As a conservative, I wasn’t sure what to make of the news that the BBC was adapting A Very English Scandal, John Preston’s entertaining account of the Jeremy Thorpe affair. On the one hand, it’s easy to depict Thorpe, the son of a Tory MP and an old Etonian, as a ruling class villain. Would the BBC turn his story into yet another ‘bash the rich’ tragi-comedy in the same vein as The Riot Club, a piece of left-wing agitprop in which members of the Bullingdon Club conspire to commit murder? When I heard Hugh Grant had been cast as Thorpe that confirmed my suspicions. At one stage, Grant had cornered the market in making posh British men seem sympathetic and self-deprecating, but he has ditched that act and acquired a second wind by portraying them as sulphurous and self-seeking.
But on the other hand, Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal party and campaigned for a number of causes dear to the hearts of cosmopolitan progressives — against capital punishment, in favour of unrestricted immigration — and was a bug-eyed evangelist for the EU. How would the BBC and the right-on scriptwriter it had hired to adapt it — Russell T. Davies — not to mention the director Stephen Frears, a self-confessed member of the metropolitan elite, cope with these contradictions?
Having seen episode one, I needn’t have worried. True, Grant does take a Terry-Thomas-like relish in depicting Thorpe as a toff gone bad, and the script is a bit too on the nose in signalling just how shallow and one-dimensional he is. At one point Thorpe is asked by his fellow Liberal MP and co-conspirator Peter Bessell (played by the wonderful Alex Jennings) whether he was ever in love with Norman Scott, his ex-lover and the cause of all his problems. At first, he doesn’t appear to understand the question, then, after thinking about it, questions whether love really exists. Finally, he asks Bessell whether he should envy Scott the ease with which he falls in love. Emotionally barren, you see — no doubt the result of having a father who never told him he loved him and being packed off to boarding school at a tender age.
But Grant cannot help but give the character a mischievous, twinkly-eyed charm. He doesn’t invest him with any depth, but gives him a self-mocking quality — an arch knowingness — which humanises him. Even though Thorpe espouses various fashionable causes, he doesn’t come across as a loathsome hypocrite because, in private at least, he makes no bones about being an unprincipled opportunist. Pulling the wool over the public’s eyes is all a bit of a lark, even when it involves entering into a sham marriage. It’s a road to perdition, of course, but you’re led down it quite happily by Grant.
What’s good about his performance is that you can see traces of the earlier, more sympathetic upper-class characters he played – you can almost believe that Charles, the bumbling, good-hearted Englishman from Four Weddings, could become someone like Jeremy.
The thing that prevents A Very English Scandal from ever getting too po-faced is Thorpe’s homosexuality. Because the programme makers could never bring themselves to disapprove of that, and because it’s so central to Thorpe’s story, they’ve tempered their hostility to him, in spite of his poshness. It isn’t a nuanced portrait, exactly, but nor is it overly judgmental. If anything, it errs in the opposite direction, suggesting that Thorpe, in his own way, was just another victim of an unjust law. After all, if homosexuality hadn’t been illegal in the 1960s, Thorpe wouldn’t have had to live a double life and Scott wouldn’t have been able to blackmail him.
If the story has a moral point, it is to expose the injustice of this state of affairs, and the most powerful scene in episode one was when Lord Arran, the Tory peer who helped get the Sexual Offences Act passed in 1967, explains that he is motivated by the death of his brother, who committed suicide on being threatened with prosecution for being gay.
I’m not entirely convinced by this. Would Thorpe have led a blameless life as an openly gay man if he’d been born 25 years later? That’s letting him off the hook — not least because there were thousands of closet homosexuals before the law changed who, on being threatened with exposure, didn’t conspire to murder their blackmailers. Thorpe was a thoroughly bad egg, but thanks to Grant’s mesmerising performance, one you’re happy to spend some time with.