The opening minutes of the three-part miniseries A Very English Scandal take place in the House of Commons dining room in 1965, where two MPs are chatting. One, Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings), says he is sleeping with his pretty female assistant but allows that “when I was young, I was so desperate, I’d go looking on the spear side.”
Playing the Liberal-party MP Jeremy Thorpe, later the leader of the party, Hugh Grant says, with eyes widening, “Are you telling me you . . . were . . . musical?”
Clandestine, furtive, and a bit silly are the characteristics of high-class English homosexuality in A Very English Scandal (now streaming on Amazon Prime). Reminded that “gay” means “happy,” Thorpe says he agrees absolutely: “I intend to be very happy very many times in my life.” Unfortunately, homosexual acts are illegal, and even when they are decriminalized (in 1967 in England), they remain potentially lethal to careers.
The veteran English film director Stephen Frears (whose many credits include the films The Queen and Dangerous Liaisons) made these three one-hour episodes for the BBC with a typically cynical view of upper-class machinations. Thorpe, for all of his camp airs, is deadly serious about protecting his reputation, and after he meets a stable boy named Norman (Ben Whishaw) and invites him over to stay with him and his frosty mother, the younger man starts to make requests for favors. They start to smell a bit like blackmail when Norman writes an explicit letter to Jeremy’s mother — demanding 30 pounds for his silence.
The absurdly trifling request — Norman also wants Jeremy to get him a replacement for his lost National Insurance card, which the MP refuses to do because it would constitute an official act tying the two men together — sets the stage for an absurdly daft murder plot. It’s as if Martin Scorsese had a go at Yes, Minister. Norman, who has in his possession several love letters from Jeremy written on House of Commons stationery, proves a continuing nuisance, but even though he denounces Jeremy to anyone who will listen, including the police and Jeremy’s political rival for leadership of the Liberal party, the MP keeps using his wiles and his network to stay in the game.
Equal parts sinister and disarming, Grant’s Jeremy makes the film work. He somehow makes it look perfectly plausible that his otherwise mostly respectable friends, when he openly discusses his desire to have Jeremy’s life snuffed out, can’t quite bring themselves to tell him no. When he suggests someone wring Norman’s neck for him, a friend demurs: “He might wriggle out of it. Men like him tend to be wrigglers.” His coterie keeps putting him off, but as years go by and the Sixties turn into the Seventies, Jeremy, climbing closer to a Cabinet position and even setting his sights on Number 10, is convinced that the continued existence of Norman is the biggest potential obstacle to his advancement.
Grant, no longer pretty and a bit stiff and hunched over, has passed the point of relying on the charming-bumbler routine that served him well for so many years. He’s even covered his bright blue irises with shoe-polish-brown contact lenses. It’s a superb performance, marinated in the Old Boy privilege that Thorpe deploys on many occasions, notably when he successfully asks the home secretary to bury police evidence at the latter’s club. When things begin to go wrong, he is incredulous: “Why is everyone suddenly so bloody honest?” In an era when homosexuality is becoming more accepted, increased scrutiny is directed at business-as-usual corruption.
It’s as if Martin Scorsese had a go at Yes, Minister.
That title is well-chosen: Throughout the film, one can’t help noticing all of the many peculiarities of English life that it reflects upon in passing, from frolicking on country estates to nutty pet obsessions to Wodehousian euphemism to bewigged lawyers to, at a devastating point in the plot, the morass of conflicts of interests traceable to the open-checkbook journalism of Fleet Street. That Grant himself, in real life, has a long history of bitter antagonism to Fleet Street methods lends the film an extra note of tartness.
If Russell T. Davies’s screenplay is dogged by a couple of soapbox moments (“All the history books get written with men like me missing,” Norman declares in a hokey courtroom speech aimed directly at 2018 viewers), it is for the most part a brilliant balance of the comic and the alarming. The underlying point to the caper emerges devastatingly in a scene in which we meet a typical English eccentric, the eighth earl of Arran, nickname “Boofy.” He’s a man with a strange fixation on badgers, whom he allows the run of his house. Yet he also happens to be one of the leaders of the movement to decriminalize homosexuality in England. It turns out that the seventh earl of Arran, his brother, committed suicide because he was ashamed of being gay. It took frivolous-seeming men like Boofy to engineer a gravely important social change.