TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. On Friday, Amazon begins streaming a new British miniseries called "A Very English Scandal." It stars Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe, a leading Liberal Party politician whose career is threatened by his affair with a young man played by Ben Whishaw. It's a true story. And our critic at large, John Powers, says that it's irresistibly smart and entertaining.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: We hear a lot of talk about the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, mainly in foreign affairs, yet nowhere is the relationship more special than in television. I sometimes think PBS would have to shut down if it couldn't import shows like "Downton Abbey" and "Sherlock." Americans are especially fond of shows that reflect Britain's obsession with its national history where our shows about the past too often sink into toothless earnestness. Something like "The Crown" crackles with a sense of playfulness, of fun.
There's fun galore in "A Very English Scandal," a three-part BBC miniseries streaming on Amazon. Based on the book by John Preston and directed by the canny old vet Stephen Frears, the show tells the story of the Thorpe affair, a 1970s tabloid fiesta that brought together politics, illicit sex and a criminal trial that left England gobsmacked with its revelation of details too risque for me to repeat here.
The year is 1965, and Jeremy Thorpe, played by Hugh Grant dipped in 5 o'clock shadow, is an MP who dreams of leading the Liberal Party and becoming prime minister. Rakishly decked out in Edwardian suits and a tiny hat, the vain Thorpe boasts slippery charm and the impeccable connections of an Old Etonian. Yet, he also cultivates a streak of louche recklessness - especially in his private life, where he's sexually drawn to what his MP pal Peter Bessell, played by Alex Jennings, terms the spear's side. That is, he sleeps with men - risky business at a time when homosexuality is still illegal and can get you imprisoned.
But when he meets a winsomely attractive stable boy Norman, played by Ben Whishaw, he lures him into bed - at Mama Thorpe's house no less - and begins a love affair with the young man he calls Bunny. Alas, Norman is one of those hapless sorts who, with good intentions, winds up causing headaches for everyone, including himself. When they break up, Norman spends years going from mess to mess. He starts telling people about the affair - threatening both Thorpe's career and the marriage he entered into to advance that career. Here, Peter Bessell asks Thorpe how they should handle Norman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL")
ALEX JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) Then what do we do?
HUGH GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) We get rid of him.
JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) How?
GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) We could scare him. My friend David should know some men.
JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) What? To rough him up, do you mean? I'm not sure that would work.
GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) Norman? He'd be terrified, which is pathetic.
JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) I'm not sure. It's an easy mistake to make. He's effeminate. Therefore, we think he's weak. But that man sits in pubs and clubs and houses and hotels telling all the world about his homosexuality - out loud, all day long. It doesn't bother him who's listening - priests or housewives or landlords or anyone. He tells the truth and doesn't care. No one else does that, Jeremy - no one, certainly not us. In this whole land, there is Norman and Norman alone. To be blunt, he amazes me. I think he's one of the strongest men in the world.
GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) Well, in that case, there's only one thing we can do - kill him.
JENNINGS: (As Peter Bessell) Oh, if only we could.
GRANT: (As Jeremy Thorpe) No, I mean it.
POWERS: Thorpe's words unleash a dark comedy of ineptitude, betrayal, chicanery, ruination, unexpected death and misbegotten justice. Much of what happens is quite funny. Yet, just when the action risks plunging into farce during part two, Frears definitely begins reining things in. By the end, the whole show is tinged with a sense of sadness - even tragedy. This is, in no small part, due to its terrific lead actors. Jennings, who's best known as the Duke of Windsor on "The Crown," gives us a Bessell who's a mixture of archness, anxiety and tarnished decency. Whishaw is even better, capturing Norman in his many quicksilver manifestations - innocence, impetuousness, desperation and truth-telling righteousness.
As for Grant, few actors have ever seemed happier to shake off the persona that made them famous. Having escaped the rom-com prison on "Notting Hill," he's begun to soar as the unexpectedly tender husband of Meryl Streep's "Florence Foster Jenkins" and the hammy villain in "Paddington 2" - whose teddy bear hero, incidentally, is voiced by Whishaw. Here, Grant brilliantly gives us the inner Thorpe in his kaleidoscopic emptiness - from campy bonhomie to soiled ruthlessness to - surprise - his own occasional feelings of love.
Without belaboring the point, Frears and company make us see how the Thorpe affair wouldn't have happened had homosexuality been treated as a normal part of life instead of as a crime - a reality that drives Thorpe to act on sociopathic tendencies he already possessed. Yet, the show also reminds us that Norman is doubly victimized because of his place in the British class structure. Although Thorpe is clearly a lying scoundrel, the establishment closes ranks around him because he's one of the right sort. Norman is not. He's an honest nobody. And the powerful treat him as little more than roadkill to be mocked and ignored.
Still, history always gets the last word. And by the end of "A Very English Scandal," you may well think it's the impetuous Norman, not the acclaimed Thorpe, who's the more honorable man. Indeed, their destiny seemed to bear out the truth of the lines that Oscar Wilde - who himself fell afoul of Britain's homophobic laws - wrote while in prison. To speak the truth is a painful thing, Wilde said. To be forced to tell lies is much worse.
GROSS: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and Vogue.com "A Very English Scandal," starring Hugh Grant, begins streaming on Amazon this Friday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, W. Kamau Bell returns. He has a new Netflix standup comedy special called "Private School Negro." His CNN series "United Shades Of America" is in its third season. And he has a new web miniseries investigating his ancestry and turning up some big surprises, including one about his white great-great-grandfather. I hope you'll join us.
Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON AND DAVE HOLLAND'S "SEASCAPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.