I recent read the brilliant ‘A Very English Scandal’ by John Preston (highly recommended!).
Last night, I watched the Blueprint Pictures / BBC TV mini-series, all three episodes. Also highly recommended (though, be advised, adult language/theme, to say the least!).
If you haven’t read the book AND you haven’t watched the mini-series, my advice is that you do it in that order, read the book and then watch it on tele. Having read the book, I obviously knew what was coming but it served to heighten the sense of ‘train wreck’. I watched, shaking my head, constantly thinking “NO!!”, my knowing the catastrophic consequences of the decisions that the various ‘players’ were making.
If you have watched the mini-series but you haven’t read the book, I strongly recommend that you do. The author goes into much more detail in his book than the mini-series writer, Russell T. Davies, could in his work. Davies had to stick to the plot. In the book, we see and learn more about the characters/personalities and about the political environment at the time. In fact, having read the book first, I watched the mini-series with that extra knowledge of the characters and that, I reckon, added to my sense of enjoyment.
The book’s author, for example, gives us a lot of details about Sir Joseph Cantley, the Judge in the trial at the Old Bailey, details not included in the tv series. Also, a link between one of the character’s conduct early in the book and his later conduct, I think it’s missing in the tv series. I don’t want this to be a spoiler so I won’t say much but, in the book, we see three (possible) reasons for the change but, in the mini-series, we see (or certainly I saw) only two. However, that traffic runs both ways: in the mini-series, George Carman Q.C. reveals something about himself which I don’t remember being revealed in the book.
The mini-series is very well written, by Russell T. Davies, and equally as well directed by various talents, including Stephen Frears.
The acting is also terrific, from Hugh Grant, as Thorpe, Ben Whishaw as Scott and Alex Jennings as Bessell, to those in the smaller roles, eg David Bamber as Lord Arran (outstanding), Susan Wooldridge, as the Countess of Arran, Patricia Hodge as Ursula Thorpe, Michele Dotrice as Enda Friendship. Adrian Scarborough is a wonderful George Carman Q.C. I am surprised that Peter Taylor, played by Patrick Marber, so eminent as he was, doesn’t feature more. Perhaps Carman really did outshine in the trial, as a performer, a showman but, then again, the author does make a reference to another reason which has been mooted (there’s almost a pun in there, unintended) over the years. I shall say no more. Quite frankly, all the characters are terrific.
If the ‘Jeremy Thorpe affair’ was fictional, the book and, even more so the TV mini-series, would be an out and out comedy, a spoof. It’s not, however, a fiction, it really happened, and throughout my reading of the book and my watching of the mini-series, I found it hard to digest that fact, that it is a true story. I don’t want to give too much away, as I said, but I think I can safely assume that ‘everyone’ knows that Thorpe, and his alleged co-conspirators, were found not guilty but that history views the verdicts as flawed. The Judge’s summing up beggars belief!
Thorpe, a man who had it all, privilege, intellect (despite a ‘third’ from Oxford), good looks, charisma, magnetism, success, a realistic hope of getting into ‘the Cabinet’, even a more than faint chance of becoming PM one day, we was, it would seem, ‘unhinged’. He lived in cloud cuckoo land. He was stark-raving bonkers! Hugh Grant pulled it off (oo er, missus!) – sorry, couldn’t resist it!
Norman Scott, agonisingly well portrayed by Ben Whishaw, was (might still be!) a loose cannon and it was to both their detriments that they met each other. That said, we owe Scott a debt of gratitude: if Thorpe hadn’t met Scott, Britain might have had a very dangerous, I say again unhinged, Government Cabinet Minister, possibly Prime Minister!
Bessell, wonderfully portrayed by Alex Jennings, it’s hard to know where to start! What a complex character, many redeeming, admirable features but so many character flaws! Weak yet tough as old boots, always falling down but never failing to get up, dust himself off and keep fighting the good fight, optimistic to a fault (or ‘just’ a dreamer??), faithful (to a point, a far, far point, far too far!). I’ll leave it there, lest I give too much away.
All the characters are terrifically portrayed. However, the ‘magic wands’ are John Preston’s, Russell T. Davies’ and the directors of the mini-series episodes. They somehow manage to tell and deliver the story, the account, of the ‘Jeremy Thorpe affair’, in such a way that it conveys the Machiavellian intrigue, the sociopathic murderous intent, the sordid, ugly underbelly of the British ‘Establishment’ at the time, the inequality, the arrogance, the disconnect between the Political Classes’ world and that of the world which it was duty bound to represent, they manage to write and deliver it in the style of comedy. It’s one thing, I imagine, to do that when the story is fiction but when it really happened, not easy, to say the least!
Well done, one and all.
One last thought/question:
When Thorpe and Scott (or ‘Josiffe’, as he was still known at the time) first met, if homosexuality had been legal, would the ‘Jeremy Thorpe affair’ have happened?
When Leo Abse is trying to get a bill to decriminalise homosexuality passed in Parliament and Bessell talks to Thorpe about a future which might see it happen, Thorpe says to Bessell that, regardless of any changes in the law, if ever his relationship with Scott should become public knowledge, he’d put a gun in his mouth and blow his brains out. That suggests that, in Thorpe’s mind at least, the public was not ready to accept gay Members of Parliament. However, if it had been decriminalised by the time they met in 1962 (it was ’62, if my memory serves), perhaps Thorpe wouldn’t have been interested in Scott, maybe he got a thrill from doing what was prohibited??
Certainly, in the story, we see why the illegality, the criminal status, of homosexuality was know as a “blackmailer’s charter”. Whether or not Scott/Josiffe was actually blackmailing Thorpe, that isn’t made clear in the book or the mini-series but it looked like it and it clearly felt like it to Thorpe!
What a story!!
Enjoy the book and the mini-series!