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Scandal as tragedy

8 October 2018

Television | Awkward questions are raised by A Very English Scandal and The Assassination of Gianni Versace

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Greater love hath no man: Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe in A Very British Scandal.

Greater love hath no man: Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe in A Very British Scandal.


Raising a single eyebrow is a kind of tribal code among the British upper classes. It is the hallmark of the sardonic personality, a type that flourishes in the arcane milieu of Westminster. Personalities of this type are not easy for outsiders to read. They have an ingrained sense of superiority, perhaps, but if so it is overlaid with a self-deprecating awareness: a wry, dry take on the affairs of the world that lends critical distance and shrewd tactical judgement.

In A Very English Scandal (BBC First), a three-part series dramatising the downfall of former British Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, the sardonic personality is the central enigma.

Nineteen sixty-seven, the year in which Thorpe was elected leader of the Liberal Party, was also the year in which the Sexual Offences Act passed through parliament, decriminalising homosexuality in England and Wales. Thorpe, who was not yet forty at this time, had started his career in the 1950s as a barrister at the Inner Temple in London, when prosecutions for homosexual offences frequently led to imprisonment. As a politician, he spoke unequivocally about the paramount importance of the rule of law; in his private life, he found himself on the wrong side of it from an early age, and his attempts to preserve his public image only led him into the deeper trouble that culminated in his 1979 trial for incitement and conspiracy to murder.

Hugh Grant is deservedly winning plaudits for his portrayal of Thorpe. It’s good casting, as director Stephen Frears has remarked; Grant brings an obvious physiognomic resemblance to the role, and has the comic timing to capture Thorpe’s wit. But what really matters is that this is an actor who knows the behavioural code and all its communicative nuances. The raised eyebrow gives a permanent, if subtle, asymmetrical cast to the whole face. A set jaw and penetrating stare suggest grim determination, but then the smile appears, sudden and brilliant, and the eyes sparkle in a charm offensive that can be lethal.

Asked in interviews about the challenge of portraying a figure whose looks and manner left such a lasting public impression, Grant talks about the lure of impersonation. He says he learned to do quite a good Thorpe by practising in the bathroom mirror, but realised it wouldn’t do — not when his co-star Ben Wishaw, cast as Thorpe’s nemesis Norman Scott, “would be doing real acting.” Grant’s brilliance is to capture how Thorpe moved from doing an impression of himself — debonair, charismatic, “winning” in every sense — to a form of real acting, in which that mask of a face has to wrestle with the expressive force of corrosive emotional experiences.

Episode one opens with Thorpe admitting, in characteristically oblique language, to a sexual preference for men. His confidant, fellow parliamentarian Peter Bessell (played by Alex Jennings, another past master of calculated English manners), is evidently someone who can be trusted with the disclosure. Bessell admits to a tendency in that direction himself and takes it lightly, but he is soon to be drawn in to a disaster zone, as collateral damage in Thorpe’s ruthless self-preservation.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life,” Thorpe famously remarked when Harold Macmillan spilled half his cabinet in a 1962 reshuffle that became known as Britain’s Night of the Long Knives. Although he preferred subtler weapons, Thorpe’s killer instinct led him to provide a more starkly literal illustration of his own quip.

In summary, the scandal has a banal simplicity. Thorpe falls for a beautiful youth, a stable boy he meets on a weekend at a country house. Some time later, the young man, Norman Scott, appears in London, jobless and with nowhere to go. He wants Thorpe to help get him a national insurance card so that he can apply for unemployment benefits and try to get work. Instead, Thorpe sets him up in a flat and they embark on an affair that continues until Scott becomes miserable, complaining of boredom and isolation. Thorpe wants out. With his sights set on becoming party leader, he realises he needs to get married in order to further his political career, and Scott is cast aside, still without his card.

While Thorpe proceeds to realise his ambitions, Scott continues to be feckless and impulsive. He has a brief career as a fashion model, but nothing lasts. So, blaming Thorpe for his desperate employment situation, he reports their affair to the police, providing a packet of letters on parliamentary stationery as evidence.

As Scott, Ben Wishaw evokes someone who is Thorpe’s antithesis in every way. Driven by his emotions and almost incapable of strategic thinking, he responds to the escalating situation by doing and saying whatever comes into his head. If Thorpe’s public manner is a carefully wrought prosthesis, Scott has a wardrobe of personalities worn to fit the occasion. Thorpe takes risks out of daredevil arrogance; Scott has the recklessness of someone with nothing to lose.

A forbidden sexuality has brought together two people who would never have been able to communicate on any other terms, and the stakes are raised as they try to deal with each other’s recalcitrance. Thorpe sees Scott’s persistent determination to out him as blackmail. In logical and strategic terms — and Thorpe is always logical and strategic — the only solution to blackmail is murder. The assassination attempt quite literally misfires; the bungling hitman kills a Great Dane that Scott is minding, leaving Scott distraught but unharmed. A trail of circumstantial evidence leads back to Thorpe.

