Ian McKellen was asked to play the judge who presided over Jeremy Thorpe’s trial in A Very English Scandal, the director of the BBC drama has revealed.
The three-part series tells the real-life story of disgraced Liberal Party leader Thorpe (Hugh Grant), who in 1979 was put on trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder his secret gay lover, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw).
Sir Joseph Cantley presided over the trial and became infamous for his condemnation of the witnesses and in particular Scott of whom he stated, “he is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite”, before adding: “but of course, he could still be telling the truth.”
The extraordinary speech became so notorious that Peter Cook memorably parodied it.
Paul Freeman portrays Cantley in the BBC series, but as director Stephen Frears revealed at a Q&A following a screening of the drama, McKellen was first choice for the role – but turned it down.
As Frears explained: “The hardest part [of casting] was the judge. We asked Ian McKellen to do it as some sort of complicated gay joke, he wouldn’t do it.”
Frears went on to say that McKellen decided not to take the part as comedian Cook had done such a brilliant sketch of the judge.
“I said to [Ian McKellen] the other day, ‘You wouldn’t do it because you were frightened of Peter Cook, weren’t you?’” said Frears. “And he said, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ He knew Peter Cook had nailed it.
“Peter Cook did his famous pastiche of the judge, the prejudiced judge, it’s very, very funny and Ian knew perfectly well. I was at Cambridge with Ian and indeed with Peter, and so it was a distant memory.”
A Very English Scandal begins on Sunday 20th May at 9pm on BBC1