How the story of A Very English Scandal remained buried for so long

by Russell Brown / 05 February, 2019
A Very English Scandal.

A Very English Scandal.

RelatedArticlesModule - A Very English Scandal tv

The retelling of a buried scandal about the former Liberal Party leader reveals much about class, politics and culture, with trademark British humour.

Were it not based on real-life events – in this case, via John Preston’s best-selling novel – A Very English Scandal might seem a bit overcooked.

The Golden Globes-nominated mini-series tells the story of former UK Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) and his attempts to silence his troublesome, unstable former lover, Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw) – in the end, by plotting his murder, a sensational 1979 court case alleged.

Perhaps it feels more like a dramatic creation because, for all its sensation, it hasn’t really survived in popular memory.

As writer Russell T Davies noted, “it’s actually quite buried … Everyone’s lives were ruined, so they dropped out of history, and I also think slightly it dropped out of history because it’s a gay story. There’ve been a few straight scandals that keep being told again and again, because that’s seen as more normal somehow, whereas a gay scandal is perhaps seen as more niche and not as likely to be told in the history lessons.”

Although the production was funded by Amazon (and hence American money), what Davies does is fetch up the story’s innate Britishness. It’s about class, politics and culture as much as it is a murder plot. Ironically, Davies believes the affair’s disappearance from history was a key to the series’ success.

“People were astonished that there was this story that had been sitting underneath their noses for decades and they hadn’t heard about it, so weirdly, it had a great effect. It galvanised people and invigorated the audience. It was great fun in the end. I was very lucky that I was the one who got to tell it.”

He’s helped enormously in the telling by the lead performances. Grant, who made his name playing fops, emanates darkness and ambiguity as Thorpe, and Whishaw is pretty, tormented and desperate as Josiffe.

Perhaps what’s surprising – and terribly British – is how much room is left for comedy.

As grim as the depiction of Thorpe is, both Davies and Grant have emphasised in interviews that they felt some sympathy for the Devil – and for the tragic paradox of a brilliant, articulate man who was never socially permitted to explain who he was. It’s that sympathy and sense of social context that help make A Very English Scandal such complex, compelling viewing.

A Very English Scandal (SoHo, Sky 010, Wednesday, 8.30pm)

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a breakthrough in New Zealand?
108428 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Tech

Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a break…

by Peter Griffin

The tech company at the centre of a trade war between the US and China is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove it can be trusted.

Read more
The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing Grace
108368 2019-07-15 00:00:00Z Movies

The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing…

by Russell Baillie

A long-lost concert movie capturing Lady Soul in her prime is heading to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Read more
The untold history of China's one child policy
108182 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z History

The untold history of China's one child policy

by RNZ

Nanfu Wang explains the story behind her film One Child Nation, which screens at the International Film Festival this July.

Read more
Is Vladimir Putin right about the death of liberal democracy?
108314 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z World

Is Vladimir Putin right about the death of liberal…

by Paul Thomas

Vladimir Putin reckons “the liberal idea has become obsolete”. As Mandy Rice-Davies said, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”

Read more
The psychology of psychopaths and social media users
108199 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z Psychology

The psychology of psychopaths and social media use…

by Marc Wilson

Psychologists are getting a picture of people who are big on social media. It's not always pretty.

Read more
Acclaimed writer Greg McGee on his family's stolen children
108138 2019-07-13 00:00:00Z History

Acclaimed writer Greg McGee on his family's stolen…

by Clare de Lore

Greg McGee always knew his great-grandfather had kidnapped his father and uncles as infants, but now for the first time he’s revealing that...

Read more
Video-streaming platforms are failing their impaired customers
108303 2019-07-13 00:00:00Z Tech

Video-streaming platforms are failing their impair…

by Peter Griffin

When it comes to video streaming, the hearing- and visually impaired can only dream about the technology that’s passing them by.

Read more
We like big vehicles and we cannot lie
108312 2019-07-12 00:00:00Z Politics

We like big vehicles and we cannot lie

by The Listener

It would take a psychologist to explain Kiwis’ love for utes and SUVs. But it’s not the only reason people are revved up over the attempt to reduce...

Read more