DVD review: A Very English Scandal

English Scandal dvd

Forty or so years ago, an extraordinary thing happened. One of the leading political figures of the day was arrested, charged and tried for conspiracy to murder. The BBC drama A Very English Scandal, based on the recent non-fiction book by John Preston, brings the story of Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott vividly to life on screen. Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk and architect of the 21st century revival of Doctor Who, presents the story with clarity, humour, but also the appropriate level of drama.

He is helped immeasurably by a near perfect cast. Hugh Grant, for so long the victim of a bullying press, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, his credentials as an actor of both depth and maturity. He captures perfectly the upper-class charm of the dynamic, hat-wearing old Etonian, Thorpe, who between 1967 and 1976 was amongst the most appealing leaders the Liberal Party ever had. Privately, however, Thorpe (who appeared for a short while in 1974 to be close to achieving a position of influence in a coalition government) was a deeply flawed individual, drawn to extreme solutions when he feared his personal life was erupting into scandal. Grant captures this dark side of Thorpe too.

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Ben Whishaw is also great as Norman Scott, the troubled young man who came perilously close to becoming the victim in the farcical dog shooting incident on Dartmoor. In court, the real Scott was grossly mistreated by both Thorpe and a legal process skewed against him by the unscrupulous but brilliant lawyer, George Carman QC (played here by the excellent Adrian Scarborough) and the absurdly biased and pro-establishment judgement of presiding judge, Sir Joseph Cantley. In a notorious eccentric summing up, later expertly parodied by comedian. Peter Cook, Cantley said of Scott, “He is a crook, a fraud, a sponger, a whiner and a parasite…But, of course, he could still be telling the truth.”

Scott deserved better. This breezy, watchable and highly compelling drama directed by Stephen Frears and packed with star turns from a cast which includes Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Michelle Dotrice, Monica Dolan and Jason Watkins at least goes some way towards redressing the balance. It is one of the best of the year so far.

DVD: A Very English Scandal

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release: July 2nd 2018

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Book review: The End Of Asquith by Michael Byrne

herbert_henry_asquithA political drama set amidst the upper echelons of the Asquith Government might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea and indeed probably isn’t. Author Michael Byrne nevertheless deserves credit here for almost achieving the impossible task of being both almost wholly historically accurate (as far as I could tell anyway) and being dramatically engaging. The novel often reads like a film or TV script. Anyone planning a drama based around  the very British coup which saw Herbert Asquith usurped as wartime Prime Minister by David Lloyd George in 1916, could do worse than using this book as a starting point.

First world war: British troops go over the top in the trenches during the battle of the Somme

Even with the absence of  “middle aged man in a hurry” Winston Churchill, who has resigned as Lord of the Admiralty after the Gallipoli disaster and gone to the western front, there are plenty of colourful characters here. Byrne does a good job of seeing everyone’s point of view. Asquith himself is clearly exhausted by power after eight years as Prime Minister, is mourning the recent death of his son in action and prone to composing letters to his ladyfriends during cabinet meetings. He is naturally wary of conceding power to the ruthlessly cunning and mischievous Lloyd George. The sneaky future press baron Max Aitken (then a Tory backbencher, later Lord Beaverbrook) is another major participant. There are plenty of decent characters but there is also lots of skulduggery here.

The stakes were high. The Liberal Party which had won an historic landslide only a decade before was totally wrecked by these developments. On the plus side, the book reminds us that the outcome of the war was not inevitable. In Germany and Russia, similar dissatisfaction with the war leadership at this time, led to disaster: revolution and defeat in one nation, revolution followed by seventy years of tyranny in the other. Britain got off relatively light.

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Book review

The End of Asquith

Author: Michael Byrne

Published by: Clink Street

Book review: Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch

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Since the Second World War, two third party leaders have been in a position to determine the balance of power in a Hung Parliament. Five years ago, Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg secured his party a position in government but ultimately failed to achieve a proper cabinet position for himself or any of his party’s aims in office.

Liberal leader Jeremy Throrpe in February and March 1974 antagonised his Liberal colleagues (notably Chief Whip David Steel) by negotiating with Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath without consulting them first. Thorpe ultimately rejected the trappings of office and emerged with his reputation enhanced.

Few politicians would wish to emulate Jeremy Thorpe today, however, as Michael Bloch’s excellent biography reminds us. Indeed one wonders if the real reason future Liberal Democrat leader Jeremy Ashdown changed his name to “Paddy” was to avoid comparisons with the earlier Liberal? Today Thorpe, who died last December, is chiefly remembered for scandal and for being accused and found not guilty in a notorious murder plot. It was one of the biggest political stories of the Seventies and totally destroyed Thorpe’s career. Although only fifty in 1979, he was practically invisible for the last thirty-five years of his life which were also made worse by Parkinson’s disease.

The contrast with Thorpe’s earlier days could not be more striking. Thorpe was a dazzling figure who seems to have charmed almost everyone he met . Born in 1929, he joined the Liberals at the time of their great post-war crisis when they came close to extinction around 1950. Thorpe nevertheless determined to one day be Prime Minister, used his boundless energy to secure a seat in parliament in 1959 and obtained the party leadership while still in his thirties in 1967. As leader, he was always popular with the public (seeing the party through blows the 1970 election which coincided with the death of his first wife Caroline in a car accident) and highs (almost getting into government in 1974).

Ultimately, it was Thorpe’s compulsive risk-taking and his numerous homosexual liaisons which proved his downfall.

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Jeremy Thorpe

Michael Bloch

Published by: Little Brown