TV Review: ‘A Very English Scandal’

“We are nothing but a pair of old queens,” Hugh Grant tells his dining companion in the House of Commons near the start of Amazon’s new limited series “A Very English Scandal.” The frankness is startling given what we know about Grant, the leading man in any number of straight romantic comedies. And it comes to seem yet more striking as Grant’s character, the real-life member of Parliament Jeremy Thorpe, obfuscates endlessly about his desire through the series’s three-hour running time. He’s rarely ever open about desire, treating it as an embarrassing biological fact to be sated on brief hiatuses from heterosexual life.

The series, which first aired overseas on BBC One in May and comes to Amazon June 29, comes by its title honestly. U.K. talent (including director Stephen Frears and stars Grant and Ben Whishaw) suffuse the proceedings with a curious reticence, an enigmatic codedness of hidden emotion that brings to mind, at the show’s best, the novels of gay British writer Alan Hollinghurst. When Thorpe, a politician whose robust after-hours life occurs out of view of his constituents, first encounters Norman Scott (Whishaw), he’s immediately taken; not merely is Scott effetely charming with an alluring vulnerability, he also seems to represent less of a risk than the men Thorpe often picks up, ones who meet sexual overtures with violence.

But while Norman is in one sense utterly safe—unschooled in sex or seduction, he merrily accompanies Thorpe on a trip but weeps when explicitly propositioned—he comes to represent a different sort of danger for a man who lives in public while nurturing a private side. Scott wants to tell the world about the affair, a reputation-ruining step in a nation that’s only just decriminalized homosexuality, and one that seems to demand retribution. Seeking to silence Scott in order to keep his ascendant career moving upward, Thorpe finds himself in legal jeopardy, a true-story trial that defies belief.  

A Very English Scandal” shares some DNA with the recent vogue for reviving barely-remembered true-crime stories. Many of the most popular of those, including Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country,” have succeeded by revealing something crucial about American society, and “A Very English Scandal” seems to do much the same. Grant’s elegant, carefully calibrated performance, as a man whose estrangement from his passions—straight lawmaker by day, gay playboy by night—is less defense mechanism than attempt to thoroughly enjoy two lives in one lifetime. It’s a lie that the culture around him abets, and one that’s only quashed by someone who’s very un-Englishly willing to risk his name in the interest of telling the truth.

Whishaw, so good in “London Spy,” hits new notes here, alternately demanding his truth be told regardless of the consequence and, later, relishing those consequences. It’s moving to watch him demand his dignity in court and delicious to watch him strutting out, boasting “I was rude, I was vile, I was queer, I was myself.” What “A Very English Scandal” knows is that the future belongs to people like him, those unafraid to speak back to power and to marshal the media in so doing. Thorpe’s reticence is very English; so too is Scott’s mastery of an ascendant tabloid culture. Better still for viewers is the Englishness of the series, which, in keeping with the brevity of many U.K. series, takes a mere three installments to elegantly make its points. Three hours is enough time for two great actors to craft performances whose collision—and an enmity that comes to look a bit like love—is some of the more edifying fun around.

“A Very English Scandal”

Drama series (3 episodes, 3 watched for review): Amazon, Fri. June 29.

Credits: Executive producers: Dominic Treadwell-Collins, Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin, Diarmuid McKeown, Lucy Richer. Producer: Dan Winch

Cast: Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Alex Jennings, Patricia Hodge, Monica Dolan, Adrian Scarborough, Jason Watkins, Eve Myles, Michele Dotrice, Blake Harrison.

TV Review: 'A Very English Scandal'

More TV

  • 'Lincoln Lawyer' Series in Development at

    'Lincoln Lawyer' Series in Development at CBS from David E. Kelley

    David E. Kelley is returning once more to the court of legal dramas. CBS has issued a series production commitment for “The Lincoln Lawyer,” with Kelley in position to pen and executive produce. Based on the series of bestselling novels by Michael Connelly, the show hails from A+E Studios in association with CBS TV Studios. [...]

  • Patrick Somerville'Maniac' TV Show premiere, London,

    'Maniac' Creator to Helm 'Made for Love,' 'Station Eleven' for WarnerMedia

    “Maniac” creator Patrick Somerville has signed on to helm two new series, “Made for Love” and “Station Eleven,” for WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service. “Made for Love,” which will be executive produced and directed by S.J. Clarkson, is a 10-episode, straight-to-series adaptation based on the novel of the same name by Alissa Nutting. The half-hour comedy [...]

  • Naomi Watts and Gretchen Carlson'The Loudest

    ‘The Loudest Voice’ Stars Naomi Watts, Russell Crowe Talk Roger Ailes

    Roger Ailes may have been the force behind the creation of Fox News, but the late newsman’s legacy will forever be his atrocious sexual harassment of several of the network’s female anchors and producers. Showtime premiered its new limited series “The Loudest Voice,” which chronicles Ailes’ rise and fall, on Monday night at the Paris [...]

  • Steve McQueen VSS

    Amazon to Launch Steve McQueen's Anthology Series ‘Small Axe’ in the U.S.

    Amazon has boarded “Small Axe,” the upcoming anthology series from “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen, and will launch the series in the U.S. It will bow on the BBC in the U.K. and BBC Studios is selling it internationally. Amazon’s European content chief Georgia Brown revealed its involvement in the series, Tuesday, at [...]

  • Paula Pell

    Quibi Orders Comedic Murder Mystery From Lorne Michaels, 'SNL' Alums

    Quibi keeps shelling out cash for content: Jeffrey Katzenberg’s richly funded startup has ordered a short-form murder-mystery comedy written by and starring former “Saturday Night Live” writers Paula Pell and John Lutz, and executive produced by Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video alongside Seth Meyers and Mike Shoemaker. In “Mapleworth Murders,” Pell (pictured above) is Abigail Mapleworth, [...]

  • Sky

    Comcast Expected to Appoint Maximo Ibarra as New Sky Italia CEO

    Colombian-Italian executive Maximo Ibarra is expected to be appointed CEO of Comcast-owned pay-TV operation Sky Italia, which has been without a chief executive for the past seven months, a source close to Sky Italia tells Variety. An announcement is believed imminent that Ibarra will be the Italian paybox’s new chief after it was announced Tuesday [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content