A Very English Scandal Offers a Bracing Portrait of Just How Deadly the Closet Could Be

Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal.
Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal. Amazon

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

A Very English Scandal is a new, three-part BBC miniseries about one of the most explosive British political scandals of the past 50 years. Now available for streaming on Amazon, this smoldering brew of politics, secret sexuality, and murder glows with the talents of director Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena, and many more), writer Russell T. Davies (the original Queer as Folk, the revival of Dr. Who), actor Ben Whishaw, and most of all, Hugh Grant.

Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, the much-more-than-eccentric 1960s leader of Britain’s Liberal Party, who regularly bedded the young and erratic Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw) before marrying two women (the second after the first one died in a car crash two years after their marriage in 1968) to camouflage his real life as a gay man.

It’s not easy to give a credible performance as a major politician who plots the murder of his ex-lover. But the pretty boy actor who first beguiled us in Four Weddings and a Funeral finally puts that charming face behind him with a wonderfully spooky performance as the odious, upper-class Thorpe. Whether it’s Grant in his latest role or Sean Penn as Harvey Milk or Paul Rudd as an unexpected gay father in the new movie Ideal Home, there’s a certain kind of self-confident straight actor who brings a special gusto to his gay on-screen debut.

Although the Liberal Party never had more than a dozen seats in Parliament when Thorpe was its leader, he was a charismatic figure with a much bigger public profile than the typical minor party politician. (He was particularly effective on TV—before entering politics he had been a successful broadcaster for Associated-Rediffusion, the first commercial television station in London.) The tension between Thorpe’s unstable young lover and the increasingly psychotic politician builds steadily until a hit man is promised 10,000 pounds to do away with Scott. But the murder goes awry when the would-be assassin only manages to shoot his intended victim’s dog before his gun jams, allowing Scott to escape.

When Thorpe was publicly accused of organizing the murder, it was a huge bombshell in British public life. His newly revealed sexuality was nearly as much of a shock as his alleged crime. But Thorpe’s story is really just an extreme version of the life of every closeted gay politician in the pre-Stonewall world on both sides of the pond—whether it was Thorpe in England or someone like his contemporary Ed Koch, the New York City Democrat who was mayor from 1978 until 1990.

Thorpe was obviously a very unusual case because his self-preservation instincts extended as far as the attempted murder of his ex. But the two marriages to make him appear straight and his terror of being revealed as gay were perfectly normal for just about every gay man in public life in this era. Koch was just as closeted as Thorpe. When he first ran for mayor in 1977, he held hands on the campaign trail with ex–Miss America Bess Myerson, to counter the posters made by supporters of his primary opponent Mario Cuomo: “Vote for Cuomo not the Homo.” And years after he retired from politics, Koch still refused to discuss his orientation in public, even though he openly yearned for a boyfriend when he was alone with close friends.

Sodomy was decriminalized in England in 1967, after Thorpe’s affair with Scott was over but long before his ex-lover stopped pestering him. But that change in the law did nothing to make Thorpe or any other gay politician of his time less nervous about public exposure. Openly gay politicians simply didn’t exist back then. Even open association with gay voters was mostly considered taboo: It was 1992 before Bill Clinton became the first candidate to be elected president after openly soliciting gay support.

A Very English Scandal gets all of the history right, partly because it hews closely to the fine book of the same name by John Preston and partly because screenwriter Davies is as knowledgeable about gay history as he is talented at dramaturgy. “Many books have been written about the Thorpe case,” Davies told me, “but only Preston got the absurdity, the sheer improvised madness of it all.” All of that improvised madness is captured by Davies and Frears in the TV version, including Thorpe openly discussing how the murder should be carried out—either by poison, strangling, or shooting—and repeatedly referring to it as “the final solution.”

There is an appealing madcap quality to all three episodes of the show, but the series reaches its dramatic peak in the final installment, with wonderful courtroom scenes showing Thorpe on trial at the Old Bailey for plotting the murder. Thorpe was a tony Etonian, and there is a strong suggestion that the verdict was as much about class as it was about homophobia, with the presiding judge finding multiple reasons to demean Thorpe’s lower-class accuser in front of the jury.

Splendid performances by Grant and Whishaw are matched by Alex Jennings as Thorpe’s best friend (Jennings also played Edward the VIII in The Crown) and Adrian Scarborough as Thorpe’s creepy, crafty, and effective lawyer. The tortured life of Jeremy Thorpe is a timely reminder of the horrific costs of the closet just 50 years ago—not just for politicians but for gay people in almost every profession, from journalism to medicine. But as the record number of gay, lesbian, and trans candidates running in this year’s midterm U.S. elections proves, the progress made by sexual minorities throughout the Western world is dramatic and real. It may also be modern life’s proudest achievement.