For the want of a National Insurance Card, a political career is lost.
In a real-life tale that features high English political figures and bumbling assassins worthy of a Coen Brothers movie, “A Very British Scandal” tells the story of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe’s fall from grace after being accused of trying to kill his former lover Norman (Josiffe) Scott.
The TV miniseries begins in early 1960s England when being gay was still illegal. Thorpe meets and seduces Norman Josiffe (as Scott was called then) and embarks on a long-term relationship (the grammatical distinction between “Bunny” and “Bunnies” proves a relevant point). Thorpe puts Norman up in a flat but the affair eventually ends. However, Norman, who has experienced several nervous breakdowns, is left without a means to support himself without the aforementioned National Insurance Card.
The card is basically the same as the American Social Security Card, but in the days before computers, not having a hard copy meant one could not get a job. Norman sort-of blackmails Thorpe, asking for a paltry sum and for Thorpe, who was his most recent employer, to use his connections to get him a new card so he can move on.
However, Thorpe who, needless to say, is deeply closeted, is afraid of any potential paper trail and refuses. What follows is a decade of screw-ups, misjudgments and cover-ups as Thorpe rises to the top of his party, with the desperate Norman popping up now and then plaintively hoping to get his card.
Written by Russell T Davies (“Queer As Folk” and “Doctor Who”) from John Preston’s book, “Scandal” features star turns from Hugh Grant as Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Scott. Grant’s Thorpe is a bit of a dandy with his trademark trilby and sheepskin coat, who is charismatic and genial in public but steely and cold as he tries to calculate the best way to keep his private predilections hidden.
Whishaw is simply marvelous as poor Norman who really loved Thorpe. As Thorpe climbs the parliamentary ladder, Norman cobbles together an existence with the help of friends. Whishaw has a child-like charm and vulnerability that shows why people would take him under their wing.
Each time Norman pops up, Thorpe feels more and more threatened, finally suggesting murder. What follows is a tale of incompetence that is darkly hilarious yet also quite moving.
The depiction of the old-school-tie class system — Thorpe was Eton and Oxford educated, and the son and grandson of Conservative parliamentarians — which conspired against Norman is enough to make any self-respecting person shake their head in despair. The whispered allusions to thinly-veiled activities, all with sly winks and euphemisms, are both amusing and cringe-worthy as Thorpe and his ilk seek to maintain a “moral” façade.
But the real criminal here is the law that made homosexuality illegal until 1967. Thorpe was not just a Liberal by party but also a liberal by philosophy. He was anti-apartheid, an internationalist and a strong supporter of human rights. Yet he was ultimately undone by the self hatred born of a law that required him to hide an essential part of who he was, even though that law had been repealed a decade before his trial. Even when he voted to repeal the law he lamented that gays “ had only been freed to be pitied.”
“A Very English Scandal” is not only a terrifically entertaining show with a wonderful ensemble cast, but also a thought-provoking examination of societal pressures — pressures that for all of our supposed freedoms still bubble barely below the surface today.
Thorpe died in 2014. Scott is still alive with his 11 dogs.
And he still doesn’t have his National Insurance Card.
“A Very English Scandal” airs in three hour-long episodes and is available on Amazon.