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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Langan’s Brasserie, Stratton Street, London W1

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Langan’s Brasserie has been in Stratton Street since 1976. It was a favourite of mine in the 1980s but I think I haven’t been in over 25 years. I am surprised how little has changed in that time and more surprised at how that pleased me, it was like unexpectedly bumping into an old friend in the street.

Langan’s is smart without being pretentious, don’t expect anything big or flashy, but they do what they do very well. It is the perfect restaurant for a special occasion, or if there is a large group meeting for a meal. On arrival, we were shown to a lounge area, to order a drink while we awaited the rest of our party. When everyone had arrived, the Maître D’ showed us to our table while the waiter transferred our drinks.

The décor, if my memory is accurate, is still as it was in the 1980s. This consists of plain cream walls covered in mixed photos, paintings and magazine sketches. One wall has many large windows, making the room bright and airy at lunch or in the early evening. The tables are set with white linen tablecloths, good quality crockery and glassware. The room feels smart when you enter. The menu is a mixture of French and English dishes all well known. The soufflé with anchovy sauce is wonderful and the Caesar salad is excellent. Both of these are quite substantial for starters. The main course portion sizes are big too, there is nothing too unusual on the list but we had five different main dishes at our table and each one was prepared very well.

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The wine list is extensive, a surprising amount of them are served by the glass. The service was really very good, there are plenty of staff, they seemed unhurried but were always there when we needed them. The actual menu itself is attractive, designed by David Hockney. The restaurant was quite full and, although we ate early, we never felt rushed, or that the table would be needed again at a certain time, I believe that we would been allowed to linger as long as we wished.

Langan’s is not cheap, but it is very centrally located and the food, service and ambience are reliably good. It is the perfect example of a great 1980s London/Paris Brasserie and long may it continue to be so. I hope that I will not have so long between visits in future.

The Pass (dir. Ben A. Williams) 2016

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The Pass is a film adaptation of a play that was a big hit when it played at the Royal Court Theatre in 2014. I have to imagine that it comes across better in the intimate surroundings of a small theatre. The premise is good, the timing is right for a movie about a closeted gay footballer, but this is not that movie. Had it been made in the 1970’s or 1980’s it would probably have been ground-breaking and interesting but at this moment we do not need a film about a selfish gay soccer star made bitter by the possibility that he might have missed out on true love.

The film is directed by Ben A. Williams and he sticks rigidly to the three act, three hotel room setting of the play. This increases the impression of it being a filmed version of a theatre play and puts another step between us and the action.

Although there are four characters in this film, two of them are two dimensional ciphers. The lap dancer, Lyndsey,  and the male groupie, Harry, are just there to use and be used. Ade, the player turned plumber, is well acted by Arinze Kene, but this film is ultimately about Jason, who is excellently portrayed by Russell Tovey. He develops into the true antihero, without a single redeeming feature. We watch him go from, a not particularly nice, 17 year old to, a harsh and vitriolic, 28 year old over the course of three acts. That is the real problem with this film, we never really liked him in the first place so we don’t really empathise with him.  He doesn’t care about anybody, he uses his wife, his child, his lap dancer, his fan and ultimately even his mate Ade. He chooses lifestyle over fulfilment, so when he is unfulfilled we aren’t particularly surprised or worried.

I had such high hopes for this film, it had so much going for it, and don’t let me take away from an outstanding performance by Russell Tovey, but so many movies made from the 1930s to the 1990s are full of flawed gay characters whose life is ruined by the fact that they can’t cope with the trauma of being queer, and I had hoped that we had moved on from that.

The Hippopotamus (dir. John Jencks) 2017

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“The Hippopotamus” the novel came out in 1994. At the time the book was mildly shocking, moderately funny and quite witty. Stephen Fry was at the height of his popularity, he was clever, droll and sharp. 23 years later and everything has changed, the storyline is slightly distasteful, the writing seems bland and the dialogue is pompous.

Roger Allam is good as Ted Wallace, a washed up poet who investigates a series of miracles taking place in a country house, but he is just about the only good thing about this film. As a comedy it is remarkably banal, his vicious put downs and arch insights fall flat because everyone in the film has some major character flaw that makes the shot too easy to be funny.

The most interesting thing about this movie was trying to work out what had changed in the intervening years, that made the experience of watching it in 2017 so different to reading it in 1994. In the end, I decided that there was a combination of factors conspiring against it. Watching it over an hour and a half  as opposed to reading it over a few days, intensified the characters, made them less rounded, and as the flaws were the part that was important to the storyline, these were the traits that were magnified.  My taste has changed, and although I still enjoy a barbed riposte, I prefer it when both sides have the wit to take part. Sitting ducks make unexciting targets. Attitudes have changed in the last 23 years too, and the story that was shocking, but quite funny in 1994, appears borderline abusive now in 2017.

These things go in cycles, and although Stephen Fry’s star is on the wane currently, in the future he may again be recognised as a major talent. However, at the moment there is not much to recommend this film – save it to watch in 2040.

 

 

 

The Albert Square Chophouse, Manchester.

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This restaurant is very centrally located – in a beautiful solid brick building, on the corner of Albert Square. The entrance is up a few steps to a nice bar space with a mixture of sofas and chairs. The restaurant is downstairs, it looks impressive as you descend, an industrial sized room filled with fully set dining tables, booths and banquettes. The windows are set high and the kitchen is open and visible from the dining room. The walls of both floors are lined with photos of Manchester luminaries, some recognisable others less so.

The menu is traditional British. The corned beef hash cake is a great starter, meaty and comforting. I had a rib eye steak and it was flavourful and tender, one of the best steaks that I have had. The steak and kidney pie was reportedly great too, done in the old fashioned way with suet in the pastry.

The wine list looked good, the house rose was excellent. They have a full bar, so the selection of beers is good too. The service was friendly and helpful. It is not a cheap restaurant, but everything they do is high quality, so definitely a meal to sit and savour. This is a venue for a night out, to enjoy the evening and chat after.

We ate early, 6pm, so we managed to get in without booking, but it was quite full by the time we left, so I would imagine it would need to be booked if you wanted to eat at a more popular time.

We thoroughly enjoyed it and will be back next time we are in Manchester.

The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock) 1938

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The Lady Vanishes is a 1938 comedy/thriller classic of the British Film Industry. It was Hitchcock’s breakout success and convinced David O. Selznick to offer him a seven feature deal in Hollywood. It was Michael Redgrave’s first movie part. Margaret Lockwood was already a leading lady, but this was her biggest film to date. It is also notable for being the first appearance of Charters and Caldicott a cricket obsessed comedy duo who were very famous throughout the 1940s.

The film was a huge hit, not only in the UK but also in the US, where it won the New York Times award for best film of 1938. The crime/suspense element of the film is very good with a very clever intricate story. The comedy is genuinely funny, the leading couple have great chemistry and their bickering is arch and witty. The supporting characters add to the entertainment, whether its the whimsical humour of Wayne and Radford as Charters and Caldicott, the slapstick of  Emile Boreo as the Hotel Manager, or even the awkward situational comedy of “Mr and Mrs” Todhunter.

This movie is almost 80 years old, so there are parts which seem unsophisticated from a modern perspective, but for me, this adds to its charm. I love the opening scene, where the avalanche has delayed the train. To our refined eye, it is patently a set up model, but although we know this, it works perfectly well and sets the stage to start the story.

It is one of the films that contains the traditional Hitchcock cameo, very near the end of the film, he appears on Victoria station. Although he was nominated at the Academy awards, as best director, five times, he never won any of them. So this movie was his only award for best director, he won the New York Times award in 1939. This film is a significant piece of British cinema history as well as being a very enjoyable watch.

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Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh) 2011

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Weekend is a beautifully written and wonderfully acted film. It was made and set in 2011. Two guys hook up in a bar on a Friday night and the film is the story of their gradually developing relationship between then and Sunday evening. Although In many ways it is a universal love story, it is firmly rooted in the British urban bar scene of the time, both in the casual drug taking and in the way that they have sex first and then begin to get to know each other afterwards. Andrew Haigh, the director has gone for ultra realism in his film style and this almost feels like a documentary in places.

The two leads, Tom Cullen and Chris New, both put in great performances, as they need to for this realism to work. They are fully committed to their characters and you believe in them wholeheartedly, coming to care for them as they risk sharing their vulnerabilities with each other. It is a warm film, and we get to know them, as they get to know each other. They both appear well rounded and honest, even though our knowledge of them is limited, and we want their burgeoning trust in each other to be repaid.  However it is a cold world and they have known each other for a weekend…………

This is not just a gay movie, but Weekend is one of the best British Gay Films and deserves to be commemorated as such. It is currently showing at Picturehouse Central as part of the 50 years since decriminalisation series. It is also showing on the BFI player as part of their LGBT+ series, also commemorating 50 years since partial decriminalisation. Whatever platform you choose to see it on, it is certainly worth watching.