INT. MINEHEAD POLICE STATION, INTERVIEW ROOM - NIGHTWe missed this excellent mini-series when it first came out in June. For Who fans there is the immediate attraction of Russell T. Davies’ script and Murray Gold’s music (and a small part for Eve Myles); for British politics fans of my age and above, there is the compelling memory of a major political story revived (I met David Steel last year); for any fans of drama, there is Hugh Grant at the height of his powers, inhabiting and transforming the personality of Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party accused of conspiracy to murder his former lover. (This was Hugh Grant's first acting appearance on British TV since his two minutes as the Doctor in The Curse of Fatal Death.) The supporting cast are never less than solid, with standouts being the other two male leads, Ben Whishaw (who hugely impressed me as Richard II) as Thorpe's lover Norman Joliffe/Scott, and Alex Jennings (who I think I had only previously seen as Prince Charles in The Queen, which was also directed by Stephen Frears) as Thorpe's friend and fellow Liberal MP, Peter Bessell, who eventually turns against him. Michelle Dotrice, memorable from my childhood as Betty in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, also does a great vignette as pub landlady Edna Friendship.
NORMAN, exhausted, still covered in blood, faces the TWO CONSTABLES. Going over it for the fifth time:NORMAN...breaking off, puzzled, as the taller CONSTABLE, smiling, stands, beckons with a crooked finger for Norman to follow.
I'm sorry. But it's true. I had a homosexual relationship with Jeremy Thorpe, and if anybody wants to see me dead, then it's him -NORMAN (CONT'D)He's beckoning Norman over to the wall. Norman disconcerted, but he's obedient, follows. Like it's a secret conversation:
What?CONSTABLEThe Constable grabs Norman's head, bangs it against the wall.
Now tell me that again.
I had an affair with Jeremy Thorpe -CONSTABLE
Is a Member of Parliament
And a highly respected man
He is not
To be abused
By a lying little queer.
The success of the three episodes lies in the combination of farce and high drama - the completely botched attempt to kill Scott, combined with the supremely high political stakes; but also Grant's combination of emotion and determination in his Thorpe, and Whishaw's blending of vulnerability and integrity in Scott (which Scott himself was reportedly unhappy about). There is a characteristic scene in the first episode which is both a diversion from the main drama and a crucial reinforcement of the background, where Labour MP Leo Abse visits Lord Arran, who keeps pet badgers but is motivated by family tragedy, to discuss the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which of course is the social issue that makes the queer sensibility of the entire drama possible.
The one bit where we do have to suspend our disbelief is in the ages of the actors. Grant, 58, plays Thorpe between the ages of 32 and 50; Jennings, 60, plays Bessell from 40 to 58; and both characters appear more or less the age of the actors portraying them on screen throughout. (There is one jarring line referring to Thorpe's being very young for a major party leader.) Whishaw is 37, but in better shape than Scott was at 38 in 1979. Grant's on-screen mother, Patricia Hodge, is only 14 years older than him. We've seen worse (notably, Derek Jacobi aged 58 playing Alan Turing, who died shortly before his 42nd birthday, with Prunella Scales, only four years older, as his mother), and I guess most viewers will roll with it.
We also caught Tom Mangold's 1979 documentary, The Jeremy Thorpe Scandal, which was prepared in the expectation that Thorpe would be found guilty and then (literally) canned when he was unexpectedly acquitted. I was much less happy with this, and if I'd been the commissioning editor in the BBC in 1979, I like to think that I'd have asked for more work to be done before broadcast, even if it had been decided to go ahead. For the first half of it, Mangold's argument seems to be, not that Thorpe's homosexuality was tolerated by the establishment at a time when other men where being persecuted and imprisoned (there's a story there, of course), but that Thorpe's homosexuality was a dangerous blackmailable character flaw which ought to have prevented him from achieving high office and that the establishment dangerously undermined Britain by allowing him to reach the heights he did. This is fundamentally a homophobic message, and interestingly Mangold's interviews with Peter Bessell (then) and Norman Scott (then and now) do not really support the narrative that he is trying to push.
Mangold is on firmer ground with his account of the murder conspiracy - and there really can't be any doubt that Thorpe was guilty as charged, and acquitted through George Carman's expert defence and the bias of the judge (famously mocked by Peter Cook). Though even here, Mangold suggests that the establishment, at the highest level, helped cover up Thorpe's involvement in the shooting of Scott's dog, and it's not clear to me that that is really supported by the facts; Newton, the hit-man, appears to have stated both to police and at his trial that Thorpe had nothing to do with it, changing his story only when he got out of prison, after which the justice system moved pretty fast, only to be derailed by the events of the courtroom itself. Thorpe's friendship with Harold Wilson (not referred to in RTD's script) is interesting colour, but irrelevant after Wilson's resignation in 1976, six months after Newton shot Rinka the Great Aane. Mangold's scoop in finding another hit-man who claims to have confessed to police at the time after also bottling out on his mission isn't quite as impressive as he seems to think; a much less gifted lawyer than Carman would have torn that story to shreds in seconds.
Anyway, you can skip the documentary, but do watch the series.