A memory from youth that hangs like a bat in your reviewer’s mind is being taken to Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, to see the third Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979 and witnessing the great Peter Cook in his pomp.
And his extraordinary monologue ‘Entirely a Matter for You’ (check it out on YouTube) is obviously still indelibly imprinted on Sir Ian McKellen’s mind, as he apparently turned down the role of High Court judge Sir Joseph Cantley in the last episode of this series for fear he couldn’t eclipse Cook’s peerless comic performance.
It’s October 1975 and a bear of very little brain, stable boy-turned-hunted bunny Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), having escaped being murdered aims to get his own back on Phoenix Buchanan – sorry – Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant) by going to the police.
Never mind France, Bunnies by now has been to Hell and back and the violence against him shows no sign of easing up. The local plods rough him up for his temerity to damage “a highly respected man”, dismissing him as a “lying little queer”. A shocking scene – was he really assaulted so savagely during police interrogation? – shows how times have changed, mercifully.
But his presciently named pub landlady Edna Friendship (Michele Dotrice), sweeping into the police station like a superannuated West Country Sgt Christine Cagney, gives a forensic description of the world’s most incompetent would-be assassin Andrew Newton (Blake Harrison) and his vehicle.
Thorpe meets his ‘Mr Fixit’ David Holmes (Paul Hilton) for the lowdown; gunman Newton has been arrested but has promised to keep Thorpe’s name out of it by claiming that Norman Scott was blackmailing him for looking for “ladies’ services in a magazine” and he will go to jail on condition that Thorpe pays him £5,000 on his release. Hilton says he make the deal via cut-price carpet salesman John le Mesurier – “Not the actor,” whom he helpfully clarifies, “was married to Hattie Jacques”.
But sweeping it under the carpet isn’t much of an option; Hilton is godfather to Thorpe’s son Rupert, and people will join the dots. He blames him for putting Norman Scott centre stage. “And on top of that, he is a bloody fairy and he will love this,” rages Thorpe.
By March 1976 ‘Bunnies’ is milking his court appearances for all he’s worth, describing the liaison as “a vigorous sexual relationship for very many years”, so ensuring that Thorpe is followed everywhere by a phalanx of reporters.
Admiring press coverage of his evidence with Edna, Norman’s only comment is that he should get new photographs taken. He refuses to lay low, the Kate Moss in him loving every second of attention.
The infamous ‘Bunnies’ letter goes mainstream. Marion Thorpe (Monica Dolan) asks her husband whether ‘Bunnies’ was plural “were there two of you?”
“I was using an imperative noun in an imperative clause,” says Thorpe gnomically.
His solicitor, David Napley (Jonathan Hyde), then president of the Law Society, handles the case, which makes him a legal mega-star commanding stratospheric fees (probably the only person to come out of the affair a winner).
May 1976 Thorpe resigns as Liberal leader, brought down by “one bloody word”.
“No, it wasn’t ‘Bunnies’,” says Marion Thorpe, playing Basil Exposition, “It was because you lied.”
Russell T Davies’ uncharacteristically clunky exchange is then tersely subverted by “I’ve made cod in parsley sauce”, perfectly epitomising Marion’s pragmatism.
Thorpe shares a rare moment of (almost) honesty with his wife, an Austrian-born pianist who had fled from the Nazis, and a pal of gay composer Benjamin Britten. Dolan infuses the enormously loyal and resilient Marion with elegance and dignity in acknowledgment that this is a woman who deserved far better than the men in her life (her first husband George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, had been unfaithful to her). If her aim is to get Thorpe to open up to her, it just further reveals his emotional vacuum. It’s still an exciting time to be an MP, he suggests, with “all that new blood coming in – Clement Freud, Cyril Smith – exciting times”. Ouch.
Newton leaves prison and promptly sells his soul and story to the Sunday Mirror, and workman renovating Bessell’s old office find the letters to Ursula Thorpe about her son’s affair and to Bessell detailing the hush-money paid to Norman Scott.
Police lure back Bessell from the US, urging him to be a prosecution witness and “Put aside the old pal’s act” for something more important – the truth” on the promise of immunity.
