TV review: A Very English Scandal

Truth or proof?

A Very English Scandal, BBC 1

Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Russell T Davies | Based on A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot at the Heart of Establishment, by John Preston (Penguin) | Starring Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott | Broadcast May - June 2018

So, which is it, members of the jury, Truth or Proof? On reflection, don’t answer that. Were you to pick Truth, it would upset the whole system. Which is why I think My Brother Cantley was teased a little unfairly by the brilliant Mr Peter Cook, hilarious though it was. You see, in those days we all commented on the evidence. Thirteenth member of the jury, remember? And if you heard that the chief prosecution witness would double his money on conviction, wouldn’t you get a bit heated? That, of course, is why they acquitted. On the evidence. Most juries would have done exactly the same thing.

And thereby hangs a tale. The prosecution, Peter Taylor QC and John Bull, acting with ramrod integrity, chose deliberately not to add Conspiracy to Threaten to the indictment. They reasoned that if they were to prosecute a top politician alleging planned murder, they should not provide a watered-down compromise. I doubt if many prosecutors today would have taken the same line.

But the television rehash was absolutely brilliant. Superb script, cracking direction. All so long ago, but sadly, people really did talk about effing queers and pronounce Homosexual in capital letters. A different age and I don’t defend it for a moment, but any adaptation had to get that dead right. Which they did. So as a piece of drama, it was right up there with Brideshead Revisited. Almost as good as it gets. Hugh Grant gave the performance of a lifetime and far more than a clever impersonation. He recreated the man, warts and all. Do you remember Grant’s eyes when Thorpe was told of the death of his first wife? A masterclass in great acting and I hope he gets every award going. If that gets up the noses of the haters of Hacked Off, so much the better. Ben Whishaw was also pretty impressive as poor, troubled, anguished Norman Scott. And despite the inevitable black humour – Dunstable for Barnstable mistakenly first visited by the would-be killer – the shooting of Rinka was chilling. Quite right too. There is nothing funny about attempted murder. Peter Bessell was also excellently captured by Alex Jennings And Adrian Scarborough made a very good fist of George Carman. Pity they maligned Emlyn Hooson QC.

"Which brings me to the legal bits. As always, drama occasionally trumped reality. Like George Carman leaving counsel’s row to strut his stuff before the jury. But you know, it was much better than most television adaptations of our world"

Which brings me to the legal bits. As always, drama occasionally trumped reality. Like George Carman leaving counsel’s row to strut his stuff before the jury. But you know, it was much better than most television adaptations of our world. Though I could have done with a lot more of Carmen’s cross-examination of Bessell. All of which takes us back to Thorpe, who wisely accepted firm advice not to give evidence. People forget what a brilliant and charismatic figure he was. Being driven back on Circuit, I occasionally caught Any Questions. That Oxford Union persona went down a treat with Middle England and down in the West Country, he was a very good constituency MP. Still, batting both ways is never easy. Or so they say. And shenanigans in your mother’s house is off the scale in human folly.

So members of the jury, about that question again. Today, when we know so much more. I think Tom Mangold got it spot on in his forgotten Panorama programme. Norman Scott spoke the truth and didn’t do himself any favours, but the doors of the Establishment closed tight. All a long time ago, but not, I suspect, for him. Well, thanks for listening, but I must push off now. They’re running The Good Old Days on BBC 4.

Reviewer Nigel Pascoe QC, who may have been talking to an old judge (or maybe not)

Category: 
Issue: