Politics on the small screen: the inside track on A Very English Scandal
Producer Dominic Treadwell Collins and senior Liberal Democrats have their say on the acclaimed BBC drama.
The finale of A Very English Scandal is served up in sad and sober contrast to some of the capers previously seen in this darkly comic adaptation of the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe.
That’s the verdict of producer Dominic Treadwell Collins, following criticism in some quarters, namely the real Norman Scott, that the hit drama has reduced his character played by Ben Whishaw to a ‘needy weakling’. As for the chaotic depiction of the botched plan to murder him on Exmoor, Scott told the Mail on Sunday, “There’s nothing funny about someone trying to kill you.”
But Treadwell Collins is confident of the need for shifting tones in Russell T Davies’ script, if the story is to be shown in all its "brilliant British oddness". He tells me: "There is a fruitiness to Russell’s script, and there’s also a sadness. It’s fruity when it needed to be, delighting in the oddness of Brits, but by the end it’s all stripped away and instead, it becomes a tragic love story. And Russell understands both."
It was the sheer oddness of the tale that first attracted to Treadwell Collins’ first independent project since departing the helm of EastEnders in 2016. Having taken John Preston’s book of the sorry saga away on holiday, it was when he got to "the badgers" he knew he’d found something special.
!The whole story is one of English eccentricity," he says, citing Lord Arran’s love for his furry friends away from his support of Wolfenden. On screen we see the peer citing his interests – "‘boots, badgers and what else, oh yes, queers" - as well as his wife’s heated rivalry with fellow powerboat racer Donald Campbell. As Treadwell Collins calls it, "all absolutely true, I couldn’t make that up if I tried".
One of the many spines running through the tale is the social imbalance between Thorpe and his estranged lover. "We’re still class-obsessed," observes Treadwell Collins, delighting in his own social mobility. "I was at Harrow and Oxford and I couldn’t believe the sense of entitlement, but I understood it. But my mum was a hairdresser, so I was also an outsider looking in."
Remaining circumspect about Scott’s complaints, the producer is confident he will come to appreciate the piece. He remembers when he and scripwriter Davies visited Scott's home: "We showed him all three episodes in one go, and he cried, Russell cried, we all cried. It was opening old wounds for him, but I hope it will also feel that his side of the story is finally being told.
"We tried to be as balanced as possible, tell both sides of the story, and make them both likeable. In that, we were helped by the stunning performances from both actors."
As well as a beguiling Whishaw playing Scott, Hugh Grant’s transformation into Thorpe has earned him that usually BAFTA-warming epithet of ‘revelatory’. But for Treadwell Collins, Grant’s success in the role is no great surprise.
"To me, he is the epitome of Englishness, as well as being hugely underrated. Plus, now he’s nearly 60 and he’s lost his vanity, he’s entering a really interesting chapter,” he says, while acknowledging the commercial appeal of such a casting.
"Ask anybody in the world for an actor who epitomises Englishness and they’ll say Hugh Grant. Putting him in this took the whole show up to another level. It made it an event.”
Grant’s mannerisms – dashing and desperate in enigmatic layers – have earned him the praise of those who knew Thorpe well.
Menzies Campbell, who was leading the Scottish Liberals at the time of Thorpe’s demise, explains, “Physically, he has all the same qualities, of operating at 101%. Thorpe was always at 101%.”
Lord Campbell, who went on to lead the party in Westminster from 2006 to 2007, remembers Thorpe’s powers of communication on a level enjoyed by only a small fraction of all ambitious politicians.
"He was quick-witted, not always kind, occasionally cruel. But when he looked at you and talked to you – and I’m about to go into Women’s Own language - you felt you were the only person in the world he was interested in. You had to parry like a swordsman, because he was not just charismatic but quixotic as well, and you had to try to keep up, otherwise you got flattened by the strength of his personality. It would last for half a dozen moments, and then he would do exactly the same with the person after you, and the person after that. He had huge powers of focus."
Liberal Newswire Editor Mark Pack interviewed Thorpe in 2009, five years before his death, and was struck by how many aspects of party organisation the former MP pioneered – "seeing the job of the leader as sorting it out, taking fundraising seriously, having the idea of target Parliamentary seats with proper support".
He believes Thorpe may be missing his rightful credit for such achievements not just because of his dismal exit but because of his secrecy and control long before – "his charismatically flamboyant attitude towards politics meant the exact ways he went about those tasks were not always that admirable".
Campbell was an equally admiring acolyte during the 1960’s: "I was very admiring of him also with radicalism on all sorts of things like apartheid. He certainly encapsulated the feelings of young left wing people like me. And he was among the first to harness the power of communication, both electronic and personal, particularly during the General Election of 1974.
"I took him along Princes Street in Edinburgh on a walkabout, and watched him engage people and be immediately disarming. He’d say to someone, ‘Gosh, that’s a smart coat.’ Most politicians feel quite anxious about not getting anything wrong, so you end up giving quite banal responses, but Thorpe didn’t know what banal meant.
