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.”
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.
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.’
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.