Audrey Kupferberg: A Very English Scandal

Jul 20, 2018

Approximately fifty years ago, the Sexual Offences Bill 1967 decriminalized homosexuality between men over the age of 21 in private in England and Wales.  Just a couple weeks ago, Rob and I joined in the annual London Pride Festival as the streets of central London filled with mainly young people wearing rainbow colors on t-shirts and decorative face make-up.

It is difficult to comprehend that until the late 1960s, gay men in Britain were arrested and jailed for performing sexual acts with other men.  Of course, the situation was bad for gay people in the United States as well.  As our own sexual freedom appears to be heading back into a precarious period, we should all think back to the grievous situations that existed for gay people in years past—and that still remain a problem due to narrowminded and mean-spirited prejudices.

Amazon Prime and the BBC have a new mini-series called A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL, which tells the story of Jeremy Thorpe, a real-life national political figure and one-time leader of the Liberal Party in England.  The three-part series features Hugh Grant as Thorpe, and he is extraordinary in the role of the successful public figure who is hounded for many by a secret romance with Norman Josiffe (later Scott), who was working as a stable boy when they met in the early 1960s, and who is portrayed as a generally unreliable, sometimes shifty creature—but also, at times, as an abused victim. 

According to the mini-series, written by Russell T. Davies and based on the 2016 book by John Preston, Thorpe had a several-year-long relationship with Scott which surfaced publicly in the early 1970s as a humiliation so large that some say it surpassed the Profumo scandal. 

I cannot judge the authenticity of the Davies/Preston interpretation of the events leading up to the 1979 trial at which Thorpe and others were accused of the attempted murder of Scott.  However, speaking solely about the quality of the mini-series as good drama, I have nothing but raves. Director Stephen Frears succeeds brilliantly in keeping his audience glued to the unfolding events and the introduction of one fascinating character after another. The series combines moments of melodrama with scenes of more subtle dramatics, and even manages to include mild but much-welcomed comedy. 

Ben Whishaw plays Scott. So strong is his interpretation that I cannot imagine any other actor in 

the role.  He manages to age his character seventeen years without losing boyish innocence nor crafty swagger.  In the end, though, this is Hugh Grant’s show.  He plays down his appealing good looks and signature bubbly charm to embody Jeremy Thorpe, this complex man who is a friend to the populace, but also is a selfish and calculating scoundrel.

When people are forced by governances to keep their natural and blameless inclinations secret, some will resort to lies, misconduct, and even crime just to survive.  When the laws they are breaking are evil laws that should never be, the law-breakers cannot be judged easily.  That’s the very important truth at the basis of A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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