REVIEW: A Very English Scandal (S1 E2/3)

From this distance in time – especially in the age of social media when political reputations are made and dashed within a few tweets – it’s hard to imagine the kind of deference public figures could inspire in the 1960s, and only the newspaper cartoonists really had licence to lampoon.

Hugh Grant’s glowering performance powerfully evokes Jeremy Thorpe’s reputation as a witty and wily performer in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate and his knack with the mot juste.

In this episode’s opening scene, Russell T Davies’ deft script breathtakingly juxtaposes his impassioned plea in the House of Commons to help Nigerian civilians caught up in the Biafran War, giving dire warnings about the Russian influence there – to a discussion with confidant Peter Bessell on the best ways to dispose of a dead body, making him sound like an Old Etonian Tony Soprano.

He sounds disconcertingly knowledgeable about Mob methods despite the fact that director Martin Scorsese had hardly begun his movie career at this point.

David Holmes (Paul Hilton), a former party deputy treasurer, is in thrall to Thorpe as much as Bessell (even while Thorpe imitates his Northern accent) to the point of complicity in the plan to shoot Norman Scott.

Can you get a gun?”

I can do whatever you want, Jeremy.” 

Shoot the bugger stone dead,” sneers Thorpe.

Bessell, meanwhile, has his own problems. His business interests are going bust – but he thinks he’s off the Scott hook when Norman rings to say he’s got married.

The wedding doesn’t actually make it much past the reception, at which his new father-in-law, Captain Myers (Patrick Barlow), makes it painfully clear that daughter Susan’s (Lucy Briggs-Owen) choice of a “flagrant poofter” isn’t a patch on her absent sister’s match with professional bounder actor Terry-Thomas.

Quite how he got her pregnant I don’t know – she must have been caught downwind.” Stuck in a dilapidated cottage with Norman, the baby, and no visible means of support, upper-crust Susan wastes cash on lucky peacock feathers. Poor Norman is reduced to scrumping and stealing eggs from farms; no wonder even his baby son won’t look at him. Susan soon goes back to daddy with the baby.

Thorpe, meanwhile, is facing life as a single dad to son Rupert when wife Caroline dies in a car crash. Stuffy arch-enemy Emlyn Hooson QC (the sublimely chameleonic Jason Watkins), routed contender for the leadership, sees his chance to eclipse Thorpe. The men are polar opposites; Thorpe’s gregarious and popular, Hooson is brilliant but too right-wing for the Liberal Party – and a Eurosceptic to boot. Protector Bessell then drops the bombshell that he may have to flee the country – and his wife – after a cracked egg business deal. He plans to take up with a younger woman in America. But even amidst tragedy, Thorpe, blaming Norman for his woes, still wants ‘The Scottish matter’ dealt with.

Thrown by his threatening undertow, Bessell takes out insurance; before vacating his office he stows the ‘blackmail’ letters in the false ceiling.

At rock-bottom in a caravan in Tal-y-Bont, North Wales, Norman strikes up a passionate liaison with a local woman. Torchwood’s Eve Myles plays merry widow former sub-postmistress Gwen Parry-Jones with a combination of the delicate brittleness of Marianne Faithfull and the ebullient, lubricious glee of Gavin & Stacey’s Nessa Jenkins. Seducing Norman in short order, she dismisses his homosexuality; “my husband was a soldier”. Taking him in hand – literally – she promises to help him retrieve his NI card with the help of her MP – Emlyn Hooson.

Hooson and David Steel (whom Thorpe apparently disparages as the “baby of the House”) are alarmed by Norman’s story. (Poor Steel; little could he imagine the struggle he’d soon have as leader in picking up the pieces.)

All his birthdays coming at once, Hooson declares the blackmail angle a matter for the party and the police, but Thorpe, sang froid, says this would look like revenge for losing the leadership battle from the man who had defended Moors Murderer Ian Brady (a bit of a reach, Jezza – that’s what barristers do).

To cut him off at the pass, Thorpe gains a promise of a cover-up from Tory home secretary Reggie Maudling (Michael Culkin), himself a louche, scandal-ridden character whose career was subsequently to be forever stained by Bloody Sunday. Hooson, desperate to get hard proof, hits a wall when the emotionally unstable Parry-Jones commits suicide.

Unhappy with loose ends, Thorpe sends Holmes to Bessell in California to plot Norman’s death in America.

Bessell says they’ll pretend to set something up in the US and claim it went wrong and that Norman didn’t turn up – “then at least it will look like we’ve tried”, says Bessell.

Thorpe’s second marriage to the redoubtable Marion (Monica Dolan) in 1973 starts him on a roll which sees him strengthen his hold on his North Devon seat in February 1974’s general election, taking the Liberals to the brink of a coalition government. (Imagine 2010’s ‘Cleggmania’ and treble it.) But by the second ballot in October, the party’s fortunes falter as Wilson retains a majority, and the natives become restive.

Cementing his reputation as a nomadic Jonah, Norman moves to Thorpe’s North Devon constituency to work in stables. Then one day, while riding a horse down a high street with the haughty grace of a Lady Godiva, he comes face to face with Thorpe and waves nervously, obviously torn between joy and fear.

The troops are scrambled.

What follows is a supremely inept hunt, through indiscreet intermediaries John Le Mesurier (no, not that one) and George Deakin, for an assassin – or in this case a broke, small-time airline pilot, the hapless Andrew Newton, played by TV’s current go-to for incompetents, Blake Harrison (The Inbetweeners), in a superbly measured performance (imagine Joe Pasquale as Joe Pesci).

The blind leading the blind, Newton (who doesn’t understand how to be low-key or remember the alias he’s been given; Bessell later said it was ‘Chicken-Brain’) tells Norman someone is coming from Canada to kill him, and takes him and Rinka, a Great Dane Norman is caring for, in his clapped-out car across Exmoor during a downpour. Freaked out by the dog, Newton loses control and shoots Rinka, but fails to shoot Norman when the gun jams.

As far as the British public was concerned, the amiable Jeremy Thorpe had a charisma that certainly shone far brighter than those of other leaders (how many of them got to pose with Jimi Hendrix, after all?). Had his path not crossed with those of the benighted Norman Scott, he might well have gained high office. What led him to hit the self-destruct button even when his allies defended him so assiduously?

Davies and director Stephen Frears encapsulate it in the exchanges between his henchmen Bessell and Holmes.

Both agree the whole murder plot is “bloody nuts” and are at a loss to understand why they feel so beholden to him – especially, says Holmes “because I have that bloke of mine, at home, Gerald, and it’s magic. But then I go to London and there’s Jeremy, and I love him”.

It amazes me that we’ll go to such lengths to protect him when he’s so bloody avert – he’s perfected the art of hiding in plain sight,” says Bessell.

I think he likes it; the danger of it – it’s a game,” says Holmes, probably hitting on the truth. After all, history offers us no shortage of politicians who have tried to hide their own private vices behind public virtue.

Stay with it; next week the action should be moving to the Old Bailey and comedy judge Sir Joseph Cantley. Or was it Peter Cook?

Deborah Shrewsbury