Inevitably, it all lands up in court, with Peter Bessell as a key witness for the prosecution. Perhaps the verdict, too, is inevitable. Thorpe knows how to pick his lawyers. Adrian Scarborough, as George Carman QC, relishes the opportunities of playing the man who turned the case his way with a combination of legal acuity and courtroom bravado.

A trial scene always makes good television, and this is one of the best, an absolute gift to scriptwriter Russell T. Davies. Davies, who has a long track record writing for the BBC and Granada, moves easily between the registers of soap opera and serious drama, and there are elements of both here. Much of the dialogue is taken from the original transcript of the court proceedings, which is itself laced with tabloid sensationalism, but Davies intersperses the recorded exchanges with dialogues that take place on the periphery of the courtroom.

There is a tense and guarded conversation between Thorpe and his barrister, in which Carman seems to be fishing for a confession and instead gets a carefully worded statement in the conditional tense: “If, I suppose, one were to… then, perhaps, one might…” As Grant feeds out the tortuous syntax, clause by clause, the camera moves to extreme close-up, as if prompted by the viewer’s need to read that unreadable face. We see Scott rushing to the toilets after his ordeal in the witness box and crying like a child in the privacy of a cubicle, then pulling himself together as he descends the grand staircase, treating his supporters to a display of camp triumphalism: “I was rude, I was vile, I was queer, I was myself.”

The judge evidently agreed with him. Justice Cantley’s summing up, with its thumbnail character assassinations of Scott, Bessell and the hitman Andrew Newton, has gone down in history as one of the most biased ever delivered from the bench at the Old Bailey. Acquitted, and in the eyes of many triumphantly vindicated, Thorpe emerged to greet crowds of well-wishers in the street with the victory wave he was accustomed to giving after an election. And there the drama ends.

In reality, the storyline took some further turns. In a sketch performed only ten days later to a packed audience at Her Majesty’s Theatre, satirist Peter Cook delivered Cantley’s summing up with a few embellishments of his own and, as they say, brought the house down. Thorpe himself did not come out of it well. His public life was over, and he retired with his stoically loyal wife to deal with the encroaching challenges of Parkinson’s disease. A changing cultural climate enabled the real Norman Scott, who appears in the closing moments of the series, to live in untroubled privacy with the eleven dogs that are the love of his life.

Three episodes dealing with the aftermath would have helped to bring out important dimensions of the story that are barely hinted at in this Thorpe-centred view. The whole sorry, undigested story has continued to haunt English political culture. In Secret Lives, a 1996 documentary made for Channel 4 by Roy Ackerman and David May, Thorpe’s political colleagues speculate on the enigma. He was a Jekyll and Hyde figure, says the monstrous Cyril Smith, whose rampant career in a paedophile ring was yet to be revealed. MI5 had dropped the investigation into Smith’s abuse of boys at the Rochdale children’s home, though reports of it were surfacing again at the time of the Thorpe trial. George Carman, urged on by Thorpe, is said to have been instrumental in suppressing them.

David Steel, Thorpe’s successor as leader of the Liberal Party, describes the episode as a tragedy for a major public figure and a tragedy for the party. “Would this whole spider’s web ever have been woven,” he speculates, “if society hadn’t been so hypocritical about relatively trivial homosexual relationships?” If there had been no scandal, perhaps there would have been no tragedy? That, essentially, is the perspective offered in A Very English Scandal. It leaves us with a sense that Thorpe might, in other circumstances, have been a pretty decent bloke — a genuinely devoted husband and father, and a politician guided by responsible social objectives. The problem with such a view is that what Cyril Smith was up to was not “relatively trivial” and the Thorpe affair has a sinister dimension.


In both cases, the poison of secrecy bred a capacity to use people and discard them as if they had no place in any acknowledged reality. The Australian release of A Very English Scandal coincided with the award of the Emmy for outstanding limited series to The Assassination of Gianni Versace, another tale of intergenerational gay romance between a significant public figure and a young man whose fleeting beauty marks him out for attention. Here, too, the romance ends badly and is replaced by homicidal obsession, but this time it is the junior partner who turns sinister.

Gianni Versace was born in Calabria in 1946, fifteen years after Thorpe, and social attitudes to gay relationships had moved on a generation by the time he entered the world of celebrity as an international fashion designer. His stagey and sexually flamboyant collections attracted the interest of Madonna, Elton John and other show business figures who were themselves at the forefront of a cultural milieu that fostered performative and experimental approaches to sexual identity. (It was Versace who designed the celebrated black dress held together with giant gold safety pins that Elizabeth Hurley wore when she accompanied Hugh Grant to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral.)

