A Very English Scandal (BBC1 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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Last Sunday BBC1 unveiled what may be its most entertaining and surprising Drama series of the year.  Surprising for a number of reasons, one being that I would imagine (I haven’t done a great deal of research on the background because I do not want to find out too much about what will happen) that a number of the key players in this distinctly squalid tale will still be alive.  Surprising also because it features a tour de force performance from an actor who we might have believed had his best performances behind him.

scandal3The real Jeremy Thorpe

In this truly English tale Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe went to trial in the 1970’s over his involvement in a plot to murder a younger man he had a sexual relationship with some years earlier.  I can remember the trial because my parents would look forward to the News At Ten reports as the salacious events unfolded around this leading MP and a man I remember was referred to as “male model” Norman Scott.  I was not quite of the age to fully understand what was going on but tried to piece it all together from the news reports.  I remember being surprised that someone could earn a living as a “male model” and also that one of the phrases which emerged from the trial “Bite the pillow, Bunny” was used as an insult in the school playground for a while, even if not fully understood.  It all felt a little grubby even then and in the intervening years it feels like something too implausible to be true for those too young to remember and largely forgotten by many people who were around at the time.

Scandal 2Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw with Mrs Tish the dog

But here it is all on BBC1, starring a career-revitalised Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw (last appearance on this site following his role in “London Spy“).  There’s great credentials here.  The source material is a book with the same title by John Preston and has been adapted by the screen by one of our modern great television writers, Russell T. Davies, a man with challenging, great and highly influential work to his name (“Queer As Folk”, “Cucumber”, “Torchwood”- all of which had a role in changing perceptions away from the repressed closeted world depicted here), although he is probably best known for the reboot of “Dr Who”.  It is directed by Stephen Frears, responsible for some great movies, two of which (“My Beautiful Launderette” and “Prick Up Your Ears”) were also landmark films in representing the lives of gay men on screen.  Here Davies and Frears tackle an earlier era of illegal acts and blackmail and public ruin and they are a perfect choice for the material.

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You might need to get “Paddington 2” out of your mind first as that movie’s baddie Grant here reunites with the voice of the Peruvian bear, Ben Whishaw, in a completely different way!  Both actors are attacking their role with relish, especially Grant, better looking than Thorpe, who is absolutely mesmerising in most scenes he is in.  I’ve never really seen him as a particularly good physical actor before but the moment he virtually skips down staircases in the House Of Commons he gives an excellent example of sheer anticipation of meeting again the young man he’d leered at and given his card to in a barn at a friend’s house over a year before.

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Later, when Thorpe had Norman ensconced in a bedroom at his mother’s house we had a ghastly seduction scene in which Grant was marvellous.  This scene became a central focus of the court case and was perfectly nuanced and fully deserved its revisit on this week’s “Gogglebox” when we saw the viewers open-mouthed at Thorpe’s behaviour. Giles said of Hugh Grant “I think he’s loving being outrageous…..He’s morphed into Jeremy Thorpe“, the always perceptive Basset said “This is how every British politician would be in this situation!”

The first episode built up to Thorpe’s declaration that Norman needed to be bumped off (over a £30 blackmail bid), a jaw-dropping moment for those viewers not familiar with the case and a perfect moment to end this first hour of high quality TV drama.  I would imagine that the tone will shift over the next two episodes as we focus on the conspiracy and the subsequent court case but I am confident that these are likely to contain some of the best writing, acting and direction we will see on our TV screens this year.

fivestarsA Very English Scandal is shown on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1.  The first episode is currently available on the BBC I- Player

 

 

 

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London Spy – BBC2 (2015) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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BBC2 launched their new five part drama series this week. Starring Ben Whishaw (From “The Hour” and the current Q in the Bond Franchise) and Jim Broadbent (of too much to mention) this was an intriguing little opener. I don’t know how many times during the hour I thought to myself – “this is wasn’t what I thought it was going to be” when there would be a subtle shift and something else seemed to be happening and then it all ended with what I thought it was going to be after all.

Danny (Whishaw), on his way home from a nightclub, tense and wired, meets jogger Joe (Edward Holcroft) on a bridge probably around the Vauxhall area of London. Danny has just dispensed with his phone and appears troubled and that begins an exchange of what could be coded messages or what could be two men trying to establish whether the other might be a) gay and b) interested. When asked if he is okay Danny tells Joe,

“You don’t know me but if you did you’d know I’m always fine.”

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That’s not the way things look . Is this some kind of planned rendezvous or is it the result of an unsuccessful night’s cruising in a night club? Is this some kind of espionage or a test of sexual parameters? The relationship continues along this strange route – Danny jogs in the hope of bumping into Joe, they meet up again, there’s a restrained dinner date, an awkward scene in Joe’s swishy apartment and it looks like all might be over until Joe turns up at Danny’s more down- at- heel flat. Is this the way relationships go in this day and age or is someone not putting all their cards on the table? That’s a lot of questions but then this is called “London Spy” – it should be provoking questions. Joe reveals he is actually called Alex and a sexual innocent. There’s a scene which invokes Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and a lot of odd, disconcerting camera angles as the guys try to establish their relationship. Alex claims to work in an investment bank;

“The people I work with are inscrutable”

Doesn’t sound like too many bankers I’ve ever met. He has an odd numerical screensaver and one of the two appears to be under surveillance – or is the viewer reading too much into this based on the title? Perhaps it’s going to be a series about two guys getting it on after all.

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Edward Holcroft and Ben Whishaw – London Spy

Jim Broadbent further confuses the issue. Is he a besotted pal of Danny’s looking out for him, or is he and Danny up to something ? Does he seem more familiar towards Alex (formerly Joe) than their first meeting would suggest? Even a drag act is performing an incongruous, enigmatic Japanese song in the venue where this meeting takes place. This is well-written stuff. The man to take the credit for this is novelist Tom Rob Smith, whose prize-winning and popular “Child 44” is on the shelf behind the television set in my house waiting for its turn to be read. I think on the basis of this it might have moved up a few places on the waiting list. Subtexts seem to be running under every line. Smith has pulled a blinder on establishing the closeness between the types of language used in the early days of a relationship and espionage.

It had an ending I had to watch twice to work out what was going on, so far removed was it from my expectations, that I,  like some of the characters, ending up feeling confused and manipulated but totally intrigued where this is going next. It would not surprise me if it switches more to a police procedural as the last few minutes introduced Samantha Spiro (outstanding as Barbara Windsor in “Cor Blimey!” and also excellent as Vivien Friend in the much-underrated cop series “M.I.T- Murder Investigation Team”) or perhaps it is taking its inspiration from some high profile real-life recent British spy cases. But, basically, I have no idea where this one is going but after this opener I’m going to be along for the ride.

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Samantha Spiro co-stars in “London Spy”

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The second episode of “London Spy” is on BBC 2 on Monday 9th November at 9.00. The first episode can be found on BBC I-Player.