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TV Review: A Very English Scandal

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A humorous take on the events which ended Jeremy Thorpe’s political career, A Very English Scandal is a masterpiece of black comedy.

With a stellar cast, led by Hugh Grant as Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as his alleged former lover and near victim, Norman Scott, the drama depicts the events which formed the accusations against the former Liberal leader. Thorpe was acquitted, but suspicions surrounding the still case remain today. 

Beginning in 1961, the programme follows the initial romantic affair between Scott and Thorpe and the subsequent attempts to cover it up, culminating in the suspected attempt to murder the former. The scandal, which saw the first ever trial of a British member of parliament, is carefully caricatured to emphasise the potential dark side of the political establishment and the outrageous ways it was covered up. 

Hugh Grant flawlessly portrays both Thorpe’s role as a public impresario and his ruthless, scheming alter-ego. His effortless characterisation of the devious politician is highly believable, lending a level of authenticity to the series. The character of Thorpe is one which is becoming all-too recognisable with the scandalous actions of more and more public figures increasingly coming to light. Leaving the flamboyance of his last role (Phoenix Buchannan in Paddington 2) behind, Grant is amusing without ever going overboard. His performance emphasises the predictability of the British political establishment with poise and nuance whilst still allowing for a farcical take upon a serious, and still contested issue. 

Equally responsible for the show’s success, Ben Whishaw superbly depicts Norman Scott, the victim of Thorpe’s fierce protection of his political agenda. Whishaw’s portrayal evokes sympathy for Scott, honestly reflecting the profound effect which the affair with Thorpe had upon his character’s life. Throughout the series, Whishaw authentically relates the outrageous events, like Grant, with a comic tone emphasising the almost ridiculous nature of the story. A stand-out moment, in Whishaw’s performance and the drama as a whole, is Scott’s testimony in the courtroom, during Thorpe’s trial. In an emotionally charged speech, Scott’s assertion that “I will talk, I will be heard and I will be seen” excellently demonstrates the seriousness of the scandal, stressing that real-life events lie behind the series. As the end of the series recounts, Norman Scott is still alive and well. He remains searching for justice after the verdict which saw Thorpe found not guilty. 

Russell T Davies’ light-hearted yet eye-opening drama is a cleverly written snapshot of the British political establishment during the 1960s and 1970s. The series covers the whole scandal, from beginning to end, without any aspects feeling brushed over or rushed, which has been the downfall of many recent TV dramas. What was presented in the programme was intelligently and thoughtfully developed, establishing the facts and speculating upon the truth behind the unprecedented events which shook British politics. At times, the comedic aspect of the show was perhaps misplaced, with the viewer not knowing whether laughter was appropriate. However, this did not detract from the show’s overall appeal. 

Director Stephen Frears has put together a series which is both marvellously entertaining and incredibly eye-opening. A Very English Scandal captures the nature of politics during the 60s and 70s, ridiculing English attitudes and exposing platforms for potential corruption. 

For anyone interested in additional information regarding the events portrayed in A Very English Scandal, a previously unaired documentary, created by the BBC shortly after Thorpe’s trial, was aired on BBC Four on Sunday night. It is a useful follow up to the series. 

A Very English Scandal originally aired on BBC One and is now available to catch-up on BBC iPlayer.

 

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