TV blog: A Very English Scandal

Benjie Goodhart / 17 May 2018

A career-defining performance by Hugh Grant, writes our TV critic. Plus, more TV highlights for the week ahead.

A Very English Scandal, Sunday 20th May, 9pm, BBC One

Good grief. A three-part drama about a political resignation. Pass the smelling salts and make me a coffee so strong it could win Mr Universe. What’s this likely to be? Three hours of political chicanery to do with who Priti Patel met on holiday? A lengthy discussion about how a bacon sandwich and a hostile press can end a career? It’s hardly likely to keep you awake at night.

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Ah. Hold on a minute. It turns out that, like prog rock and bubble perms, the 70s also did political scandal a good deal better than we do today. This is the story of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, whose resignation didn’t involve a mistake in the committee stage of parliament or a mis-reading of government rules, but instead involved the purported attempted murder of a young former gay lover. And they say Liberals are boring!

This, it must be said, is a hell of a story, whether you already know it or not. But in the hands of writer Russell T Davies, adapting John Preston’s book, it truly comes alive. It also features what is, to my mind, a career-defining performance by Hugh Grant, who captures in the aristocratic Thorpe, a kindly patrician concern for the world, a malevolent charm and rakish recklessness.

Thorpe’s right-hand man is the loyal Peter Bessell, a fellow Liberal MP and kindred spirit. Bessell is played with relish by Alex Jennings who, in playing Edward VIII in The Crown, stole every scene he appeared in. The same would be true here, were not Grant on such marvellous form.

The pair are out to stop the leak of information from one of Thorpe’s former lovers, a handsome but psychologically vulnerable young man called Norman Josiffe (later Norman Scott). Playing Norman, and forming the third part of the mighty triumvirate at the heart of this drama, is Ben Wishaw, known to kids everywhere as the voice of Paddington Bear. Well, it’s not long until the voice of Paddington is doing some distinctly un-Paddington-like things with Mr Thorpe (those of a squeamish nature be warned) as we flash back to the early days of their relationship.

One of the most striking things about this drama is that it feels as though it could almost have taken place in the Victorian era. The Parliamentary dining rooms are filled with rich, portly white men in three-piece suits with watches on chains, and are almost indistinguishable from the dining room at The Ritz, another favoured lunchtime establishment for politicos. And most striking of all is the prurience on display. The 60s might be in full swing in episode one, but a gay relationship is still illegal. How different Thorpe’s life might have been had he been born 40 years later.

This is a drama that is funny and sad and intelligent and grown-up. If all of that isn’t enough to convince you, it has Patricia Hodge playing Ursula Thorpe like some latter-day, monocle-wearing Boudica, and an eccentric aristocrat called Bouffy who has feral badgers running around his home.

Carry on Brussels, Wednesday 23rd May, 10pm, Channel 4

Aaaaargh! Everything was sorted. I’d got this blog finished nice and early this week. You’d be surprised how much of it is written in a frantic rush to make the deadline. (What do you mean, you wouldn’t? How rude!) This is not because I am disorganised (although I am) or because I am lazy (although I am) but because TV shows frequently don’t become available to view until the night before I have to submit my pearls of televisual wisdom.

But this week was different. This week, I was able to review my programmes with plenty of time to spare, I’d written the whole thing up and put it to bed early, in precisely the way I am never able to do with my kids. A Very British Scandal, tick. Top of the Box: 1978, tick. All done. But then last night I was watching a documentary about trains on Channel 5 (I know, I am achingly cool) when a trailer came on for Sunday’s Top of the Box: 1985. My eyes almost popped out of my head, which would have made what I do for a living frightfully difficult going forward. 1985? Nineteen-eighty-ruddy-five? When did that old switcheroo take place? Thanks a million, Channel 5. Don’t think you can get on my good side with your documentaries about trains.

So here I am, writing about Carry On Brussels, which is the only other programme I’d seen for the week in question. To be clear, this is not a 1970s film featuring Sid James and Hattie Jacques snickering about Belgian sausage while Barbara Windsor’s bikini top flies off and lands on the Manneken Pis to the tune of a penny whistle. (Incidentally, best wishes to the marvellous Ms Windsor after the recent stories of her ongoing health struggles). This is, instead, a rather more sober affair, a three-part series looking at the European Parliament at a crucial time in its history. There’s not a nurse’s uniform in sight!

There are 751 MEPs at the parliament, and Britain, with 73, has the third-largest block of them. Not that you could really call them a block, as such – they’re not exactly united. You get the impression passionate Europhile Labour MEP Seb Dance and his UKIP counterpart, Gerard Batten, could only have less in common if one of them breathed through gills and ate plankton. Dance literally weeps with dismay when he talks about Brexit. Batten – well, Batten doesn’t. He looks like he probably last cried in 1964.

So, look, Brexit. Yes, I know, most people are heartily sick of it, one way and another. If they held a second referendum, and there was an option marked “Stay or Leave, it’s fine by me, just please can we go back to talking about the weather and Colleen Rooney and dogs and cake and stuff” it would win by a landslide. So this series has to deal with Brexit fatigue, and also remain resolutely impartial to what is the most divisive political issue in recent history.

