A Very English Scandal, Television Series, BBC

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A Very English Scandal is a 3 part series, a fictionalised retelling of a political scandal that took place in the UK in the 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberals for part of that time and he was a very well known politician throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s. He is alleged to have had an affair with a man named Norman Scott, this affair ended badly and Norman Scott threatened to tell all; to the police, the papers and Jeremy’s mother. When he began carrying out these threats, beginning with a detailed and graphic letter to the mother, Jeremy Thorpe is supposed to have hired a hitman to kill Scott. The hitman was incompetent, shot Scott’s dog instead and it all ended up in a well documented court case.

Lets just say that if you were to try and make up a salacious story to sell newspapers to the British public in the 1970s, you could hardly invent a story better than this. It had everything, its biggest difficulty would be convincing the readers that it was actually true. The court found them all not guilty, however from speaking to people who lived through the newspaper coverage, the accusations were believed by the general public and the feeling was that they were acquitted because of some biased summing up by the judge and the protection of “an old boys network” which was prevalent in political circles at the time.

Nevertheless, they were acquitted and this series is fiction because it assumes that they were all guilty as charged. It has Thorpe and Bissell plotting to kill Scott, something that Thorpe denied until his death, although Bissell gave evidence to the contrary.  Stephen Frears directed this, with great attention to detail, even without the story this is a beautiful period drama, the 1960s and 1970 are lovingly recreated in the clothes, the decoration, the speech, the attitudes. Russell T. Davies wrote the piece and he adds humour and wit to the dialogue, he peoples the back story with the eccentrics of the time, but basically sticks to the story as it was covered when it broke.  The narrative itself really didn’t need any embellishment, it was more a question of keeping it from being too outrageous.

Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, he is absolutely believable in the role of a suave, charismatic politician, with a defective moral compass, prepared to do anything to cling on to power.  Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, is a tougher sell, part naïve ingenue, part worldly manipulator. He is alternately the hurt boy led astray and the vindictive gold digger who knows how much his silence is worth, this is a thin line to walk – but in the end, he carries it off well. There are some great performances throughout the series, Patricia Hodge is wonderful as Ursula Thorpe, Jeremy’s indomitable mother.

There are some lovely, funny cameo roles as British eccentrics, David Bamber has a role as the 8th Earl of Bamber, with badgers running around his country house. He does appear to be as eccentric as his role suggests – he introduced both the homosexual reform bill in the House of Lords and a bill for the protection of Badgers. When asked why he thought that the first passed and the second failed, he is reported to have said, “Well, there aren’t any Badgers in the House of Lords”

Overall this is a admirable treatment of an incredible story, I was aware of the people involved in the story before watching, without any great knowledge of the detail. It gives insight into the political and social attitudes of the time, for example, it was more damaging to a political career to be accused of homosexuality than to be accused of murder. It is well written, entertaining and funny, with some great acting. It is on BBC I-player now and likely to distributed around the world in the near future. If you have any interest in politics, the 1960s and ’70s, attitudes to LGBT rights, Britain and British eccentrics, I think that you will enjoy this. Actually, even if you have no interest in any of those things, I think that this series is funny enough to entertain you.

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The Best Man by Gore Vidal, Playhouse Theatre, London WC2, 2018

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First produced on Broadway in 1960, The Best Man points at the flaws in the democratic system that we had then and that we still have today, namely that those who crave political power are the last people who should be given it. It is really interesting to note how it manages to be a period costume drama and a commentary on the machinations of political life today. The period part comes in the fact that political drama in the early 1960s was a much more static affair than we are used to now. Since “The West Wing” and “House of Cards”, rarely do we see anyone actually sitting and talking political ideas.

Gore Vidal is a fantastic writer, and even almost 60 years on, “The Best Man” is full of provocative ideas and stinging backhanded compliments.  It is insightful and witty and has a stellar cast. Martin Shaw shows great balance being righteous without being too pompous, he carries himself as though he believes he is better than the people who he hopes to vote for him, but has to work hard to avoid showing it.  Jeff Fahey is the Machiavellian, but he makes you understand that he realises this, and it is ok because he is doing it for the right reasons. Jack Shepherd almost steals the show as the outgoing President – this is a fantastic part, he gets to deliver some nice home truths to both sides and he plays it perfectly.

This being the early 1960s one would expect the women to be ancillary to the action, but Vidal was ahead of his time here, and the three leading ladies all have relatively meaty roles, and are aware of their importance in the political machine. Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks have very different roles as the respective senators wives but both are very convincing in what they do. Maureen Lipman is hilarious in a beautifully written cameo as Mrs Gamadge, who promises to bring “the women’s vote” to the candidate of her choice. She plays it so well and so much as we know her that it feels as though it could have been written for her.

