A Very English Scandal marks yet another impressive addition to Russell T. Davies’ television canon, as well as yet another wry, thoughtful and oblique take on queerness in contemporary Britain. This time, Stephen Frears lends his talent as director, taking us through a three-hour miniseries that outlines the relationship between Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1971, played here by Hugh Grant, and his lover Norman Scott, played by Ben Whishaw. Based on John Preston’s history of the same name, the series starts with Thorpe and Scott’s relationship, before moving onto their breakup and – most notoriously – Norman’s efforts to blackmail Thorpe by threatening to expose him to Parliament at large, in response to which Scott organised to have Norman murdered. While the exact extent of Thorpe’s involvement in these murder plans is still a bit murky – he was found not guilty – the film more or less presents him as the main perpetrator, making it a bit of a surprise ending, to those not familiar with the story, to see him getting off at the end.
As that might suggest, then, A Very English Scandal tells a pretty heavy story, one in which both Thorpe and Norman are framed as both perpetrators and victims of a society that was only just starting to accept their orientation at the time that their relationship was taking place. Within the film’s world, Thorpe represents an older and more steely form of homosexual identity, desperate for secrecy and discretion at all costs, while Norman represents a younger and more open generation, the beneficiary of a new tide of liberalism and the harbinger of a new wave of liberation. In that respect, the trial, and the result of the trial, is seen as both a changing of the guard and an indication of the need for more change, with protestors and reformers invoking Norman as the voice of a new gay generation, and collapsing Thorpe more or less roundly into the conservative identity politics that he spent a great deal of his personal and professional life actively resisting. Put more bluntly, Thorpe is homosexual, whereas Norman is gay, and the relationship between those two identity categories is responsible for a great deal of the conflict and miscommunication in the series.
Yet part of what makes A Very English Scandal so memorable is the way it resists this easy distinction between Thorpe and Norman, along with the simple narrative of liberation and progression that comes with it. For all that Norman might conventionally be painted as the victim in this scenario, and be claimed as a figure of queer liberation, the series presents him in a fairly unsympathetic light – as an ersatz murderer himself who was well aware that outing Thorpe would force him to retire from politics, and leave him no other option but suicide, given the values and expectations of his generation. Conversely, while Thorpe might be closeted and discrete in a way that Norman never is, the experience of having lived most of his private live in the shadows gives him a homosexual wordliness and urbanity that Norman never possesses, especially in his conversations with his queer confidante Peter Bessell, also a Liberal politician, played here by Alex Jennings in a performance that feels every bit as wryly and archly marginal as his depiction of the Duke of Windsor in The Crown.
That shift in sympathy comes as a bit of a surprise, especially because the series, as a whole, is suffused with a picaresque, jaunty and frequently comic tone that refuses to invest the murder conspiracy, in particular, with too much pathos, but never quite discards or dismisses its seriousness either. Key to that unusual tonality is the import of Grant, who puts in one of the most nuanced performances of his career here, modulating between pathos and comedy so subliminally that it’s often hard to parse his key scenes in any consistent way. Combined, those tonal decisions make it difficult to see Thorpe, or Thorpe’s conspiracy, as exemplary, or as neatly encapsulating the shift from homosexual to gay identity, even or especially as the events might seem to provide precisely that opportunity.
Instead, A Very English Scandal frames queerness, and the present queer moment, in terms of a defiant anti-exemplarity, in which the lessons of history, and the succession of Gleeson, Gleeson and then queer history, aren’t a fait accompli in the way that contemporary voices so often assume. And for that reason, Davies’ and Frears’ drama feels both of its time and of our own time, invoking a past cusp of liberatory struggle only for the sake of questioning the extent to which the present is still indebted to, and in some ways still participating in, that struggle, resulting in one of the deftest depictions of queerness that I have seen in some time, and a powerful counterpart to the second season of American Crime Story in its refusal to consign any part of queer struggle to a remote or historically reverent pastness.