The conspirators’ meeting in Minehead Police Station for a bout of apologies and recriminations is possibly artistic licence, but it’s one of the funniest moments of crooks falling out ever committed to the screen and a clear representation of that age of deference mired in rigid class divisions.
Napley’s recommendation that Thorpe’s old friend from Oxford, George Carman QC, should defend him displays a spectacular concision of moral bankruptcy. “Oh, he’s good. I saw him defend the manager of that big dipper at Battersea – the one that killed five children. Got him off scot-free,” says Napley.
We meet buccaneering bisexual drunk and wife-beater Carman (Adrian Scarborough), who once tried to hire a gangster to break George Best’s legs after the footie star seduced his wife, flouncing out of a police station demanding a soft blanket for his next stay in the cells.
His relish at taking “the great big stinking case” is somewhat deflated by Thorpe’s request to delay the trial so he can contest his seat in the election. Grant’s cheeks look ever more sunken as he loses his seat in Thatcher’s 1979 landslide. At the Old Bailey trial, Thorpe gets a cushion to sit on in the dock and in retaliation for such preferential treatment go-between George Deakin (Dyfan Dwyfor) calls for reporting restrictions to be lifted.
Grant’s ‘et tu brute?’ stare at Bessell from the dock is a thing of rare wonder. Bessell acknowledges in court he has a credibility problem – he was a ‘conchie’ during the war and is addicted to ‘disco biscuits’ – Mandrax. Does Davies toss in this slang as a ‘who are The Beatles’ reference? Authentic or not, it works to portray Cantley (Paul Freeman) as a dinosaur. Bessell has fatal emphysema so he needs the money and admits a newspaper is paying him £25,000 to £50,000 whatever the outcome of the case.
As the going gets tough, disco-bunny Norman gets tiddly in a nightclub, arriving at court with a hangover to face his examination. It’s a joy to see playwright Patrick Marber acting again as prosecution barrister Peter Taylor questioning the purpose of Vaseline and helping to coin the expression ‘pillow-biter’ for posterity.
Carman realises he has to up his game against headline-grabbing Bunnies; in a trial billed as liar meets fantasist, he wonders which his client is. To stop Thorpe from proving he’s a liar, he tells him that he cannot take the stand. As Edna wryly observes, it’s a stitch-up.
Cantley, universally regarded as a crashing snob, was plucked from obscurity on the circuit, probably by Thorpe’s old mate Lord Chancellor Elwyn Jones, to get the desired result. Freeman gives a bravura rendition of Cantley’s trashing of Norman Scott and Thorpe’s co-conspirators and in the process destroying his own integrity. Norman Scott is, he says, a “sponger, whiner and a parasite’ – “but I’m not expressing any opinion”. These must be lines from transcripts, so Cook didn’t exaggerate.
Although found not guilty of conspiracy and incitement to murder charges, Thorpe’s is a Pyrrhic victory. “Of course you’re ruined. You know that, don’t you?” says his mother (Patricia Hodge) as he waves to well-wishers after the trial.
Davies says he has tried to cast Grant in every script he has written over the past few years. So it is gratifying that Grant held out for the most perfect part to play to segue from his rakish and charming roles of the 1990s. Bounding with glee from his family-friendly tour de force in Paddington 2, he casts aside his hitherto insouciant disregard for acting and seizes the gifted but vaingloriously flawed Thorpe by the balls. Whishaw’s performance powerfully delineates a damaged boy’s promotion to a gay icon whose private tears and public bravado are palpable.
So was it love, actually?
Davies takes the charitable view that it was. His incisive comic scalpel eviscerates this era of excessive obeisance to show that beneath the laughs thrown up by this pivotal ‘trial of the century’, little has changed. MPs from all parties, including two prime ministers, observed ‘the unwritten code’ in a cover-up and acquittal that probably led the likes of Sir Cyril Smith and Sir Jimmy Savile and who knows how many others to conclude that the rich, famous and powerful were ultimately invulnerable.
Social media notwithstanding, we still live in an age of deference.
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FOR OUR EPISODE TWO REVIEW CLICK HERE