A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL
Starring: Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings, Eve Myles, Patricia Hodge, Monica Dolan, and Adrian Scarborough
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Russell T. Davies
Based on the Book: A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment by John Preston
”This is a story of a liar meeting a fantasist…but I am not sure which one’s which.”
A untold tale of queer history gets a lavish and wryly funny telling in Amazon’s A Very English Scandal. Written by a very activated Russell T. Davies and directed by British cinema staple Stephen Frears, this three-episode trip into the swinging 60s and 70s quite literally has it all. There is murder, sex, political scandal, and drugs. All this plot is populated with darkly funny and profoundly human characters who actually lived all this insanity and (mostly) made it out alive. The story of MP Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott was not one I knew going into this series, but afterward? It is all I can bloody talk about.
Right from the first frame, Frears and Davies build a tactile and accurate portrayal of English society in the Sixties. Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe (played with scarily hilarious accuracy by Hugh Grant) is discussing his “appetites” to another MP Peter Bessell (played like a real ice queen by Alex Jennings). Since this is the 60s and the two men are members of Parliament, the whole thing is very hush-hush as “sodomy” is still illegal in Britain.
The way Frears and Davies present this first scene is really key to the whole of the rest of the episodes. Frears’ intimate, almost documentarian style makes Davies immensely clever and biting dialogue really pop in sort of a stylish biopic way. Because by in large, this series really is a biopic of the two men at the center of the story as well as a raw, unflinching look at British society at the time. Though Davies’ script can skew a bit “rude” as the MPs would say, this series establishes early that it won’t be pulling its punches much. While, at the same time, having a bit of fun with the subject matter.
At the center of these three dynamic episodes are Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Both men really add an engrossing theatricality to the show. Along with a hefty dose of honest-to-God chemistry as the two ill-fated lovers. Having achieved the rare level of biopic performances that both is neither slavish mimicry or broad parody, the two men really anchor the show and draw in the viewer’s sympathy, ire, and belief in them. They breathlessly act out this strange, hilarious, and often quite sad story. It also doesn’t hurt that class actors like Eve Myles, Adrian Scarborough, and Monica Dolan pop in and out of this comedy of errors. They heap more “Britishness” (READ: bitchiness) into the proceedings.
Verdict: Watch It
Pillared by two entertaining, but respectable performances and strengthened by a deep, pointed well of queer energy in its heart, A Very English Scandal is required Sunday binge watching. Appealing to fans of oddball true crime, period pieces, and tales of male/male romance, this series really rises above itself to deliver a very specific experience in a very unforgiving time and place with clear eyes and an open heart. Its funny. It is tragic. And it is a story that absolutely MUST be seen and heard to be believed.