A Very English Scandal, the new three-part series from Queer As Folk and Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davies and director Stephen Frears, is a wild tale of politics, ambition, sex, mental illness, attempted murder, and virulent homophobia. It’s also pretty much a true story.
A dramatization of John Preston’s book of the same name, the Amazon mini-series begins in 1961 with a chance meeting between a politician on the rise named Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), and a young, rootless stableman named Norman Josiffe, later known as Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw). At first, as Thorpe tells his loyal friend, fixer, and fellow MP Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings) in the House of Commons dining room, Scott was “very heaven.” The politician set his lover up in a flat in London, gave him money, and wrote several affectionate letters to his “Bunny” that would eventually be splashed across the newspapers. Their relationship lasted less than a year, but would haunt Thorpe for the rest of his political life, until he finally stood trial in 1979 for conspiracy to murder his troubled and troublesome ex-lover.
If you think British historical dramas are all decorous whisperings about how one should behave upon meeting the queen, this mini-series is here to prove that notion wrong — courtesy of Hugh Grant, with a glint in his eye, as he brandishes a tub of petroleum jelly. Below, a detailed guide to the very real story behind A Very English Scandal.
A Very English Scandal covers almost 20 years of British history, a period of considerable upheaval in the country’s laws and social mores. At the heart of the story is the slowly evolving public attitude toward homosexuality, a criminal offense at the time of Thorpe and Scott’s affair. Since the Buggery Act of 1533 (really, that’s the name), sex between men had been illegal in Britain, and was punishable by execution until the mid-19th century. The Victorians ended the death penalty but tightened the law — sensationally ensnaring Oscar Wilde in 1895. (The popular story goes that lesbianism was not explicitly banned because Queen Victoria could not imagine such a thing.)
After World War II, Cold War paranoia exacerbated long-standing fears that gay men were at particular risk of blackmail and thus a security threat, leading to a crackdown and various high-profile arrests, including that of code-breaker and scientist Alan Turing in 1952. By the mid-’50s, more than 1,000 men were in prison for homosexual activity, and the government commissioned a report to reexamine the law. In 1957, it concluded that there was no reason that sex in private between consenting adult men should be illegal. It would take another decade of delay and official disgust before the government agreed to act on the report’s recommendation, finally changing the law in 1967, the same year Thorpe became leader of the Liberal party. The mini-series touches on the fight to change the law, thanks to the determination of a Welsh Labour minister, Leo Abse (Anthony O’Donnell), and an eccentric Conservative peer, Lord Arran (David Bamber), whose closeted brother had committed suicide. (Arran’s other main cause was the rights of badgers, which had free run of his country house. When asked why his badger-welfare bill had failed, while the decriminalization of homosexuality passed successfully, he was reported to have answered, “There are not many badgers in the House of Lords.”)
The attempted murder
Doing away with the legal restriction, however, did little to clear the prevailing miasma of hatred, contempt, fear, and disgust around homosexuality. It went without saying that high political office was utterly out of reach to an openly gay man, but more chillingly, A Very English Scandal dramatizes how bone-deep Thorpe’s own self-hatred ran. Despite cheerfully admitting his sexual predilections to close friends, he appears bewildered and horrified by the suggestion that he might have been in love with Scott, protesting, “He’s a man!” It’s Scott’s willingness to declare their relationship openly and describe its details to anyone who’ll listen, from friendly pub landladies to detectives to a packed courtroom, that makes him so dangerous, and why Thorpe eventually concludes that he needs to be silenced for good. Fortunately for Scott, who is still alive today, the trio of misfits Thorpe hires are outlandishly incompetent, and the only casualty of the planned hit — this is less a spoiler than a genuine warning — is his beloved Great Dane.
Jeremy Thorpe’s political views
Thorpe’s determination to destroy Scott to protect his own ambition is doubly ironic for the fact that his political views were compassionate and progressive. Since his Oxford days he had been a loyal member of the Liberal Party, a centrist third-party alternative to the Tories on the right and Labour on the left. (Founded in the 1850s and dominant in British politics in the early 20th century, the party went into sharp decline after World War I, before making a comeback in the 1950s.) Thorpe was first elected in 1959, going on to become the youngest person to lead a political party in the 20th century. He was a popular and charismatic leader, both in his Devon constituency and nationally, supporting colonial independence, increased immigration, and European integration. The mini-series has him delivering a passionate speech against the government selling arms to Nigeria, before sweeping out of the chamber to insist to Bessell that Scott needs to die. He’s able to perform high-mindedness and moral courage in public, but they habitually fail him in his private life.
The murder trial
The showdown of Thorpe’s trial, almost 20 years after the affair, afforded Scott the opportunity to tell his story, once again, to the biggest audience he had ever had. The trial was televised, and the sight of a member of the traditional ruling class sitting in the dock while his former lover described the first time they had sex, was an undeniable sign of the changing times. Another unremarked upon but subtle change is the increasing prominence of nonwhite faces during a period when more than half a million migrants from Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean, Africa, and south Asia settled in Britain. They are in the background of the drama, but their presence is felt.
Jeremy Thorpe never recovered from his scandal of desire and hubris, and lost his bid for reelection in its wake. But the scandal was not the only reason: The Liberals held on to just 13.8 percent of the vote in the May 1979 election, which swept Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives into office for almost two decades. The country had changed dramatically enough that a grocer’s daughter could be prime minister, but not so much that the Liberals wouldn’t use a rival candidate’s homosexuality against him in a viciously contested by-election in 1983. But the following year, the Labour MP Chris Smith announced he was gay, becoming the first — and for many years, the only — out member of Parliament. The road to fuller representation was painfully slow, but being gay is no longer a political liability in Britain, which elected 45 out gay men and women to Parliament — 7 percent of House of Commons — in 2017.