“I’ve seen what the law can do” – A Very English Scandal (DVD Review)

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An adaptation of the John Preston book of the same name, A Very English Scandal, a shocking true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy to murder.  It’s the late 1960s, homosexuality has only just been decriminalised and Jeremy Thorpe is the leader of the Liberal party and the youngest leader of any British political party in a hundred years.  As long as Norman Scott is around, Thorpe’s brilliant career is at risk, and eventually, Thorpe can see only one way to silence him for good.

The trial of Jeremy Thorpe changed politics forward as the British public discovered the darkest secrets of The Establishment and the lengths they’d go to conceal them.

In a story that spans two decades, Hugh Grant is on career form, a true powerhouse performance as Thorpe with Ben Whishaw, as Norman Scott, the spurned ex-lover, blazing on screen with a captivating performance, with a strong showing from Alex Jennings as Thorpe’s close political confidante, Peter Bessell.  There are many other recognisable faces in this case – Patricia Hodge, Eve Myles, Monica Dolan, Blake Harrison, Michele Dotrice and Jason Watkins amongst them – and if there were ever a production worthy of acting nominations aplenty, it would be this one.

It’s more than just the performances, though, thanks to Russell T Davies and Stephen Frears who write and direct, respectively.  It is a fantastic pairing who ably capture the time, the politics and the feeling of the people with deft skill.  Frears past works include Philomena, Florence Foster Jenkins and The Queen at the cinema, with the latter reportedly starting life as a television project, as well as the wonderful The Deal. He’s built a career directing challenging pieces, yet keeping them accessible to all. Russell T Davies, possibly best known for kickstarting the revival of Doctor Who, returns to the BBC with a truly masterful script and possibly his best work to date (and that’s saying something).  Davies combines humour and intrigue into a story that charts the rise and fall of two strong men and the lengths they will go to in order to maintain their lives.

Davies script doesn’t flinch from exploring the love of two men in a time of new freedoms, yet doesn’t overplay the affection they have for each other or the impact their actions have on their personal lives. We see the chemistry between Norman and Jeremy grow beyond their initial infatuation through to the hard times and then the darkest machinations of a politician trying to keep secrets even as the truth comes out, and Davies gives his whole cast the dialogue they need to bring this era to life. Neither man is a clean-cut character, yet both have a naivete and fragility that Whishaw and Grant draw out in very different ways.  Davies manages to make the more outlandish moments –  plotting a murder, the act itself (treated almost like a heist), the aftermath, the dalliances, the political meddling and the public response to the revelations – darkly humorous, though never outrageous.  He keeps his work tight, to the point and free of excess and he hits emotional notes with the precision of a maestro.

A spurned lover with a strength of character and purpose in contentious times who sets about to bring down a powerful figure (all for the need of a National Insurance card) taking on a powerful politician with the balance of power firmly in his favour, A Very English Scandal digs straight into the heart of The Establishment, how private and political lives intertwine, the lengths some would go to maintain their secrets and how the public react to these people.  It may seem fantastical that a politician would go to these lengths, but this is a true story and one that is incredibly well told and well acted.

Grant and Whishaw have worked together previously and made movie magic with Paddington 2 (the less said about Cloud Atlas, the better). A Very English Scandal will go down as defining moments for both men in already well-respected careers.  BBC calls their drama strand “Pure Drama” and this is proof of that.

The DVD brings together all three episodes of the drama on one disc, presented in their entirety and adds the press kit content that featured on the BBC website for the series.  Sadly, the original scripts are omitted, but can be seen on the BBC Writer’s Room site.  Whilst the features are very short, they are, like the drama itself, to the point, with cast and crew talking about the events and the series.  If only there were more!

Dir: Stephen Frears

Scr: Russell T Davies

Cast: Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings

Country: United Kingdom

Year: 2018

Runtime: 180 mins

A Very English Scandal is available now on DVD