When asked why Hugh Grant was chosen to portray the disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe in BBC1’s A Very English Scandal, director Stephen Frears simply replied: “Well, he’s a toff, Hugh. You cast a toff to play a toff.”
It also probably helped that – thanks to clever make up and “racing round Richmond Park for four months” on a bike – Grant bears a striking resemblance to Thorpe, with his hollowed-out cheeks and 1970s hair.
And then there’s the factor that makes Grant’s casting feel almost inevitable: he is on every director’s speed dial when the role of the Charming Bastard comes up. Grant has won awards in this field: as playboy Daniel Cleaver in the Bridget Jones films and millionaire Will Freeman in About a Boy, to name a few.
His latest character, Thorpe, is perhaps the most Charming Bastard of them all. The Liberal Party leader at the centre of this drama notoriously went to trial in 1979 – and was later acquitted – for plotting to assassinate his secret gay lover Norman Scott (played by Ben Whishaw). In a bizarre and miraculous turn of events, the murder plot failed – only Scott’s beloved Great Dane, Rinka, was shot dead by a hitman terrified of dogs.
Thorpe’s charm and charisma saw him shoot up the ranks of politics and surround himself with government cronies who were so enchanted they were willing to go to extreme lengths to save Thorpe’s reputation. “He was fun. His mimicry was so good he could have been on stage. He was a great salesman,” one of Thorpe’s old allies, the Lib Dem peer Paul Tyler, told The Guardian.
Class, appearance and charm aside – Grant has his very own, typically self-deprecating explanation for his casting as Thorpe. “I’ve always tried to take whatever was the most entertaining thing in front of me at the time,” he says. “But it probably is true that getting older and uglier has made the parts, you know, more varied.”
On whether he’ll ever return to romantic comedies, the genre of which he became king in the 90s thanks to Richard Curtis films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, Grant chuckles: “That bird has flown.” That’s not to say that with this rare television role Grant is turning his back on movies – far from it. “I’m one of those sort of Luddites who misses celluloid and big screens, big cinemas, the spectacle of cinema,” he muses.
“I’m a little sad if everything just ends up being on Netflix. It’s a bit ‘blah’. It’s just telly. I miss the romance of cinema.”
Penned by Russell T Davies, A Very English Scandal may not be a rom-com as such, but it isn’t completely devoid of romance. Grant struggles to contain a smile at the memory of coming home to his children after a day of snogging scenes with Whishaw. “We did a whole love story really in a day and just went for it. I got a rash, I went home to my kids with a rash from Ben’s beard.”
The relationship between his and Whishaw’s characters in A Very English Scandal isn’t that dissimilar to the one they share in the second Paddington film – with Grant’s baddie trying to stamp out Whishaw’s outsider. “I’ve been trying to shag or kill Ben Whishaw for two years now,” Grant grins. “Tonight’s the night, I think.”
Grant was 18 years old when Thorpe’s trial, billed “the greatest show on earth”, began. But he was still a young boy when the rumoured affair made its way into the public realm. “It was all happening when I was at school,” says Grant. “And it was a source of much sniggering to schoolboys. The jokes were all good: ‘Join the Liberals and widen your circle.’ To lower 5T that’s pretty damn funny. So I do remember it. I remember the Private Eye covers and all that stuff.”
Now that Grant is playing Thorpe, he has come to understand the man’s “torment” and what could have driven him to order such a hit on Scott. Prior to the attempted murder, Scott had been threatening to expose his relationship with Thorpe at a time not long after homosexuality had been decriminalised in Britain. “For [Thorpe] to go to so much trouble to get the money for this thing, I think he wanted it done,” he says. “I think he was very, very, very, very tormented.
“You always have to try and understand the characters you play and I think he was really tormented. He married twice and he had a kid. When you feel your family is threatened, I think we’re all capable – whatever background we come from, however privileged or genteel – of quite surprising violence.”
Having had considerable insight into the inner workings of the political world thanks to his involvement with Hacked Off, the lobby group for press regulation, Grant also sees Thorpe’s ruthlessness and thirst for power in today’s leaders. “The motivations of politicians back in the 60s and 70s was really no different,” he says.
“I’m afraid their number one motive is always themselves and their career. ‘How do I get ahead? How do I move up the Westminster ladder?’ And that was certainly absolutely crucial to Thorpe. He was incredibly ambitious.”
A Very English Scandal begins on Sunday 20th May at 9pm on BBC1