HUGH GRANTED — Before we dashed off to a splendid one-week holiday, we caught the three-part BBC miniseries, A Very English Scandal, which premiered via Amazon Prime on June 29, stars Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, two of the most appealing performers of their respective generations (and riding high off of the popular embrace of Paddington 2). That alone would be enough to sell the series — and seems to be the factor drawing most viewers in — but there’s more to director Stephen Frears’s latest work than just its star appeal.
As suggested by the title and the always-somewhat-dreaded based on a true storyheader, the series focuses on a real-life 1970’s British scandal involving sex, attempted murder, and a prominent politician, and it ended so improbably that it spawned a comedy record. At the time, the scandal was the subject of ridicule and disbelief. Now, four decades on, it’s taken on a deeper resonance.
In other words, come for Grant and Whishaw; stay for much, much more. With some distance between us and the scandal in question — and the sexual politics of the time — the series’ close look at the events humanizes figures who were made laughingstocks at the time. In doing so, thethree-episode series packs an emotional punch, mixing comedy with tragedy, and forcing the audience to confront the effects the social mores of the time had on these very real people.
The screenplay was written by Russell T. Davies, of Queer as Folk and Doctor Who fame — A Very English Scandal balances tragedy and comedy in a way that reflects just how inextricable the two often are in real life. The details of the scandal are larger than life, but A Very English Scandal’s sensibility is restricted to some emotional beats between Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott (played by Grant and Whishaw, respectively) rather than in any of the details of what happened.
It may seem almost like a comedy at times, but make no mistake, this really happened.
It begins with Grant and a fine Alex Jennings discussing whether they often entertain, with a spear, as opposed to not.
In the 1970’s, British politician Jeremy Thorpe was tried for incitement and conspiracy to murder. As if that weren’t scandal enough, his would-be victim was his former lover, Norman Scott. Though homosexuality had been decriminalized in Britain in 1967, being openly gay was still essentially unthinkable, especially for a prominent public figure. Thorpe knew that, with the Scott relationship (with whom he had been involved in early 60’s) he became more of a liability in his political ruse, so, Thorpe apparently began to tell his friends that Scott had to be taken out of the picture.The attempted murder was a disaster. The “killer” was an off-duty airline pilot, Andrew Newton, who ended up shooting Scott’s dog and running off after the pistol failed to fire again. Upon his release from prison two years later (during which time the scandal was still brewing), he sold his story to the London Evening News, spurring an investigation and trial, and ruining any chance Thorpe had of burying the whole affair, as he had evaded Scott’s multiple attempts at blackmail.
Though Thorpe was ultimately found not guilty, the scandal marked the end of his involvement in politics and in any position of power. The verdict didn’t really matter; Jeremy Thorpe was gay, and that was that. Thorpe — a former paragon of the British establishment, Eton- and Oxford-educated, and the leader of the Liberal Party — was disgraced.
Grant and Whishaw play their parts heartbreakingly well, especially Grant, who manages to make Thorpe both tragic and loathsome. He hides and uses Scott, yes, but that doesn’t discount the possibility that Thorpe may have truly loved him. In certain moments, when there’s no public or press to perform for, the bright charm he possesses simply turns off, leaving only a sense of emptiness behind. That ability to carry off an emotional turn is ultimately what makes the series tick.
In Grant’s second act, or at least that’s what I’m calling it, he’s shown a real resonance for character-portrayal. I thought the part of played in the 2016 Meryl Streep-driven Florence Foster Jenkins, was his best role veer. He was nominated for an Oscar too. Didn’t win and he should have.
When Thorpe’s barrister asks him why he chose Scott, of all people, to fall for, Thorpe’s answer is filled with subtext. As he muses entirely in hypotheticals, he paints a picture suggestive of the dangers of cruising — of being homosexual in a time when it was illegal and thought of as a sin or an illness. Through flashbacks, we see Thorpe assaulted by the men he’s picked up in the past, before, during, and after the act. As we’ve seen, that violence was absent in his relationship with Scott, even if their emotional bond did sour toward the end.
The scene takes all of the punch out of the jokes and ridicule that were common following the trial. Suddenly, Thorpe is no longer an abstract figure. Maybe he’s still deserving of our derision for how he chose to handle the affair, but he’s no less human for that. After finishing the series, it’s difficult to imagine cracking any real jokes about Thorpe’s fate, or Scott’s testimony, especially as the last scene emphasizes how alone they both are.