It manages to do both with aplomb. Everyone is treated fairly here, and the even-handedness makes for a much more interesting programme. There are plenty of engaging characters, and the documentary team have secured impressive access. It is genuinely interesting watching how the colossal and vastly complex European Parliament works (mind you, this is from a guy who finds train documentaries appealing) but ultimately, it won’t change anyone’s opinions. Remainers will think it’s a fabulous example of cross-cultural co-operation for the greater good, Brexiteers will witness a massive, unwieldy bureaucracy trying to steal our freedom. In the end, we all see what we want to see. Unless what you want to see is Top of the Box: 1978.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 19th May

Royal Wedding stuff – all day, BBC One and ITV: We covered all this in last week’s blog, but basically there’s live coverage from Windsor from 6am til 3pm, and then highlights later on. If you record one channel and watch the other, you could basically immerse yourself in a big gloopy bath of royal wedding for every waking moment of the day, leaving you with just enough time to call a divorce lawyer before bed.

FA Cup Final: Manchester United v Chelsea, 2pm, BBC One: BBC one is basically showing two programmes today. This afternoon, from 2pm until 7:40pm, it’s FA Cup Final time. There’s all the usual build-up before the match finally kicks off at 5pm. It is, if you like, the second ‘match’ of the day. Oh, please yourselves!

Motty Night – BBC Two, 8:30pm: After an astonishing 50 years of squealing excitedly into a microphone, the incomparable John Motson is finally hanging up his sheepskin coat. Tonight, BBC Two screens an evening of programmes dedicated to him, starting with him hosting a very special edition of Mastermind. Then there’s a documentary about his glittering career, featuring some stellar football faces, before we finish with Gary Lineker presenting a countdown of Motty’s best moments.

Queen Victoria’s Tragic Family 1/3, 9:20pm, Channel 5: New documentary following the unhappy tale of Victoria after Albert’s death, and recounting how, one by one, all of her children turned against her in the years to come.

Sunday 20th May

The Handmaid’s Tale, 9pm, Channel 4: Return of last year’s utterly magnificent, brutal dystopian thriller adapted from Margaret Attwood’s book. It will be interesting to see how the series does now it’s gone past the end of the book, but expect Elisabeth Moss’ extraordinary performance as the downtrodden but determined Offred to dazzle nonetheless.

Monday 21st May

Jamie’s Quick and Easy Food, 8pm, Channel 4: Jamie Oliver returns for his squillionth series on Channel 4, making meals that take mere moments, provided it doesn’t take you half an hour to peel and chop a carrot, and you remember where you put the colander.

The NHS Heroes Award, 8:30pm, ITV: To mark the 70th anniversary of Donald Trump’s favourite institution, stars and special guests will celebrate the extraordinary work of NHS staff and volunteers. Hankies at the ready, people.

24 Hours in Police Custody, 9pm, Channel 4: The series following Bedfordshire Police’s detective work returns with a feature-length first episode, following the case of a woman’s body found in overgrown grassland.

Tuesday 22nd May

Amazing Spaces Special: 24 Hour Build, 8pm, Channel 4: George Clarke takes on the 600-year-old legend of the Ty Unnos – a piece of Welsh folklore that claims that if you can build a house with four walls, a roof, and have a fire burning in your hearth in less than a day, the house and the ground beneath it is yours. Good luck getting that idea past the council!

Love Your Garden: NHS Special, 8pm, ITV: Eventually the two great institutions upon which our nation is founded, the NHS and Alan Titchmarsh, had to come together. Alan and the LYG team come together for their biggest ever project, to create a garden for the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. Part of the NHS 70th anniversary celebrations.

A&E Live, 9pm, ITV: The NHS-fest continues, with Davina McCall presenting live from an A&E as the drama of life unfolds before her. So if you’re desperate to get on telly, go to Leeds, break a couple of fingers, and nip into the General Infirmary. Showing over three consecutive nights.

Manchester: The Night of the Bomb, 9pm, BBC Two: Exactly a year after a bomb went off in the Manchester Arena, killing 23 people, this documentary tells the full, harrowing story of what happened that night, using unseen mobile phone footage and eyewitness interviews.

Trains from Hell: Caught on Camera, 9pm, Channel 4: Real-life mobile phone footage of everything that can go wrong on trains, from the funny to the ridiculous to the terrifying. And they’ve not even covered my rush hour journey into London…

Mo Salah: A Football Fairy Tale, 10pm, Channel 4: Mo Salah has, by any standards enjoyed one of the great seasons of the modern era in British football. This documentary charts his rise from humble beginnings in Egypt to the Premier League player of the year in 2017/18.

Wednesday 23rd May

The Doctor Who Gave Up Drugs, 9pm, BBC One: TV’s ubiquitous Dr Chris van Tulleken fronts this authored documentary in which he attempts to wean the nation, and particularly the nation’s children, off medication they simply don’t need.

Friday 25th May

How to Get Fit Fast 1/2, 8pm, Channel 4: Basically, sit around less, move more.

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