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How Hugh Grant Gets Into the Head of a Disgraced Politician

According to Hugh Grant, when the Jeremy Thorpe scandal broke in 1976, it was the subject of schoolboy humor rather than any serious discussion. “It was like Monty Python,” he tells Playboy. This describes the juxtaposition of Thorpe’s Eton and Oxford education—not to mention his status as an MP and then-leader of the Liberal Party—with the public circus that was his trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott, in an attempt to keep their affair quiet. “There were thousands of jokes. ‘Join the Liberal Party, and widen your circle.’ It was all that kind of stuff. That’s how he was really regarded, I’m afraid.”

Though A Very English Scandal—which is now streaming on Amazon and stars Grant as Thorpe—doesn’t lack for humor, it’s ultimately something of a tragedy, not least because the script, written by Russell T. Davies, is filled with the myriad contradictions that characterize almost every true story. “In the end, [Thorpe] was a monster of narcissism, privilege and violence,” Grant says. “How do you make that character interesting and sympathetic?”

As it turns out, there’s no simple answer to that question. Grant’s research included speaking to those of Thorpe’s friends and colleagues who were still living—with the exception of Thorpe’s son, with whom he was offered a meeting, but ultimately declined, as the actor “thought it could all go wrong.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no consensus on who the politician actually was, to the point that Grant wrote "J.J."—as in John Jeremy, Thorpe’s full name—next to specific parts of the script to try to delineate between the public and private sides of Thorpe: “I talked to people who said, ‘Jeremy would never hurt a fly. It is disgusting to even think that he could have ordered a murder or anything.’ And I also spoke to people who said, ‘Oh, he’s a monster, an absolute monster.’ I was trying to get a sense of the guy, and in a way, I think that was the answer. He was capable of giving all those impressions.”
I’ve met these guys. They still exist to this day in politics.
Part of that was to do with attitude. Thorpe was convinced that he could get away with anything—from conducting a double life to taking a hit out—due to his social status, which isn’t exactly a mindset that’s faded with time. “I’ve met these guys,” Grant says. “They still exist to this day in politics. They come from good families, and they’re simply not accustomed to anyone saying no to them.” But it would be disingenuous to disregard just how much Thorpe was a product of the era. Though Grant likens the trial to those of O.J. Simpson and Rebekah Brooks, in that Thorpe was somehow declared not guilty, the tragedy of Thorpe’s situation is relatively unique to his time.

There’s no telling as to how Thorpe truly felt—and Grant is fully aware of the gray areas in the story, sprinkling “probably”s into what he says about Thorpe’s feelings, and conceding that there was a predatory aspect to his relationship with Scott (“I think he liked being daddy”). Indeed, though homosexuality had been decriminalized in England by the time the trial came about, most people’s mindsets about the gay community hadn’t yet changed.

It’s that knowledge that makes the series finale all the more devastating. (Minor spoilers ahead!) The series, directed by Stephen Frears, posits that Thorpe may really have been in love with Scott, which takes the show’s dynamic beyond the black-and-white restrictions of victory or loss. It’s best illustrated in a sequence in which the image of Thorpe, post-trial, is intercut with the image of Scott (played by Ben Whishaw), sitting alone on a bus. It’s an echo of a scene from the first episode, in which the two of them ride the bus together—which, as it turns out, Grant had to lobby to have included. “I thought that that end bit, cutting with the bus, which is all there was originally, would be more resonant if we’d been on a bus looking like we loved each other, earlier,” Grant explains. “It’s a sort of moment of tragedy. 'I’ve lost everything, and I never even had love.'”
The reason it’s entertaining is, you sort of thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s human, that’s our state.’
It’s difficult—though not outright impossible—to imagine such a thing happening today. As Grant puts it, Thorpe is a 1950s man, and he’s being ushered out as the landscape begins to change. “To his astonishment, Norman Scott, an outwardly, self-confessed homosexual, gets up in the dock [a.k.a. takes the stand]—and Thorpe expects him to be torn to shreds, ridiculed, laughed at, by the gallery, by the press—and actually charms everyone. Thorpe’s clever barrister, George Carman, recognizes that, and recognizes that Thorpe, in the dock, is now going to look old-fashioned and ridiculous, like a liar, so he doesn’t put him in the dock. That was the end of the British establishment right there.” That idea of change underpins the entire series, as perhaps the counterbalancing note of hope to just how bleak the rest of the show can seem. Despite how unshakeable the “establishment” may appear, it can and will change.

To that end, Grant seems optimistic. “If one’s going to be pretentious about it, I quite like celebrating,” he says. “Good entertainment is a celebration of the human state, particularly in its weirdest forms … What weird fucking shapes these people got themselves into. But the reason it’s entertaining is, you sort of thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s human, that’s our state.’ And I’m much more interested in that than in trying to make any kind of point about politics or sexual politics or anything like that.” It just makes it more fitting that in A Very English Scandal, a show so mired in the multitudes contained within people and within stories, those two ends happen to overlap.

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