The series isn’t devoid of a sense of sensationalism — the location cards are heavily stylized, and there are intermittent montages that lend to a sense of breeziness — but the performances anchor it in a way that involves the viewer rather than allowing for a completely passive viewing experience. No matter whether you’re rooting for Thorpe or for Scott, you feel for both of them. They’re just as trapped by public opinion as they are by the social restrictions of the time.
Excellent production and Grant has pulled out a stellar performance.
STONED AGAIN — The Rolling Stones and Universal Music Group today announced last week an expansive worldwide agreement covering the band’s recorded-music and audio-visual catalogs, archival support, global merchandising and brand management. “This multi-faceted partnership marks the beginning of a new era of expanded collaboration between The Rolling Stones and UMG,” said UMG.
The agreement finds the iconic group taking full advantage of UMG’s range of companies. Its recorded-music catalog from 1971 through the present and future releases will continue to be distributed globally by UMG’s labels and networks around the world, as they have since 2008. Over the years the Stones’ post-1970 catalog has been with every major label group, beginning with Warner, moving to CBS (which was later purchased by Sony) in 1983, then to Virgin/EMI in 1992; its pre-1971 catalog remains with Abkco Music, which is also distributed by UMG.
Bravado, UMG’s brand-management and merchandise company, will handle global merchandising rights, retail licensing, brand management and e-commerce on behalf of the band, including their famous tongue logo. Bravado also will continue working closely with the band and management to identify new and innovative opportunities for creative collaboration within the worlds of art, fashion, retail, sport, lifestyle and touring merchandise. Recent programs and collections include partnerships with Paris Saint Germain FC, Selfridges, Colette and Zara and newly designed merchandise for the band’s “No Filter” European Tour, which wrapped last week in Poland.
Eagle Rock, the UMG-owned leading producer and distributor of music programming for broadcast and media, have expanded their global distribution rights to the band’s extensive long-form audio visual catalog. As part of the agreement, Eagle Rock will also re-issue several concert films from their archives, including Atlanta (1989), Steel Wheels (1989-90), Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997-1998), Four Flicks (2002) and Bigger Bang (2005-2006).
In making the announcement, UMG chairman Lucian Grainge said, “After a decade of working in partnership together, we are thrilled to expand and extend our relationship with The Rolling Stones. We look forward to bringing our expertise and passion to bear as we put our global organization work on behalf of this iconic band who continue to create music and influence culture around the world.”
David Joseph, Chairman & CEO, Universal Music UK, said, “The Rolling Stones continue to define rock and roll, they are loved the world over and they are the band who never let up. It’s a privilege to work with them and Joyce Smyth, their exceptional manager.”
Smyth, said, “For many years now we’ve had a wonderful partnership with Universal Music and look forward to an even more successful future together.’’
Andrew Loog Oldham, Rupert Lowenstein, Allen Klein, Ahmet Ertegun … who is Joyce Smyth … and, is that her real name? And, btw: no announcement of any new product.
SHORT TAKES — Great review in Digital Journal on Robert Miller’s Project Grand Slam’s new album, Trippin’. Check it out: http://www.digitaljournal.com/entertainment/music/review-jazz-rock-fusion-band-project-grand-slam-release-trippin-album/article/526001 … Big news from Donnie Kehr. watch this space on Wednesday … Before we headed out, we received the re-imagined edition of the just-sold Rolling Stone magazine. In a rather odd size (horrible to hold) Jann Wenner discusses the reasons for the changes. Our colleague Roger Friedman, in his Showbiz 411, delivered a great review of the new issue. Its now monthly (and, $6.99), rather than bi-weekly and we did NOT care for it. Here’s the clip: http://www.showbiz411.com/2018/07/03/rolling-stone-magazine-goes-monthly-cuts-annual-issues-in-half-sets-annual-subscription-price-at-whopping-59-99 … Best wishes to Elvis Costello who cancelled a tour owing to some health issues … Duane Betts at The Beacon Theatre in NYC July 18 … Micky Dolenz salutes Neil Diamond this Saturday, at the Dolby Theatre in LA, for a Grammysalute. He’ll sing, of course, “I’m A Believer” and, what an inane interview with Robin Wright this morning on her House Of Cards show. She basically denied knowing … anything? Is that even possible? She said that her relationship with Kevin Spacey began with action and ended with cut. I wonder her crafted that line for her. She did reveal that she will direct it. She came off very, very badly IMO.
NAMES IN THE NEWS: Barry & Marissa Zelman; David Wild; Keith Girard, Markos Papadatos; Eppy; Steve Rosenfield; Victor Kastel; Angelo Babbaro; Robert Gordon; Randy Alexander; Vinny Rich; Adam Pollack; and, Chip.