Today There Are No Gentlemen, wrote fashion historian and fabulist Nik Cohn in 1971. Upper-class British Member of Parliament Jeremy Thorpe was soon to prove him right. And now, thanks to Stephen Frears’ excellent television adaptation of John Preston’s book about the infamous Thorpe Affair, we have a much-needed reminder of that lesson. Or at least those of us with access to Amazon Prime and to a sense of insight do.
From past work as varied as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Queen, Frears’ work seems to buzz with social sensibility, a sensitivity to the messy crashes and entanglements of complicated class structures. Thus, I can’t think of anyone better suited to direct this visual version of the complicated, bizarre story of a distinguished British politician, with a reputation for championing human rights and fighting racial and sexual intolerance in Britain and internationally, who yet denied humanity in his personal affairs, who allegedly ordered the killing of a working-class former lover, Norman Scott, saying the latter’s existence was less important than that of “a sick dog.”
Despite that, dogs don’t have it easy in A Very English Scandal. Reality is so much stranger than fiction: rather than set off a series of misadventures, Old Etonian Thorpe’s callous command only compounded a series of ongoing unbelievable misadventures that led to an airline pilot shooting dead Scott’s Great Dane on the moors and Thorpe’s eventual trial and acquittal for conspiracy and incitement to murder. Like Frears as director, no one could play Thorpe better than Hugh Grant, impeccably cast, impeccably dressed in clothes that ring true: none of the flashy Richard James or Kilgour that Grant used to negotiate into earlier roles, but well-cut, discreet suits and (Thorpe was known as a dandy) a rather ominous Homburg, what my former Svengali Will Boehlke used to like to call a “Lord’s Hat.” The habits of a gentleman of that time: still sober, perhaps even off the rack, with a helping of patrician “old but good.”
Like that trope, the gently aging Grant is almost the best at what he does. But the mantle of best British cad must be handed on to his co-star Alex Jennings as Thorpe’s fellow MP, confidant and conspirator Peter Bessell, all smouldering sanctimony. With this role Jennings completes a trifecta of different British Empire cads, having played an appropriately Antonian (Machiavellian+whiny) Duke of Windsor in The Crown and a scheming King Leopold (easily one of the worst historical monsters, look it up) in Victoria. Bessell recognizes Thorpe’s potential early (Thorpe would rise to become head of the Liberal Party in Britain, and if the scandal in question hadn’t broken, could have become Prime Minister). The two characters forge a pact of protection and promotion. As Thorpe’s self-styled protector, Bessell undertakes to intimidate, pay off and otherwise hush up the erratic Scott.
The real Scott has objected that Ben Whishaw’s award-winning portrayal makes him out to be a weakling. Whishaw’s Scott is more nuanced than that. While no passive pawn, it is incontrovertible fact that Scott first approached Thorpe only in abject desperation, hoping simply to get back his national benefits card – without which he could not seek legal employment or obtain medical help. A stinger in the credits informs us that the real Scott, still very much alive and the owner of 11 dogs, never did.
What does it mean to be a gentleman? A Very English Scandal emphasizes that we should not look back for our definitions. The gentlemen of those earlier times, the Thorpes and Bessells, familiar with menus and wardrobes, virtuosos on the violin, even, it pains me to write, paladins politically for a better world (to the point of antagonizing apartheid South Africa’s intelligence service, among other things), yet denied – as a matter of course – the humanity of those of their fellow men over whom they held power. Thorpe’s acquittal, thanks to an extremely competent defense lawyer and an extremely deferential judge, comes across as society’s validation of the upper classes’ predation on the middle and lower classes, a validation necessary to the ingrown biases of an ancient, rotten system. Thorpe’s wife and mother (at whose house Scott alleged Thorpe initially seduced him) never publicly display any doubt as to his innocence, or his heterosexuality. (Thorpe never admitted to a romantic relationship with Scott, whom he had housed for several years, dressed in pajamas from (pre-Hawkes) Gieves, and in published letters called “Bunnies.”) After acquittal, his political career flatlined, but Thorpe was eventually welcomed back as an elder lion in Liberal Democrat circles.
Today our media still confuses the trappings of breeding and grooming – wardrobe and cultural loftiness – with moral and ideological worth. Don’t be like them. Don’t look back for ideas of what makes a gentleman, for what a gentleman was depended on society’s deference and selective blindness to privilege’s sordid predations. A Very English Scandal’s black-tie scenes in a casino in Blackpool drive that home. Today many style writers seem to long for the passing of black-tie occasions, of when formal evening dress was taken for granted. Those scenes, in the shabbiness of an English seaside resort town, as all the attendees leer in tuxedoes and black-tie at topless English Roses with gratifyingly earthy accents and right hooks, underline that seediness and tackiness don’t depend on dress codes.
A Very English Scandal is well worth a watch. Far beyond its sartorial semiotics, it shows how much more bizarre reality can be than fiction. But I hope it reminds readers and viewers that the past Arcadia of elegance and decorum was also a fiction: if we wish to believe in gentlemen, now is the time to create the superior moral codes we wrongly attributed to the past.