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When something is “based on a true story” you can either arm yourself with the facts beforehand, or go ahead and watch it, and read up more afterwards. Either way, you’ll be able to weigh up if the series or movie is an authentic portrayal of events, or more loosely rooted in fiction.
If you choose to go ahead with this article, you’ll get a bit of both; unless of course you are already familiar with the story of Jeremy Thorpe, British Liberal MP, his homosexuality (when it was still outlawed; the Act of Parliament decriminalising it was passed in 1967), and the court case where he stood accused of planning to have his former lover killed.
A Very English Scandal – and a more perfect “stiff upper lip” title does not exist – is a three-part series based on the book of the same name by John Preston.
Racking up the trophies
Casting of the two main characters is spot on, not only in physical appearance but in ability. Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, while his young lover Norman Scott is portrayed by Ben Whishaw, who picked up a well-deserved Golden Globe for the role.
Along with the awards already in the bag, A Very English Scandal has an impressive array of nominations for the British Academy Television Awards (the telly BAFTAs), from best miniseries to best actor and supporting actor, to a host of creative categories, coming up on 12 May.
A man of a different pedigree
Thorpe and Norman first met briefly in 1961 in the stable where young Norman worked. A tender 19 at the time, Norman is shirtless and splashing water all over himself. The older Thorpe can almost be seen rubbing his hands in lustful glee. He insists the lad call him Jeremy, and gives him his business card saying “If you ever need anything…”
It may have been a casual pick-up line, but after Norman has a nervous breakdown a while later, he pitches up at Thorpe’s office. After his initial surprise, Thorpe recovers sufficiently to – recklessly, it turns out – take Norman home to Mother. There, jar of petroleum jelly in hand, he seduces Norman.
Later, Thorpe sets Norman up in rooms in London and they carry on an affair for quite some time. As it happens, Thorpe eventually grows bored and suggests Norman get a move on and find himself a proper job and lodgings.
Then there’s the small matter of Norman’s missing National Insurance card, which becomes a running theme throughout the story. His insistence that Thorpe took it from him to prevent him getting work, along with a fragile state of mind – “I’m not right in the head” he says at one point, early on – balanced with a powerful sense of drama leads to years of “trouble” for Thorpe; Norman just won’t slip off quietly into the night.
Fame, fortune, and whispers in Westminster
Concurrently, Thorpe’s political career takes off. He becomes the leader of the party, he marries and spawns a child, becomes suddenly widowed, marries again, even more fortuitously.
Norman parties up a storm, forms highly unsuitable relationships with women of vastly differing ages for a range of purposes, and every couple of years remembers his National Insurance card and rings Thorpe up, causing all manner of trouble in Thorpe’s carefully constructed lie of a life.
Becoming annoyed, Thorpe discusses roughing Norman up a bit to frighten him off, with his best friend and fellow Liberal MP, Peter Bessell (Alex Jennings).
One thing leads to another, and the next thing we know, there’s a murder plot in the mix, and quite a ridiculous one at that. At least, that’s how it’s told here. Frankly, true or not, this middle episode is the messy weakness in the series.
From the House of Commons to the Old Bailey
The show picks up again in the third and final part, which deals with the 1979 court case in which Thorpe was in the dock with his alleged co-conspirators, although there are still some comedy elements, of which the real Norman Scott does not approve. He is apparently still alive and well, although Thorpe is long since departed.
“Artistic license is fine but this isn’t my story. And there’s nothing funny about someone trying to kill you…I’m portrayed as this poor, mincing, little gay person … I also come across as a weakling and I’ve never been a weakling,” Scott told The Irish News in an interview, while at the same time praising Whishaw as an actor.
Be that as it may, perhaps he missed the lines by Bessell right at the very end of episode 1, when Thorpe supposes Norman can be easily scared off.
“It’s an easy mistake to make,” says Bessell. “He’s effeminate therefore we assume he’s weak. But that man sits in pubs, clubs, houses and hotels, telling all the world about his homosexuality. Out loud, all day long. It doesn’t bother him who’s listening … priests or housewives, landlords or anyone. He tells the truth. He doesn’t care.
“No one else does that, Jeremy. No one. Certainly not us. In this whole land there is Norman and Norman alone. To be blunt, I think he is one of the strongest men in the world.”