‘A Very English Scandal’: The Role Hugh Grant Was Born to Play

Jack Seale
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I’m fully out of the closet now, and I wish I’d come out earlier because suddenly, it’s fashionable to say what I’ve always felt: Hugh Grant is one of the UK’s best actors.

It’s always thrilling when a performer known for comedy pulls off a pivot into drama and, in the faultless BBC three-parter A Very English Scandal, Grant has been given the perfect role with which to bridge that gap. His portrayal of the late Jeremy Thorpe, the MP and Liberal Party leader who was disgraced by allegations that he’d plotted to have his ex-lover Norman Scott killed, is what holds an astonishing true-life drama together. The script, by former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies, flicks between smut, comic caper and bleak tragedy with masterful dexterity, but it needs a lead actor with a skillset broad enough to smooth those transitions. Grant is that man.

A Very English Man

The first joy of A Very English Scandal is that Grant subverts the most basic quality that made him a star: his charming, plausible poshness. In the first episode especially, Jeremy Thorpe is tremendous fun to be around as he rattles off bon mots in fancy hotel restaurants and effortlessly ascends towards the leadership of his party. Grant, with his private school and Oxford University education, his semi-aristocratic heritage and his luxurious RP accent, easily embodies a man who is moving through life on a cushion of privileged air. Later on, though, that English sunshine will cloud over.

Putting Rom-Coms Behind Him

A Very English Scandal
Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe with Ben Whishaw as Thorpe's lover Norman Scott.

Before then, A Very English Scandal enjoyably upends another major trope of Grant’s career. We’ve seen him in countless rom-coms, some of them classics (Four Weddings and a Funeral), some of them not (Two Weeks Notice), some of them underrated (Music and Lyrics — no really, check that one out). However good they are, those romantic comedies all have a similar first act, where two people fall in love and everything’s funny and nice. But when Jeremy Thorpe meets Norman Scott, it’s Britain in the 1960s, and what people back then referred to as a “ho-mo-sekssual affair” is illegal.

Such liaisons were dangerous and illicit, and the show is alive to the unnecessary distress and shame this caused, but it plays the situation for saucy laughs too, in the scene where Jeremy the big beast politician surprises Norman the pale stable-boy, sidling into his room at night armed with Vaseline and a towel. “Hop on all fours, there’s a good chap” is not a line Grant was required to whisper to Sandra Bullock or Drew Barrymore, and he visibly relishes the opportunity. For Paddington 2 fans, meanwhile, the fact that Norman is played by Ben Whishaw turns the scene into a startling cast reunion.

Hugh’s in Charge

That delicate trick of making serious things funny stops A Very English Scandal doing what so many of Grant’s cinema projects have done, which is to collapse in the second half as the larking stops and the boring story takes over. A Very English Scandal never stops making us laugh, but it really takes flight in the last episode when Thorpe’s world finally crashes down around him and the show becomes a layered, deeply perceptive drama.

We’re back to that easy, privileged Englishness because at its heart, this is a tale about the Establishment. Thorpe is a member, Scott isn’t. When his position is threatened, Thorpe’s charm hardens into something malevolent. He is outraged that such a nobody would dare to inconvenience him, and expects to be able to jolly well swat this pipsqueak away and carry on. Grant completely gets that the type of bumbling toffs he’s known for playing might have this steely ruthlessness bred into their core, and he’s adept at letting it show.

Grant’s also someone with direct experience of public shaming. The notoriety of him being caught paying for oral sex in a car off Sunset Boulevard in 1995 has long since dissipated, but you can bet it was in his mind somewhere in the scenes where Thorpe, a man entirely reliant on maintaining a clean public persona, desperately tries to keep his secrets out of the press. Or the one in the last episode when Thorpe knows his race is run, but continues to show a gaggle of reporters and photographers a brave face.

In the End, He’s Just a Jolly Good Actor

Ultimately, though, Grant is tremendous in A Very English Scandal for the same reason he’s been tremendous in every film he’s done, however ropey it was: he is an enormously adept technical actor who knows that characters come to life in the smallest gestures and movements. Grant has always maintained, correctly, that comic performances require as much or more of this expertise than dramatic roles, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s so good in the finale’s fleeting, very moving moments when Thorpe’s face gives away the deepest secret of all: once upon a time he was in love with Norman Scott, and he yearns to go back.

“He’s so great when he’s not bored,” tweeted Kathy Burke in response to Grant’s turn in A Very English Scandal. Our Hugh could have been forgiven for sleepwalking through some of the films he’s made. But now he’s woken up.

A Very English Scandal comes to Amazon Prime in the US on June 29.

Jack Seale
Writer/journalist specialising in TV and film.
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