Ben Whishaw holds a small dog in a scene from A Very English Scandal

In ‘A Very English Scandal,’ Sincerity Is the Most Scandalous Trait Possible

At first blush, the BBC/Amazon-produced show A Very English Scandal seems to be about what so much of British storytelling is about: money and social class. The show is based on true events in the life of British MP Jeremy Thorpe and, more specifically, author John Preston’s telling of the story of Thorpe’s political downfall. Fans of John Preston’s novel The Dig and the film of the same name know how adept he is at exposing the personal tragedies and social inequalities packed inside sensational moments in British history. (The Dig explores some of the class inequities involved in the monumental discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure). 

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A Very English Scandal is in part about social class as it pits a financially insecure man against a wealthy, privileged member of Parliament. When MP Jeremy Thorpe first meets Norman Scott, the man who will become first his lover and later his nemesis, Scott is cleaning out horse stalls and seems to have no other plans for himself or his life. When their entanglement eventually comes to trial, Scott describes himself as a country innocent corrupted by Thorpe, and that rings true. The course of Scott’s life is completely dictated by a wealthy man showing up and choosing him for an extended sexual dalliance.

During the time they are together, Thorpe pays for Scott’s apartment and the drug habit Scott develops during his time as Thorpe’s secret lover. Scott eventually cuts off the affair, saying he is going to get his life together and strike out on a productive direction on his own. All he needs from Thorpe is assistance getting his National Insurance Card (the equivalent of working papers) so he can become gainfully employed. Thorpe, however, has no interest in helping his former sexual partner, and when Scott won’t quit showing up asking for help, Thorpe embarks on a botched attempt to have Scott killed.

In addition to exposing class inequality, A Very English Scandal illustrates the shame and fear of being gay in that time and place. The scandal took place not long after homosexuality was decriminalized in England. Though no longer a criminal identity, Jeremy Thorpe’s meteoric rise in politics is dependent on a closeted life. The show presents other members of Thorpe’s elite milieu doing the same thing, keeping “deviant” sexual identities a secret in order to remain successful.

The only real truthteller is the story is Norman Scott, who shows up in court and owns his identity, answering questions about his sexuality without lies or apologies. At this point, Norman Scott, who comes across throughout the show as somewhat pathetic, redeems himself and becomes a character worth cheering on. He’s even cheered on outside the courts by members of the fledgling gay rights movement. Where Scott stands apart from the rest of the characters is that he owns his identity and sexual appetite. This candor, even more than being gay or working class, seems to be the unpardonable sin.

Season two of the show picks up this same theme. A Very British Scandal tells the story of the much-publicized divorce of Margaret and Ian Campbell, Duke and Duchess of Argyle. It’s a story devoid of truly likable characters. Ian Campell is an abuser of multiple substances which unlock or reveal his vicious personality. His multiple ex-wives recount his habit of wedding wealthy women, bleeding them dry, then discarding them.

Margaret is really not much more endearing. At the start of the series, she meets Ian, falls in love with his property, Inveraray Castle, and promptly dumps her current husband to make the castle her project and her home. She is the lesser evil of the two, for sure, because she lacks the streak of violence and cruelty that Ian routinely unleashes. But she comes across as grasping and materialistic. 

But just like Norman Scott, she is denied justice in court and for the same reason. At one point, Margaret admits out loud to a social rival that she likes sex and she’s good at it. Rather than being a balanced look at how they’ve wronged one another, the divorce case becomes a witch hunt of an openly sexual woman 

What wins the viewer’s sympathy for Norman and Margaret is the fact that they own their sexual selves without apology. Neither of them sees justice in court because they both affirm the truth of their sexual pasts. To be sure, the show shines a light on forbidden sexual desires, and who is allowed to have desires in the first place (straight men) and who is not (gay people and women). Norman and Margaret are not really heroes but they do undertake a herculean task that ends up casting them in a heroic light—the task of being sincere.

(featured image: BBC/Blueprint Television)


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