The superb miniseries "A Very English Scandal" is based in fact and built on serious concerns — homophobia and the illegality of gay sex in England before 1967, a murder plot, and the shooting of a dog, and the way the hollow halls of justice slant toward class and money, and away from the truth.
So one of the biggest surprises about the Amazon three-parter is its breezy, eccentric, even droll tone. Written by Russell T. Davies ("Doctor Who") and directed by Stephen Frears ("The Queen"), the miniseries emphasizes the absurdity and farce of the situation, the situation being the 1970s arrest of closeted British MP Jeremy Thorpe on charges of conspiring to murder a male ex-lover from the 1960s named Normal Scott. Stiff upper lips are shrewdly mocked, bumbling would-be murderers are quietly ridiculed, and the pure amorality of Thorpe, so wealthy, powerful, and, when he mutters "shoot the bugger stone dead," cold-hearted, is slyly exposed.
Another surprise about "A Very English Scandal," which is based on John Preston's book and available to stream on Friday: Hugh Grant. As Thorpe, who led the Liberal Party until the scandal broke, Grant is a revelation, perhaps thanks to his collaboration with Frears, who also directed Grant against type in "Florence Foster Jenkins." Grant turns off all the offhand charm of his early movie performances, giving us a more convoluted man —
Thorpe was married twice and had one son — who'd only go to four weddings and a funeral to help his career. His nuanced Thorpe is a smug hypocrite, his face tightly held in a mild scowl lest he reveal weakness. At moments you feel for the man, who, like Scott, has been forced into a life of duplicity and secrecy by the law and public bias, and who has an oddly clinical approach to sex and love. But most of all, you cringe at his bald self-interest.
What's not surprising is that Ben Whishaw — so memorable in "London Spy" and "The Hour" — is spectacular as Scott, whose original last name is Josiffe until he changes it in a moment of self-delusion. One of the reasons Thorpe is drawn to the younger Scott is Scott's passivity and vulnerability. When they first meet in the early 1960s, Scott is working in the stables of one of Thorpe's friends after a stay in a psychiatric hospital. He is a fragile, somewhat thick bloke who is financially desperate. But those same qualities come back to bite Thorpe, as they lead Scott to desperation, victimhood, and blackmail.
Scott is more sympathetic than Thorpe, of course, even if he loves the tabloid attention too much, once the affair makes the headlines, and even though his drug and alcohol abuse ultimately undermines his short modeling career. He's a lost puppy, and his storyline brings poignancy to "A Very English Scandal," keeping all the black humor and irony from overwhelming the human side of the case. During the trial, Scott, excited by being in the public, takes the stand and makes a rousing statement about being gay that wins him the support of 1970s activists. "I was rude, I was vile, I was queer, I was myself," he announces with a then-rare candor.
The miniseries, which is a tight three hours long, jumps back and forth in time, so that we see Thorpe and Scott develop their relationship, beginning with a weekend at Thorpe's mother's house, as well as the trial many years later, in a courtroom whose judge practically insists that the jury find the upper-class politician not guilty. In between, there are enough close calls that Thorpe doesn't even know about, as Scott tries to convince officials of the affair using Thorpe's love letters. The twists and coincidences would all seem too fanciful and coincidental, excesses from Davies and Frears, except that they are true.
A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL
Starring: Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Eve Myles, Adrian Scarborough, Blake Harrison
On: Amazon, available on Friday
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.