"Harold Wilson would smoke his pipe for minutes before replying, but Thorpe was always ready with a razor-sharp riposte, which meant he stood out.
"He said, ‘Look right but speak left.’ He believed the effect of his radicalism would have been lost in jeans, but it was powerful coming from someone who appeared to be what the Daily Mail now calls the liberal elite."
Of course, the Mail was one of the titles joining in what became an increasingly jaw-dropping exposure of Thorpe’s private life, culminating in his spectacular appearance at the Old Bailey in 1979. Campbell remembers his party being increasingly shaken by the headlines before Thorpe’s resignation three years before.
"I was in Scotland, and I used to get rung up every evening by the Party President, at six o clock. He would say, ‘I think you ought to know what’s coming in the Daily Mail tomorrow.’
"One was conscious day after day of these revelations coming out. All of this has to be measured against the much more respectful atmosphere and usually self-imposed discretion of the press at the time, so it was more shocking when it came out."
Was Campbell, a former criminal trial barrister, really that shocked? "Well, at the bar in early years, you learn pretty quickly that appearances can be deceptive. Like everybody else, I was reluctant to believe all of this, but when Thorpe’s letter appeared in the Sunday Times, ‘Bunny can and will go to Paris,’ the scales fell from my eyes.
"As an advocate, a Scottish barrister, by the mid-1970s my legal instincts were well developed and it seemed to me that his position became more and more untenable."
One of Campbell’s few complaints about the rich adaptation is what he considers an unfair portrayal of his Welsh contemporary Emlyn Hooson, Thorpe’s deputy seen on screen as hungry for intrigue and power, played by a lip-twitching Jason Watkins. It’s a view shared by one shared by Lord Carlile of Berriew, a Liberal MP throughout the 1970s, who is scathing about the script as far as it relates to his former colleague in both courtroom and Westminster.
For Campbell, Hooson was "rifle-straight, a son of the Welsh chapel with a very strong sense of moral responsibility, a brilliant barrister, and it was he who sussed Thorpe out".
Following the scene where Scott first comes to share his tale at Westminster – the drama shows him being interviewed by Hooson and a young David Steele, although the latter says it never happened – Campbell credits Hooson’s acuity in assessing the merits of Scott’s tale. Soon after, Thorpe’s only options became ‘Sue or resign’, and it became clear the former was not an option.
Lord Steele is equally impressed by Hugh Grant’s portrayal, following a recent lunch where he was pressed for his memories by the actor. He agrees a fair amount of dramatic licence has been taken with the tale. "Jeremy Thorpe never had a cake nor thrust a sword into it on being elected leader," he says.
For this Scottish peer and self-professed petrolhead, though, the most jarring aspect is seeing the wrong cars on screen – “Humber Super Snipe not Rover 3 litre and later Rover 2000 not Triumph Stag” apparently. Steele calls the whole thing good entertainment not to be taken too seriously, while Campbell agrees it probably won’t be having a huge effect on Vince Cable’s efforts to restore the party’s fortunes.
But what if something similar were to happen today? Could it? Dominic Treadwell Collins cites the universal themes: “In a sense, it’s timeless, powerful men doing anything to cling onto power.”
He adds, “Of course this could happen now, we’re human, we don’t change and the same things that have motivated us all for centuries don’t change. The day we went to the BBC, Keith Vaz had just been caught having sex with men and pretending to be a washing machine salesman.” He chuckles sympathetically. “There’s that ridiculous British attention to detail again.”
What’s the lesson, if there is one? "Tell the truth," says Treadwell Collins. "You’ll have an easier time of it. If you lie, you’ll eventually get caught out. As it was, Jeremy Thorpe lied, and his life was ruined anyway. So he might as well have told the truth, even though, thank God, it would be easier for him now.
Campbell is more circumspect. “I think if you asked everyone they’d say tell the truth, but when that moment came, they’d think very carefully about the repercussions. If Thorpe had stood up and said he was bisexual, that would have been the end for him immediately."
Of course, we live in different times, with the pregnant lesbian leader of the Scottish Tories being touted as a future prime minister. "If someone accused someone of being homosexual, they would be accused of interfering in someone’s private life," says Campbell. "And the public would say, so what? But anything that strays from the personal to the criminal or even predatory, the public don’t like that. Dignity is all."
With his dignity in tatters despite his Old Bailey acquittal, is Jeremy Thorpe a tragic figure, or just another power-hungry politician who ran out of schemes?
"Definitely tragic,” says Treadwell Collins. "Look what he could have achieved if he hadn’t been hiding these secrets, which don’t even have to be secrets now.
"He could have made a wonderful leader, and instead this. It’s a tragedy without a doubt. But there were loads of other lives around him that were ruined by his actions too."
Former Lib Dem leader Campbell takes a rather different line: "Power-hungry or tragic? Well, they’re not mutually exclusive. He was flawed, as are we all."
A Very English Scandal concludes on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday.