The best stories to come out of Hollywood are the ones too unbelievable to be true.
That’s certainly the case with A Very English Scandal, a madcap miniseries that debuts Friday on Amazon Prime starring Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, and one of the most sensational, deliciously sordid tabloid trials in modern British history.
Grant is Jeremy Thorpe, a charismatic politician and leader of the Liberal Party on track to become prime minister. Whishaw is Norman Scott, a stable boy who becomes Thorpe’s lover. A steamy, secret affair—homosexuality was not yet decriminalized in Britain at the time—devolves into a years-long tumultuous breakup that involves blackmail, a hitman, a surreal public trial, and a doomed Great Dane named Rinka.
In 1979, Thorpe was tried on charges of conspiring to murder Scott. It was more than a decade after the two first began a sexual relationship and Thorpe, desperate to keep his reputation and political aspirations untarnished, first began endeavoring to silence his unraveling former lover. He resorted to hiring the country’s most inept hitman to do the job, certain that his privilege and power, as always, would protect him.
Recounting the wild tale is another product of Hollywood too good to be true, the series’ ever-charismatic star, Grant. Over tea at a Midtown hotel with a small group of journalists, he is every bit as charming as you’ve been led to believe after all these decades of swooning over him on the big screen.
There’s the dashing way he casually cuffs his sleeves or tousles his hair, which is graying just so. His demeanor is kind of one giant raised eyebrow, his face constantly contorting as if elasticized from snark to smarm to goofiness to intense seriousness, often traveling through all in the same answer to question after question about the wild—but, again, totally true!—story that inspired this series.
Grant was 18 when the surreal trial of Jeremy Thorpe captivated his country and dominated newspaper headlines. He remembers, offering a slight frown of shame, the ways in which the trial and the details of Thorpe and Scott’s sex life were cannon fodder for an artillery of schoolboy jokes.
“It was like Monty Python,” he says. “Here’s a member of the establishment, ex-Oxford, ex-Eton, very well-connected, on trial with his lover saying, ‘Well then I had to bite the pillow…’” a reference to Scott’s graphic testimony recounting for the court the first time the two had anal sex. Another unforgettable detail: Thorpe’s arrival to Scott’s bedroom armed with a massive jar of Vaseline petroleum jelly. “A good helping is every bachelor’s friend!” Thorpe quips in Russell T. Davies’ slightly embellished script.
“There were thousands of jokes,” Grant says. “‘Join the Liberal Party and widen your circle!’” He cringes even just remembering it. “So that’s how he was really regarded, I’m afraid. Maybe that sad face [in the final scene] is knowing you’re really a figure of ridicule for the rest of your life.”
Reputation was important to Jeremy Thorpe. So important he’d kill to protect it.
When preparing for the role, Grant would scribble “J.J.” in certain margins of the script. It referenced Thorpe’s full first name, John Jeremy, the “very spoiled, much-overlooked son” in a lineage of conservative MPs, Grant says, the kind of man accustomed to never hearing “no” and, while shaping the law, also being immune to it. For J.J., there was always the expectation of a chief constable or home secretary who would sweep away any transgressions after a quiet word and a handshake.
“I’ve met these guys,” Grant says. “They still exist today in politics.” He ventures that this sense of entitlement explains Thorpe’s extraordinary double life. “On the one hand, he never wanted to be openly exposed as being gay. He’d [sooner] shoot himself, he said. On the other hand, he was actually at it all the time. He was constantly at clubs, or pubs as they were in those days, picking up men left, right, and center. But he just felt the law would never touch [him].”
The arduous task, then, becomes how to make Jeremy Thorpe sympathetic. In a series that is equal parts tawdry and tragic, Grant’s performance, Davies’ script, and Stephen Frears’ direction manage to do that, at least to the extent that Thorpe marginally deserves.
Getting one’s head around ordering a hit on another human being isn’t the easiest task, Grant says. Then he remembers Thorpe’s reputation, which he protected like his own child.
“I think it’s the middle-class man coming down the stairs in the middle of the night, finds the burglar in his house, and just reverts to caveman to protect his children and reaches for his cricket bat,” he says, attempting to rationalize Thorpe’s killer instinct when Scott threatens to reveal their relationship.
“The other thing was the tragedy of being unable to express your own sexual nature,” he continues. “Especially not being able to love someone in that context. We hint at that, especially at the end of the series, that he probably was in love with Norman Scott back at the beginning. And because of the law and social mores, was unable to let that develop with him or anyone else in the rest of his lifetime.”
There’s a poignant conversation that Thorpe has with his lawyer, explaining why Scott, a fragile man who so swiftly goes off the deep end once scorned by Thorpe, was worth all the trouble. Thorpe responds recounting the shame and the brutal reality of being a closeted gay man in the ’60s. Johns he picked up would turn violent, shame him, hurt him. It underlines why someone as initially sweet and innocent as Scott was appealing.
“Well I think he probably began just as another pick up, but I think it developed into a bit more,” Grant says. “I used to think, and wrote in the margin of my script in my copious notes on all this, that to me he was almost like a son. Rather pervy, but true. Thorpe knew at that stage that he didn’t have children and might never have children and he felt a sort of almost paternal protection towards this younger man. And I think he got off on that as well.”
He cracks a sly smile, elongating the last word with a saucy inflection that nearly had the entire table spit out their tea: “I think he liked being daddy.”
Grant’s natty sense of humor is on fine display even as he talks with utmost respect about issues surrounding Thorpe’s sexuality, the bigotry that surrounded the press’ coverage of his trial, and the “grey area” of consent, as he puts it, that sparked the couple’s initial sexual relationship.
To wit, he makes a good-natured, if shockingly explicit joke, about reuniting with Paddington 2 co-star Whishaw, who played the wily bear to his own pursuant villain, for the series’ romantic scenes. It’s a quip blue enough to make any reader guffaw, blush, and gasp all at once—and which his publicist kindly asked us not to repeat here.
But we can relay the refreshing matter-of-factness with which he recounts shooting those scenes, explaining that there wasn’t much hand-wringing or extensive discussion before shooting them. “Just, ‘Stand here. Kiss him. Put him on the bed.’” He laughs recalling one particular shoot, though. “I was a bit lost. I remember once I pushed him on the bed and I thought, ‘I could go on kissing him, but they haven’t shouted ‘cut’ yet. I better do something else. I’ll lick his nipples.’”
Reader, he does.
He estimates that signing on to a series with resonant overtones in today’s political climate, in which sexuality and scandal are ever-volatile themes, is an unconscious byproduct of his own recent personal awakening.
“Having been someone who was not at all interested in politics before, in the last six years I’ve become very interested,” he says, referring to his emergence as a prominent critic of the Murdoch family and the News International phone hacking scandal. In 2014, George Clooney landed the film rights to a book about that scandal, but Grant says the last he heard, it couldn’t get financing. “That’s part of the scandal itself.”
He bristles at the notion that part of his connection to Thorpe’s story is an understanding of the pressures of living a public life, of which every last detail fascinates the media. “Well that only happened really after the scandal started to emerge, I think,” says Grant, who early in his career weathered his own Very Hollywood Scandal. “For him, in his opinion, exposure was going to ruin him. Did I identify with that? No. I never felt that. All my skeletons are out there. [They] all got out there very quickly.”
A Very English Scandal marks Grant’s most significant role playing a gay man in 30 years, since he starred in James Ivory’s 1987 drama Maurice, the aching period love story largely considered to be one of the seminal entries in the LGBTQ cinema canon. In the 1991 American TV movie Our Sons, he played a man coming to terms with being gay while his lover dies of AIDS.
Both roles, speaking solely in terms of industry convention and prejudice, would have been considered risky for a rising young actor on the cusp of stardom—Four Weddings and a Funeral wouldn’t be released until 1994, with his iconic string of romantic heroes following suit. But Grant said he never thought that way.
“I never really thought there’d be problems with this or that stigma,” he says, a mischievous grin creeping across his face. “It probably surprised my parents. I remember when I did Maurice, they were a little surprised to go to the news agent and find their son on the cover of Zipper.”
One last hearty laugh and one last sip of tea. “Otherwise, it’s never bothered me.”