Political corruption. Media collusion. Covert assassination. A Very English Scandal, beginning on BBC One this Sunday night, is a story both of its time and timeless.
Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe MP, a rising star Liberal politician, who stood trial on suspicion of attempting to have his ex-lover Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw) killed – his decisions were fuelled, says Grant, by his “terrifying ambition to rise, rise, rise” combined with a “very complicated inner turmoil about being gay”.
Russell T Davies has adapted John Preston’s book of the same name, based on true events, as a three-part TV drama.
“It’s a riveting story,” Grant enthuses, speaking to press including Digital Spy. “You sort of can’t believe that it could’ve happened.”
“It’s bleak and absurd when you read the cold facts,” echoes Whishaw. “You almost can’t believe it. It seems so odd. What these people did to each other was savage. They were obsessed with each other for a very long time.”
Grant was a schoolboy when the real Thorpe was in the dock for attempted murder. “I remember these events, I grew up during them, and it was a very riveting and juicy business,” he says.
“It was all happening when I was at school and it was a source of much sniggering – you know schoolboys. The jokes were all good: ‘Join the Liberals and widen your circle’ – so I do remember it.”
A Very English Scandal too is a blackly comic affair – an aspect that attracted both Grant and Whishaw, though the latter was born a year after the trial and “had no idea who Jeremy Thorpe was”.
“I was attracted to the humour of it,” Whishaw explains. “Also, I felt a sort of connection to Norman and I wanted him to like it – and thankfully he does, we’re told.”
While most of the figures involved with the real Thorpe scandal have since died, Scott – the would-be victim – is still alive at 78.
“This is a very big part of his life and so I think he just wanted it to be done well, to be told properly…” says the actor playing him.
“He was treated so badly by the press back in the day, and public opinion seemed to be so strongly against him, so there was a chance to set the record straight to some degree and give his side of the story, perhaps.”
Scott was allowed to watch an early cut of A Very English Scandal “not for his approval”, says writer Davies, “but because we thought that was the decent thing to do”.
“He had no say, there was no potential for him to cut scenes or to change anything… and he loved it. It was a very big honour, that moment. I felt quite vindicated as a writer, because he said I got it right.”
Davies is happy to concede, though, that his lead actor Grant did even more research on that Thorpe affair than he did.
“I quite respect Stephen [Frears, the director] and Russell and Ben Whishaw, so I thought I better try and be good,” Grant deadpans.
“I read every single book there is on the subject, I went to meet lots of people who knew Thorpe, I dug up old films – some of them out of the bowels of the BBC, that haven’t been seen for decades. I don’t if it did any good, but it seemed to soothe me a bit.”
“In the end… ” Davies says, “he was feeding stuff back to me and I was putting it into the scripts! I really hope people sit and watch it and see what a brilliant performance it is that Hugh gives.
“I think sometimes people kind’ve shrug at the name ‘Hugh Grant’ – they think they know what they’re going to get, and actually that’s a proper actor at work. It’s a masterful performance.”
Grant himself says he was surprised to be offered A Very English Scandal, having previously worked with director Frears on the Oscar-nominated 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins.
“I’m always very surprised that Stephen would want me in anything… I was making these big commercial romantic comedies which I thought he would probably spit on. In fact, he probably does!
“He sent me the script and rang me up to ask what I thought, and I said, ‘Well, which part?’ – I’m about 400 years too old to play Thorpe at the beginning of this story… but it was a lovely thing to do.
“It’s helpful to get older and uglier – you get more unusual parts. Maybe they suit me better!”
A Very English Scandal begins this Sunday (May 20) at 9pm on BBC One.
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