A Very English Scandal: how we told the story of disgraced politician Jeremy Thorpe

The drama's executive producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins explains how he put together the BBC drama – and convinced Hugh Grant and Russell T Davies to come on board

A very english scandal hugh grant

Russell T Davies and I were sitting in my car on a hill in Exeter, looking at each other nervously. We were outside Norman Scott’s house. Norman Scott, a man about whom we had spoken and read so much over the past few months.

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We were about to spend the afternoon with Norman, getting his side of the Jeremy Thorpe story. It was the start of a massive journey as, over the next few months, we would meet relatives, employees and friends of the characters whose stories we were about to tell.

Russell looked at me, his head nearly touching the roof of my car, and grinned.

Here we go…

Bizarre but true

In June 2016, six months earlier, I’d first come across the story of Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott. I’d left the BBC after three years showrunning EastEnders and headed to Blueprint Pictures, the film company behind The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, In Bruges and the recent Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, to set up their television arm.

Blueprint already had a few exciting properties on the table, one of which was the rights to John Preston’s book A Very English Scandal.

I was born in 1977, two years after the attempt on Norman Scott’s life, two years before the trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the former Liberal Party leader accused of orchestrating it, which shook the UK. So I had no idea about this too-bizarre-to-be-believed tale of Norman and Jeremy.

It wasn’t just a brilliant story but also still so relevant today – a story of establishment cover-up, sex scandal and just how much powerful men think they can get away with. And often do.

Thorpe was a charismatic, clever, modern politician. His progressive speeches, warning about Russia’s power and pushing for the UK to embrace the EU, wouldn’t be out of place in the House of Commons now.

Personal life aside, he could have been a very good prime minister. And he very nearly was.

Telling Norman’s story

Different versions of the story had already been told – but they felt dry and old-fashioned. Preston’s book has an unmistakeable jaunt and style.

This couldn’t be a dry British period political drama. It had to feel naughty, relevant, funny and heartbreaking. So we needed a writer who’d embody all of this – someone unafraid of the controversial but with a massive heart.

If you ask a lot of TV viewers whom their favourite writer is, Russell T Davies’s name will come up. From the joyous, mischievous and bawdy Queer as Folk to the bold, in-your-face reboot of Doctor Who, Russell’s writing punches you in the stomach while giving you a bear hug.

This is a story about life, injustice, obsession, love – and being gay at a time when it was illegal. There’s a strange, obsessive love story between Norman and Jeremy that had never been told by a gay man before. No one else could write this story better than Russell.

He and I had begun a strange pen-pal relationship while I was running EastEnders. Russell loves telly, watches everything and has strong views on what he’s seeing. I’d get occasional emails from him either hooting and whooping about the Carters or unashamedly telling me where I’d gone wrong.

I looked forward to the Russell emails. And hoped that one day I’d get to work with him.

I emailed him about the Thorpe case and the book. I got a reply straight back saying he’d always been obsessed with the story but was far too busy to take on anything else at the moment… Russell had to tell this story; if he didn’t, I’d have always been left wondering what his version would have been.

So I asked if I could send him the book. Just let it sit there on his desk. Like a bomb. He’d enjoy reading it anyway… A few days later, I had an email. “God, this is good. Damn you. Rx.” I had him.

Cut to a few months later and Russell and I are sitting outside Norman Scott’s house in my car – a jeep. I’d always wanted a jeep “when I grew up” because of Queer as Folk, a show I’d secretly watched, closeted, at university, the show that made me realise I wasn’t alone. And here I was, sitting in it next to Russell T Davies himself, pinching myself.

Norman was brilliant, nervous and sceptical – and refused at first to speak about Jeremy Thorpe. But over lunch – Norman had once been a chalet boy and cooked us a chicken recipe from his repertoire – the story started to spill out. We laughed, we cried, we gossiped…

We came away knowing who Norman Scott was – but were also careful that we weren’t just telling his side of the story. We had to look at every source and speak to different people – as well as continually refer back to Preston’s A Very English Scandal as our primary source material.

Ben Whishaw plays Norman Scott in A Very English Scandal
Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott in A Very English Scandal

Once Russell’s scripts arrived (and he doesn’t need hand-holding; they arrive when he says they will and you could shoot them that afternoon if you had to), we knew we had something very special on our hands.

They were addictive, fruity, filled with farce and moments of huge pathos and anger. Lucy Richer at the BBC had commissioned the drama from us and been a huge guide since the project’s inception.

She gave the scripts to BBC executives Piers Wenger and Charlotte Moore and we were greenlit not long after. Amazon for the US swiftly agreed to a co-production, understanding the universality of this story. It was the right time to talk to the Americans about politics and sex scandals.

A very English direction

Going to a film company from the BBC, I really wanted my first development to be the perfect merging of film and TV, something that’s happening regularly now as the big and small screen come together.

So we needed a movie director. But before we could properly search, word reached us that Stephen Frears – British institution, director of iconic films such as Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, The Queen – had heard that we were telling the Thorpe story and was interested in directing for TV again.

Stephen knew the story well – and had already read Preston’s book. We sent him Russell’s script for episode one. The next day, he emailed us back, saying simply, “This script is terrific. I have two notes.”

He was on board. But who was going to play Jeremy?

Who is Jeremy Thorpe?

There had only been one name in our heads since reading the book. Hugh Grant. No one else had that wit, look, class, depth and skill. He was so very English – and had been taken for granted far too long.

Russell had always wanted to work with Hugh – and Stephen had just finished filming Florence Foster Jenkins with him. Stephen immediately sent Hugh the script. Hugh emailed a few days later. He was interested.

Jeremy Thorpe and Hugh Grant
Jeremy Thorpe and Hugh Grant

Stephen, Russell and I took Hugh to lunch. Hugh had already done his own research into Jeremy Thorpe and had an immediate intelligent take on him as a character. He was nervous of doing an imitation of Thorpe, but Stephen and Russell were firm that they wanted Hugh to embody Jeremy, not imitate him.

Hugh wondered whom we’d thought about for Norman. Again, there had been one name in our heads, someone who could capture Norman’s vulnerability while also retaining the audience’s sympathy during Norman’s darker moments.

Ben Whishaw – whom Hugh had spent the past few months trying to kill in Paddington 2 – and one of the finest actors working today.

Ben would later spend a couple of hours with Norman over lunch and come away with his exact mannerisms and the twinkle in his eye.

The truth… you decide

By the end of September, Manchester Town Hall had become the Houses of Parliament, Hugh was striding along the corridors in Jeremy’s trilby, Ben following behind him holding the dog playing Norman’s beloved Mrs Tish.

We’ve had to be extremely sensitive with the story we’re telling – so many people’s lives were touched by the actions of these men and there’s still a lot of hurt around. In a drama where truth is stranger than fiction, we had to be very careful to back up with several sources everything we’re saying. But that hasn’t stopped us telling a bloody good story.

We’ll leave the audience to decide for themselves what actually happened during those years between Norman and Jeremy. It will divide viewers with its tone because it’s not dry or worthy.

But that’s what a very British drama should be.

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This article was originally published in the 19-25 May 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine