I never got into the BriTV craze. Not saying there’s anything wrong with British TV; the moment for me just never came when I could be like, “I am a lover of British TV now.” I love British novels. I am astonished at the number of classic British novels that’ve been turned into TV series. I mean when you’ve turned CRANFORD and DOCTOR THORNE into TV shows, that’s definitely a commitment to keeping your own culture alive.
Which is a long way of saying that I just watched A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL, which is a BBC show that I think Amazon is involved in somehow (anyway it’s on Amazon), and it’s only three episodes long, and it was so good. Whoever cast Hugh Grant in this role was a genius. He isn’t really acting. He’s just being the same smarmy and adorable Hugh Grant that we all remember from the 90s and early oughts, except instead of wooing Julia Roberts, he’s trying to kill the former lover who’s attempting to out him.
The show has the curiously British quality of being a show about politics and politicians in which there’s very little actual political content. I first noticed this with Trollope’s Palliser novels, but you can also see it in Yes, Minister and in Middlemarch and, really, in any British book that touches at all upon the political system. At least in their fictive treatments of politics, they don’t really spend too much time thinking about ‘issues’ or ‘ideology.’ It’s much more about personal character: honesty, integrity, and honor. That’s why they love to write about war-time governments. Because when all the parties are united in prosecuting a war, you finally have a playground on which all these personalities can come together and clash and squabble. (Whereas the American way, in which during wartime we give our President effectively unlimited power, is much less dramatically interesting).
Anyways, the show is about the leader of the Liberal party (a fairly marginal third party) who throughout the 60s and 70s has to dodge the attempts of a former lover to out him. Hugh Grant is a delight to watch, but Ben Whishaw really gives the series’ command performance. His Norman Scott is just so multi-faceted. Right from the beginning he comes off as slightly mentally unhinged, and everything bad that’s ever said about him–that he’s cowardly, unstable, publicity-made, etc–has an element of truth. But, as the series points out, the exact opposite is also true. He’s also strong, stalwart, and publicity-averse. And yet there remains an essential unity to his character. By the time the show is over, you do feel as if you understand him, and you feel as if you’ve seen him grow. It’s certainly worth watching.