Premiering Sunday on Amazon, A Very English Scandal certainly looks like a classy three-parter. Former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies provides the script, The Queen‘s Stephen Frears directs, and Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw tear into two complex lead roles. But, um, what’s it actually about? Here’s everything you need to know before diving in.
1. It’s based on a real British political scandal from the 1970s
In May 1979, Liberal Party MP Jeremy Thorpe was tried at London’s Old Bailey on charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder. The charges arose from his earlier relationship with Norman Scott, a stablehand and former model whom Scott had been trying to keep quiet for more than a decade.
2. Historical context is everything here
When Thorpe and Scott met in the early ’60s, homosexuality was illegal in England, so their relationship had to be conducted discreetly and behind closed doors. The 1967 Sexual Offences Act, whose passage through parliament we see in episode one, finally decriminalized homosexuality for men aged 21 and over. But social attitudes towards LGBTQ people hadn’t softened that much by 1979, and Thorpe was keen to maintain that he and Scott were just friends and never lovers.
3. Jeremy Thorpe was once a real rising star of British politics
He served as Leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 to 1976, and nearly formed a coalition government with Prime Minister Edward Heath and the Conservative Party in 1974. But the swelling scandal caused by his dealings with Norman Scott effectively ended his political career.
4. Russell T. Davies has been wanting to tell this story for a decade
In a recent interview, Davies suggested that one of the reasons the scandal couldn’t be dramatized earlier was the fact Thorpe was still alive. (Thorpe eventually died in December 2014, nine months after his wife Marion had passed away).
5. Davies based his script on a highly acclaimed book
Published in 2016, John Preston‘s A Very English Scandal is regarded as the definitive take on this strange and fascinating crime story.
6. The series’ title is pretty telling
This scandal isn’t just “very English” because it involves an illicit relationship between a posh MP and a much younger, less privileged man; it’s also “very English” because there’s an underlying humor and sense of small-scale bumbling to proceedings. It would be a shame to give anything anyway, but compared to this year’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, the events of A Very English Scandal almost seem quaint and parochial.
7. It continues Hugh Grant’s renaissance as a terrific character actor
For years, Grant was best known for his foppish rom-com roles in hit films like Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. But after his BAFTA-nominated turns in Florence Foster Jenkins and Paddington 2, A Very English Scandal gives him another more interesting role to attack. His Jeremy Thorpe is clever and charismatic, but perhaps less amiable than his public image suggests.
8. Grant took the role very seriously indeed
“I thought I’d done lots of research,” Davies recently told the i. “But then Hugh walked in and said he’d met an MP who worked with Jeremy Thorpe, someone he went to school with, and so on. Hugh is a ferociously intelligent man. Every day of filming he’d email with questions about particular lines in the script – good questions.”
9. It has an awesome supporting cast
The Crown‘s Alex Jennings plays Thorpe’s closest confidant Peter Bessell, while BAFTA winner Monica Dolan (The Casual Vacancy) appears as Thorpe’s wife Marion. Eve Myles, who starred in Davies’s Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, has a small but emotional role as Gwen Parry-Jones, a woman who had a brief affair with Scott.
10. Norman Scott apparently approves of the miniseries
Now 78 and living in rural Devon, Scott had no creative input or power of veto over A Very English Scandal, but was shown the episodes before they aired in the U.K. out of courtesy. “He loved it and was very moved by it,” Davies told the Radio Times.
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