Last week I watched one of the best TV programs I’ve seen in ages: the BBC’s A Very English Scandal, which is available on Amazon Prime. It’s based on the true story of Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), a rising English politician who is a closeted homosexual, and whose failed love affair with a lower-class man, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw) drives a plot to murder Scott to keep him from talking. This all happened in the UK of the 1960s and 1970s, in the period just before and just after the decriminalization of homosexuality. Here’s a Vanity Fair piece explaining what happened to the real-life lovers; don’t read it if you want to be surprised by how the three-part miniseries ends. Trust me, you do.
The tone is tragicomic, the writing exceptionally witty, and director Stephen Frears’ pacing at an gingerly trot. I can’t remember the last time Hugh Grant was this good in anything. His sinister character is a toff whose brittle layers of wickedness macerate in upper-class plumminess like baklava soaked in honey. and Ben Whishaw also finds extraordinary depths in his shallow, pouting character, rendering him both ridiculous and possessing unusual strengths — and even a kind of grandeur.
Though it is set a half-century ago, A Very English Scandal resonates particularly with our time, given the scandal emerging among the Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops. The drama is about a cabal of clandestine upper-class homosexual Englishmen who carry on their sex lives underneath the veneer of respectability. Jeremy Thorpe is rich, well-connected, and a member of Parliament: he can pretty much do what he wants to, as long as he is reasonably discreet. When Jeremy meets him, Norman Josiffe — he would later change his name to Scott — was working as a stable boy. They were lovers for some time before Thorpe threw Scott away, or so he thought.
Thorpe could be so reckless because he knew that the public would not believe that a respectable Establishment political leader would have gay lovers. He also knew that the Establishment — especially fellow closeted gay men within that Establishment — would do their best to protect him. A Very English Scandal is about the power of class and the closet. Though it does slip a bit into preachiness towards the end, as it paints Norman Scott a proto-hero in the fight for gay liberation, there’s no denying the fact that Jeremy Thorpe used a corrupt system for his own self-gratification, and corrupted others (like his Liberal Party colleague Peter Bessell, played by Alex Jennings, and the two wives Thorpe collected as beards) to protect his own privileged position.
For better or for worse, we have come very far from those days. I’d say mostly for the better. The light tone of A Very English Scandal dips into lower registers at times to make a point about the tragedies beneath the silly cat-and-mouse games Thorpe and Scott play with each other. A Tory MP explains in one scene that he has become a campaigner for decriminalization because he believes Britain’s laws drove his gay brother to suicide.
The end of the closet has made stories like this fairly antique, at least in the UK, though perhaps less so here. Except, of course, among the elites of the Catholic Church. Theodore McCarrick got away with being a gay archbishop, rising to the rank of cardinal, even though his predatory homosexuality was not exactly a secret among his class. He was an unusually good liar, which helped, but he also benefited from many of the privileges that accrued to his class, by virtue of his rank and institutional identity. If McCarrick had simply been a lonely Catholic prelate in love with a man, it still would have made him a hypocrite, but many people would have found that forgivable. But in his case, he used his privileges to prey sexually on others — most horribly, on a boy named James, whose parents trusted the Church and Father McCarrick without question.
If you think McCarrick was the only one, you’re daft. An as yet unexplored (by the media) aspect of the abuse scandal is the role secretive gay networks among the clergy — especially senior clergy — played in concealing and facilitating, however inadvertently, the sexual abuse of minors. Because A Very English Scandal is so amusing, it’s easy to forget that Jeremy Thorpe conspires to have Norman Scott killed to protect his reputation and preserve his power. It’s not the same as murder, but the history of the sprawling Catholic abuse scandal is full of stories about the psychological and legal torture, and even the spiritual murder, of those used and abused by sexually predatory clergy, and whose testimony threatened the power and prestige of the Church and its Jeremy Thorpes.
We may be on the verge of this system breaking down. I’m not sure how it will happen, or if it can happen without the mainstream media taking an interest in the story, and pursuing it. It may take one or more figures like Norman Scott: gay men who no longer want to play the game, and who, whether from creditable or cynical motives, choose to speak out against closeted priests and bishops who have hurt others to preserve their privileges.