Regarded by those who can still remember it as one of the most baffling, shocking and, at times, utterly ridiculous incidents of the 1970s, the Jeremy Thorpe affair became one of the most talked about political scandals of the decade. Despite thousands of column inches, countless books and even a BBC Panorama special on the subject, people are fascinated to this day by the story of how one of the most promising politicians in the country found himself in the docks accused of attempting to have a former gay lover murdered to stop him from going public about the relationship.
Almost 40 years after the scandal first broke, a new 3 part mini series starring Hugh Grant as former Liberal Democrat Leader and North Devon MP Jeremy Thorpe, and Ben Whishaw as his former gay lover Norman Scott, is about to hit the small screen. The series which is based on John Preston’s book of the same name, was written by prolific TV writer and former Dr Who show-runner Russell T Davies, and is directed by veteran filmmaker Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Victoria & Abdul).
Last month, we were lucky enough to speak to the team behind the series about their involvement in the project and the parallels that can be drawn between the infamous affair and the current political landscape in the UK and in Trump’s America.
For Hugh Grant, the decision to take on a rare TV role was an easy one to make; asked about his own motivations he declares “it’s an incredible story in itself, and one which I remember from my teenage years”. Grant is also adamant that the story will definitely resonate with audiences today the same way it did over 40 years ago, “people seem to be in the last few years more and more interested in politics, which is helpful in terms of people wanting to watch something like this I think. I supposed we have to thank social media and the internet for getting people woken up to this stuff. Let’s face it, we probably have to thank social media for Trump and for Brexit too sadly, as we’re now learning…” he jokingly adds.
“Certainly, it’s been interesting for me because I’ve had quite a close-up experience with politics in the last 6 years doing stuff with Hacked Off [a campaign set up by numerous public figures demanding an enquiry into the phone-hacking of celebrities by several tabloid outlets] and meeting with politicians. The motivations for politicians back in the 60s and 70s was really no different, I’m afraid the number one motive was always themselves and their career and that was certainly absolutely crucial to Thorpe, he was incredibly ambitious.”
For director Stephen Frears, Hugh Grant was a no-brainer when it came to picking who would play Thorpe, “well he’s a toff you see, you cast a toff to play a toff” he jokes “I said immediately that Hugh should play him, and not surprisingly he liked the script as much as I did.”
Undergoing an impressive transformation, Hugh Grant lost a huge amount of body weight to become Thorpe, who was a much slighter man. Admitting to one slight diva moment before agreeing to take on the role, Grant says “My only queenie stipulation when I signed on was to say, I need Daniel Philips to do my make-up, because I’d worked with him Florence Foster Jenkins and I knew he was a genius, and I knew he’d done a number of brilliant film thing where he created real people.” Grant goes on to say “you don’t want to be an exact facsimile of the character you play, you just want to give a nod to it and Daniel Philips was brilliant with it.”
Tonally, Davies’ screenplay is far more comedic than one might have expected from a production dealing with an attempted murder and the poor treatment of a gay man at the hands of homophobic establishment. Davies offers a playful dialogue which is peppered with laugh-out-loud moments. Asked about whether the tone used was the right one in his opinion, Hugh Grant says “let’s not forget that Norman Scott didn’t get killed in the end, had he got killed, it would have had a very different tone to it. You know, the world was very different back then, Britain was very different. Even gay sex was a source of much greater sniggering than it is right now, thankfully”
For Ben Whishaw, humour played a huge role in his decision to take on this part “I was attracted by the quality of the writing and I was really taken by the humour of it, I found it very funny.” Asked if he found it daunting to be playing one of the few characters from the series who was still alive, Whishaw says, “well I supposed a little bit of this was at the back of my mind, because there’s a responsibility to take on someone’s life, but I wasn’t thinking too much about that. I certainly wanted to do him justice in his complexities and his variety as a human being.”
A Very English Scandal offers a riveting, nail-biting and at time truly touching storyline which is likely to take the nation by storm when its first episode airs this coming Sunday. Having watched the first episode, HeyUGuys are happy to report that this is one of the best BBC dramas for a while and if the first part is anything to go by, the rest of the series is sure to be every bit as compelling. A truly astounding, touching and wonderfully performed drama series which isn’t afraid to use comedy to approach a serous subject.
A Very English Scandal as 9pm, 20th May on BBC One. The series will run weekly.