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23 May 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 11:33am

Hugh Grant has the role of his life as Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal

The BBC One drama is purest catnip to me. I want to roll around in it, like some randy stable boy in hay.

By Rachel Cooke

Only those with a certain kind of sensibility are likely fully to enjoy every last drop of A Very English Scandal (9pm, 20 May), the drama Russell T Davies has written about the Jeremy Thorpe affair. If, for instance, you’re the kind of person who snorts with laughter when one bisexual man asks another to what degree he leans towards the “spear side”, then you, like me, are going to be in heaven (see also: “Are you telling me that you’re musical?”). If, on the other hand, such campery is not your thing at all – and what a pity, my dear, that is – then you might want to watch Newsnight instead. I’m sure Vince Cable will be along in a minute.

How old are you? Do you know who Jeremy Thorpe was? Do you even care? I was ten when the closeted former leader of the Liberal Party stood trial at the Old Bailey in 1979 for conspiracy and incitement to murder (in 1975, he’d tried and failed to have Norman Scott, the man with whom he’d enjoyed a clandestine affair in the early Sixties, shot dead). But I knew about his antics all the same, largely because his face for a long time appeared in an ITV News title montage. One day, I asked my mother who this horse-faced man with the haunted eyes and too-small hat was, and in typically forthright fashion – a biology teacher, she was a great one for rude diagrams – she briskly told me. Boy, how my young mind boggled. I’ve been fascinated by him ever since, for which reason I’m able heartily to recommend the book by John Preston on which this three-part drama series is based.

To sum up, then, A Very English Scandal is purest catnip to me. I want to roll around in it, like some randy stable boy in hay (Scott was working with horses when Thorpe first met him, and Davies has him say to the older man: “What kind of mount would suit you?”). My God, the casting. Hugh Grant is Thorpe, and everything about his performance is exactly so. In middle age, his particular charm has a somewhat cobwebby quality, which seems just right: Thorpe’s charm, an expedient by-product of his sexuality and cleverness, seems mostly only to have been deployed in the cause of getting what he wanted, whether that happened to be illicit sex or the keys to Jo Grimond’s office. It’s the role of Grant’s life, and he performs it even more brilliantly than he did Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2.

Meanwhile, bringing up the rear (as Davies might, or might not, have it) are Ben Whishaw as the unstable Scott, and Alex Jennings as Thorpe’s protector-in-chief, his fellow Liberal MP, Peter Bessell. Both are perfect, Whishaw making Scott seem slightly repellent for all that he is arguably more sinned against than sinning, and Jennings performing Bessell as at once both stupid and slavish, a cocky but craven man who got his thrills by weaving himself into the out-of-control narrative of another, even more arrogant one.

It’s written and played, to some degree, as farce: Thorpe and Bessell break off their lunchtime discussions about Scott’s attempts at blackmail to praise a lemon posset; when Thorpe is about to seduce Scott in Mummy Thorpe’s spare bedroom, he places a jar of petroleum jelly on a bedside cabinet so carefully it might be a ticking bomb. But there’s something plangent here, too. What it meant to be gay, then. After Thorpe agrees to support Leo Abse’s latest parliamentary campaign to legalise homosexuality, he tells Bessell that, should it succeed, it will simply free men like him “to be pitied”; personally, he would rather put a gun to his head.

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I intended to devote the remainder of this column to a Channel 4 documentary called Carry on Brussels (10pm, 23 May) which followed a couple of MEPs, one quite boring (Seb Dance, Labour) and the other wholly dislikeable (Gerard Batten, Ukip), over the course of a few typical days in 2017. But beside A Very English Scandal it seemed so pale and watery and stupid, so utterly irrelevant to anyone or anything, I can think of nothing useful to say about it now, save for to let you know the very good news that, by his own account, there are more than a few restaurants in Brussels that refuse to let Nigel Farage in the door. 

A Very English Scandal (BBC One)
Carry on Brussels (Channel 4)

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This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman