‘A Very English Scandal’: Russell T Davies Interview

❉ Former Doctor Who showrunner on his major three-part drama for BBC One.

“It was a miracle really with Hugh Grant. I have always wanted to work with Hugh Grant. Always. I literally offered him Doctor Who in 2004. I told him that and he was like “really?!” He knew nothing about that. I love him. I think he’s one of Britain’s finest actors. I am quite serious about that.”

‘A Very English Scandal’, Russell T Davies’ major three-part drama for BBC One will begin airing on Sunday 20th May at 9pm on BBC1. The three-part series is an adaptation of John Preston’s novel centring on one of the biggest scandals in British politics.

What made you aware of this project? How did you get involved?

I was always drawn to this story. I was a teenager when it all kicked off and it was the first time I had ever heard the word homosexual on the news – or anywhere probably. There was a big gay story when I was a young lad, which was rare, so I had always had it in mind. Literally for the past 10 years I had tracked this story – I had asked around about making a version of it and people always had a reason why not. Eventually this book by John Preston came out – which was brilliant and perfect – the people who bought the rights for the book came to me and asked if I wanted to write it. So it just fell into my lap, having wanted it all this time. It was one of those magic things that just happened.

But, having always been interested in the story, when Blueprint contacted me I was in the middle of 27 things and I thought I was too busy, I thought I’d missed my chance and that someone else would have to do it. They were very clever because they said “I’ll just send you the book” and it arrived like a radioactive tablet sitting on my desk glowing. I started to read it and I’m not kidding, within about three pages I knew I was going to do it. I thought – I can’t sit and watch the television and watch someone else write this.

Did you do any further research?

I did do further research. To make something for transmission on the BBC you have to research everything again to prove that you have witnesses and verification for every story. So even though John Preston had done all of his research, we had to repeat a lot of it ourselves. We found out some new stuff and spoke to a lot of the people involved, including Norman Scott.

I think you approach this with a great awareness that although it’s a great story and is tabloid-y and it’s funny and sensational, actually these are real people. This really happened. The fascinating story, the consequences and the ramifications of this go on through the decades. They pass on to the children. They pass down the years. You have to be very responsible with it.

How did you condense the book into three episodes?  

It’s interesting for me to adapt a book. It’s such a well-written book; it was a joy to be leaping into it every day. Obviously you have to compress stuff and in the end I decided that three episodes would give us a beginning, middle and end which I thought was nice and neat.

There are a lot of books written about Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe and they’ll tell you what happened – but as a writer, I thought I’d tell you why they happened. If I have a career as a writer it’s through understanding people, having psychological insights and being able to understand why characters and people do the things that they do. That’s what I brought to it. That was what I hoped. I’m not just there to churn out what’s in a book; I’m there to bring my own take on it, understanding why these people do these things.

Actually, what I thought was the most important thing – this story has been told quite a lot of times, but I don’t think it has ever in any mainstream form told by a gay man. There are a lot of moments within this where I thought actually I have insight. I thought I can see where Jeremy Thorpe is coming from there, I can see where Norman Scott is coming from there. I can actually bring that experience to it and understand why these men did what they did. So I hope that’s worked.

What was the kind of tone you were aiming for when you were writing it?

The tone is very much the tone of the book, it’s John Preston’s tone. That’s why I loved it. I wanted to adapt it – I didn’t want to change that. It’s a very funny book. It’s unashamedly funny in places, in the way that life is funny. He’s not taking the mickey out of what happened, he’s not sending people up – it’s not a pastiche or satire on the British establishment. He’s got a very good, keen eye for those Alan Bennett twists that real life people have – those great British characteristics.

One of the bits that convinced me to do it was when at one point Norman Scott’s landlady sets out to help him. She turns up at the police station and walks up to the desk and says “Hello! I’m Mrs Edna Friendship.” That’s her name. That’s real. That’s not invented. She’s called Mrs Edna Friendship! Moments like that make you think – that’s so British and so funny and I want to do that.

At the same time you want to capture how dark it is. It’s not a comedy by any means. Bits of it are funny in the way that life is funny, but these are real people who went through real things. Not just Norman, but Jeremy Thorpe as well. They suffered from this and suffered through this. Sometimes it was their own fault, sometimes it was the world’s fault – you can make your own mind up about that. You have to be very careful and very tender with them.

Was it a difficult balance to strike? 

The balance between comedy and drama is probably why I was employed in the first place because it’s the way I tend to write. It’s the way I try to see life. It’s the way John Preston captures things on the page. Life can be mad. There are funny bits but these are real lives and there’s a tone of darkness, melancholy and frustration in these men. You have to understand that sometimes the funny stuff is the stuff that happens on the surface, while underneath there are great tides of emotion, repression, frustration and lust that are going on. That’s the great tide of your life ebbing away underneath it all. It’s capturing them both in balance with each other.

What do you remember of the appearance of Jeremy Thorpe? How has Hugh Grant been transformed to look like him? 

Jeremy Thorpe is quite a compelling man; he was always regarded as very handsome at the time. He had quite a distinct look – that hat, very famously his hat that he always wore was placed onto his coffin at his funeral. It was one of the last gestures towards him. There was a very strong image of Jeremy Thorpe and I thought it was magical when we got our first photographs of Hugh looking like that. It was quite a special moment.

Apparently it’s the shifting of the parting that does it. It’s a very great piece of work. It’s immensely subtle. It’s one those great pieces of work that I think all the design departments, costume, wardrobe and makeup, won’t get the credits they deserve because it’s invisible. A lot of people will think, oh there’s Hugh Grant. They won’t notice the way it has been done – it has been very subtly done. It’s a tricky balance because you’re not trying to hide that it’s Hugh Grant. But you are doing a service to who Jeremy Thorpe was and you’re doing a service to the past and the decades – the Sixties and Seventies. So there’s a lot of tiny, subtle changes going on that will pass you by – and that proves that it works.

How did you get Hugh Grant on board to play Jeremy Thorpe? 

It was a miracle really with Hugh Grant. I have always wanted to work with Hugh Grant. Always. I literally offered him Doctor Who in 2004. I told him that and he was like “really?!” He knew nothing about that. I love him. I think he’s one of Britain’s finest actors. I am quite serious about that. It took Stephen Frears to get through to Hugh Grant. Once you’ve worked with someone of Stephen’s stature, he just picks up the phone and says “Hugh, come and do this.” That’s the TV I’ve always dreamed of working in. It’s been immensely brilliant. I honestly think he is one of our finest actors and I can’t wait for people to see this. I think he gives an immeasurable performance. I think it’s a magnificent piece of work. You set that alongside Ben Whishaw, who was always one of our greatest actors as well – in a completely different way – and you get complete chemistry between them and a rhythm, which is gorgeous. It couldn’t have been better. I am absolutely delighted with it. I know Hugh Grant put an immense amount of work into it. An immensely hard worker. I am thrilled, I can’t wait for people to see it.

How about Ben Whishaw playing Norman Scott? 

It was brilliant to work with Ben. When I first set this up with the BBC and was having conversations about it. Charlotte Moore, who is head of all things at the BBC, said, “We’ll get Ben Whishaw.” I thought oh we’ll be lucky, that’s like go and get the Crown Jewels! And again, he read it, he read up about Norman Scott and we met him and he loved it. That was just a joy because he threw himself into a very difficult part, a difficult thing to take on. He’s done it brilliantly, absolutely magnificently. Never playing the victim, which is what I love about it because Norman Scott in some ways was the victim of events but in his life he is not a victim. I think Ben captures that perfectly.

Did you include any specific details for the time period in the script? 

There are nice little details in there sometimes… I discovered one date a phone call was made; I looked up the Radio Times online and discovered that Fawlty Towers was on that week for the first time. So we put that into the script. That was a nice little nugget, but it’s also true – it really was being transmitted then.

❉ ‘A Very English Scandal’ will begin airing on Sunday 20 May at 9:00pm on BBC One. 

❉ Written by the BAFTA winning writer Russell T Davies, based on the book by John Preston and directed by Academy Award nominee and BAFTA winner Stephen Frears, the BBC One three-part drama (3×60′) is executive produced by Dominic Treadwell-Collins, Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin for Blueprint Television and Lucy Richer for the BBC and produced by Dan Winch.


❉ Source: BBC Media Centre.

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