What To Watch This Week: A Very English Scandal

What To Watch This Week: A Very English Scandal

When news broke in 1974 that Prime Minister-in-waiting Jeremy Thorpe had been having an affair with a stable boy, the story scandalised parliament and public alike. Now, John Preston’s factual novel on the outrage has been adapted for the BBC by the team behind Doctor Who. Here’s why the three-part series should make it onto your must-watch list this week…

What’s it about?

It’s 1967 and homosexuality is illegal. MP Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) is a leading light in the Liberal Party, but he has a secret – he’s gay. Open about his sexuality with a select few MPs (shout out to Alex Jennings as Peter Bessell, a fellow in-the-closet MP who plays Thorpe’s accidental right-hand man with deftness and wit), there’s a certain recklessness to his subversive tendencies: he and Bessell toast their persuasions proudly in the Cabinet dining room, he sends love letters using his House of Commons stationery and, in one scene, enters a potential lover’s room with nothing more than a silk dressing gown and a large tub of Vaseline – his mother’s bedroom is right next door.

That potential lover is Norman Scott, a shy stable boy that Thorpe takes a shine to while visiting a friend. This brief encounter, which naturally finds Scott (Ben Whishaw) topless, sets the scene for the action to unfold, as Scott lurches from farmhand to secret lover to jilted male model with a target on his head. And it’s this murderous mark – placed upon him by Thorpe when Scott threatens to expose the affair – that will ultimately end Thorpe’s political career.

Who stars in it?                    

This is a highly enjoyable series, despite the fact that none of the characters are very likeable. The key to A Very English Scandal’s success is the casting. Hugh Grant is on fine form in the against-type role of Thorpe. Gone is the floppy-haired lovable rogue of his 90s heyday and instead, we find him crinkled, predatory and furious. Meanwhile Ben Whishaw depicts Norman Scott as pathetic and needy – although Thorpe has the upper hand, it’s easy to see how Scott’s increased whimpering and addiction to booze and pills renders Thorpe’s affection null and void.

Elsewhere, Patricia Hodge (The Elephant Man, Miranda) is excellent as Thorpe’s monocle-toting mother (we hope to see more of her in coming episodes), while Thorpe’s sheltered wife (played by The Theory of Everything’s Alice Orr-Ewing) plays the role of dutiful, child-bearing spouse perfectly, even as evidence of her husband’s indiscretions come to light.

Will I like it?

Sex and politics are natural bedfellows when it comes to historical dramas, but this pacey, racy series is eyebrow-raising material for the BBC’s prized Sunday night slot. The series is far from subtle (and we’re not just talking about the Vaseline): within the first hour of this three-parter we’re whisked through Thorpe and Scott’s entire romance – from chance meeting to demise – before we hop over to Ireland, where Scott is in exile and making a living as a male model. Another time jump to years later reveals Scott has blown his lucrative career and begun blackmailing Thorpe.

In the wrong hands, this could be seen as glossing over details, but with best-of-British Russell T Davies (of Doctor Who, Queer as Folk and Cucumber fame) in charge of adaptation and Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena, Florence Foster Jenkins) on directing duty, A Very English Scandal becomes a gripping character study that shines the spotlight on sex, power and social standing.

The first episode ends on the precipice of Thorpe’s downfall – his request for a hitman. Even if you know what happens yet, for the next two Sundays one thing’s for certain: we’re in for one hell of a ride.

Where can I watch it?

Episode one of A Very English Scandal is available to stream on iPlayer now. The second and third episodes will be shown on BBC1 at 9pm on 27th May and 3rd June.

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