"Were you a bunny? Am I married to a bunny?"
"No," he blandly says of the endearment. "I was technically using a generic noun in an imperative clause."
The planned murder itself quickly becomes a gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight debacle, while the hit man is described by one co-conspirator as "professional, ruthless and utterly discreet" — that said as he's carried out of a club in a drunken stupor. The very Englishness of the disaster is what's funny but also poignant — the wounds self-inflicted and avoidable. (In the botched murder attempt, Scott's beloved dog is killed.)
Whishaw's Scott, by contrast, is a sweet lost soul who stumbles from town to town in search of shelter and dignity, both elusive. Whishaw's brilliant here, and almost effortlessly steals the entire miniseries. His character also gets, as it were, the last laugh: An on-screen bumper in the closing seconds reads, "Norman Scott is alive and well ... has eleven dogs [and] he still hasn't got his National Insurance Card."
BOTTOM LINE A funny, sad, engaging winner.