Simon Evans has done a good job as director by ensuring that, although the play was written with one senator being the more honourable and the other being more murky, we see the faults in both. Apparently there was film of this play made in 1964, I will certainly be on the lookout for it because it will be interesting to see the difference 54 years has made in our perception of its ideas.

Unfortunately, I have come to this show late and it is about to close in London, but if it goes on tour after, I urge you to try and catch it, especially if you have any interest in politics – either American or British, and either current of historical. Recommended.

Zigger Zagger, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Wilton’s Music Hall, London

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From the second the opening whistle sounds and the cast of 50 begin their football chants, the audience is dragged in – to a world of youth tribalism, disaffection and tough choices. Wilton’s Music Hall is the perfect size for this play, large enough that the cast doesn’t outnumber the audience, small enough that the cacophony of sound envelops you to feel part of the crowd.

Zigger Zagger is a late 20th century parable, ostensibly about football hooliganism but also about loyalty and fitting in. The protagonist, Harry Philton, excellently played by Josh Barrow, is a school leaver searching for belonging and is drawn to the local football terraces. He is aware of its limitations as a life choice so investigates the alternatives.

Among these are: Police, Army, Religion, Apprenticeship and, settling down. These options are caricatured, often in musical or poetic form. Adam Smart is particularly funny as the Youth Careers Officer. In between each option we are brought back to the terraces for a song and each time we feel the allure of being part of the crowd.

The soundtrack is great, T.Rex, Mud, Bay City Rollers even the Sex Pistols. The crowd songs are classical and traditional, with some chanting thrown in for good measure. Zigger Zagger is a boisterous and entertaining evening, with some great performances, and an interesting reminder of a specific moment in this country’s development.

 

Apologia, Trafalgar Studios, London

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I went to the first night of the previews. I really enjoyed it. The action takes place over an evening birthday party and the morning after. It was a little slow to get started but after that, the first act is good; the script is funny, arch and sharp. It appears to be a play about nostalgia for the idealism of the 1960s and children with abandonment issues. However, the second act is transformative, I love how it turns your perspective on its head, we get to know the characters better and see their motivation differently. The play is really about women’s place in society, whether this has changed over the past 50 years and about the price people are willing to pay for attempting to bring about change.

The direction is simple, Jamie Lloyd lets the words speak for themselves. The set is clever, the stage is framed like a picture or perhaps the old photograph given as a birthday gift.  The whole cast is good, but this play is really about the women, Laura Carmichael and Freema Agyeman are both outstanding and Stockard Channing is amazing.

The writing is great and I will be looking out for other plays by Alexi Kaye Campbell. I guess there will be a few tweaks before the general opening, but it got a full standing ovation on the night I went. I hope the critics like it as much as I did and that Apologia is a huge success.

Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

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Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale.  It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.

It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.

 

Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.

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This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner.  It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.

While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making.  Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.

Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Old Vic, London 2017

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“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is funny, thought provoking and enjoyable, all in a single package.

The 3 main actors are remarkably good. I was surprised at what a major part the Main Player is, and David Haig is perfect, giving the impression that he knows the meaning or the outcome, unlike anyone else, but is unconcerned about it.  Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe are a wonderful double act, McGuire having a great verbal delivery and Radcliffe conveying so much with looks, gestures and shrugs. They complement each other very well here.

The play itself is also a star. It really does not feel like a revival, it does not matter at all that it is over 50 years old, it is timeless. The light touch direction was just what the piece deserves, to let the writing itself shine through.

This is a very good production of an excellent play with simple direction in a beautiful theatre. What more could anyone want?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2017

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Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf perfectly illustrates the difference between the questions “Was it good?” and “Did you enjoy it?”

This is a fantastic play, and a wonderful production of it. The acting was immense from all four characters. Imelda Staunton was as brilliant as you would expect, there is nobody better at making you understand the frailty of a dark, flawed individual, and she can change from a vicious harridan to a seductive, provocative vamp in the blink of an eye.  Conleth Hill was a revelation, he lives that part – how he can keep up that intensity for three hours per performance is incredible.

The direction is sparse, keeping you focussed on the people and the set is simple but effective. Three hours is long for such heightened emotions but the time flew by because of the compelling nature of the character interaction. However, it is comparable to watching a car crash in slow motion because, the farther you move into the play, the stronger the realisation becomes – that there can be no happy conclusion here. The only option is to sit and watch in morbid fascination, to see just how bad the casualties will be.

So, I did not enjoy it very much, it wasn’t written for enjoyment, but this does not prevent it being one of the best plays on in London at the moment.

The audience really appreciated their effort, it is a rare thing these days to see the whole audience stand in ovation from curtain down, but they did here, and this was truly deserved.

If you get the opportunity to see this production, I recommend that you gird your loins, prepare yourself mentally, but definitely go.