The Assassination of Gianni Versace, badged as season two of the American Crime Story series, is about crime and the relationship of violence to homophobia. The first episode opens with the final scene of the drama, a fatal convergence of life courses that might have remained poles apart. Versace, played by Venezuelan actor Édgar Ramírez, wakes to a new day in his Italianate mansion in Miami just as his killer Andrew Cunanan opens a backpack on the beach a few hundred metres away and checks a gun.

The camera lingers on the exquisiteness of the Versace palace: the fresco on the ceiling above the bed, mosaic floors, delicate patterns on cupboard doors, a sapphire bathing pool framed by Palladian columns and arches. Wearing a gown of rose-coloured silk that sets off his golden skin tones, Versace stands on a balcony looking out over the ocean. Ramírez looks astonishingly like Versace, who had the carriage and presence of an opera star.

Cunanan, sitting on the sand in a shapeless grey t-shirt, looks like a nobody. He rubs at an ugly lesion on his leg. He gets up and wades into the sea until the water is up around his shoulders, letting out a succession of hoarse screams. We cut to Versace, walking out to the local newsagency. People sitting at cafe tables outside the shop greet him warmly. Everyone liked Versace, who was known as “the unofficial mayor of South Beach”; Cunanan was labelled a “dirtbag street hustler,” a conman, a sociopath, a liar. As Versace pays for an armful of glossy magazines, Cunanan shoulders his backpack and leaves the beach. Versace heads back towards the villa, and Cunanan takes a sudden detour, rushing into a public toilet to vomit.

Why does the polarity between these two figures have to be quite so emphatically established? As in the Thorpe story, extreme differences of status are central to the dynamic, and reflect individual predilections that have their origins in a wider social pathology. The anxieties that haunt those who are excluded from “respectable” society can channel themselves into extraordinary creative determination, as in the case of Versace, or they can trigger a deep-seated homicidal rage.

This series is based on a book by Vanity Fair writer Maureen Orth, whose interests are in the forensic psychology of a notorious spree killer. Versace was Cunanan’s fifth victim during a three-month period that began in April 1997 when he responded to a brush-off from one of his friends by picking up a claw hammer and bashing him to death.

For those interested in criminal profiling, all the danger signals were evident long before that. The status anxieties began early, with an immigrant father who talked his way into the world of stockbrokers, was thrust out of it when he was found to be defrauding his clients, and then abandoned his family, leaving debts that rendered them almost destitute. The young Cunanan was a con man of a different stamp — exceptionally bright, and given to spinning autobiographical narratives that drew on a wide knowledge of the kinds of social milieu he sought to enter.

The gay pride movements through the 1970s let air and light into the gay subcultures whose suppression had made them hothouses for diverse forms of abuse. A generation later, though, they were still populated by people bearing long-term psychological injuries. Successful as he was, Versace was not undamaged. Flashback scenes show how he was humiliated by his Catholic schoolteacher in Calabria. Family bonds were crucial to him in adult life but his sister Donatella, his muse and deputy, has an intense dislike for his long-term partner, Antonio D’Amico, whom she blames for drawing Versace into scenes of depravity with a coterie of gigolos.

We see Cunanan making a play for Versace at a nightclub, luring him with stories (invented) of a mother from the same part of southern Italy, and impressing him with a knowledge of the opera for which Versace is designing the costumes. Both men are determined to make the transition into worlds of money and style, and both choose unorthodox means of realising their ambitions, but Versace, riding the celebrity track with irresistible panache, achieves a legitimacy that Cunanan, for all his own performative brilliance, will be denied.

A character who exhibits performative brilliance in life presents special challenges to an actor. There are too many frames of artifice. How do you cut through them to communicate what, if anything, is behind them? Ben Wishaw’s Norman Scott is someone who tries on personalities, but the artifice is shallow. In Cunanan we have someone who is a consummate poseur, an exhibitionist driven by strangely introverted energies. Darren Criss, a young actor known for some fairly unsophisticated song-and-dance routines on Glee, makes an astonishingly convincing job of realising his blend of vividness and vacancy. It’s a performance that won him the Emmy for best actor in a limited series, against competition from Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeff Daniels and Antonio Banderas.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace and A Very English Scandal are showcases for actors, and in both cases the duo at the centre present a fascinating relationship of contrasting performance styles. They are worth watching for this alone, but the risk with this kind of intensely personal focus is that the social and political setting is pushed into the background. With the #MeToo movement continuing to gather in intensity, heterosexual behaviour has now become the flashpoint for scandal. This is surely the time for drawing attention to the contextual factors that give rise to all kinds of pathologies in individual behaviour. •

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