Hugh Grant was finishing up his studies at Oxford in 1970s, when the scandal about British politician Jeremy Thorpe broke. "It was a source of much amusement and sort of schoolboy giggling at the time," Grant recalls.
Thorpe, also an Oxford man, was a savvy progressive, expected to make history as the leader of Britain's Liberal Party. But Norman Scott, a former groom and aspiring model, came forward to say he'd had a sexual relationship with the popular politician. Thorpe was later accused of hiring a hitman to murder Scott.
Thorpe was acquitted. He died in 2014, still denying the love affair and the murder plot. His life story is now the subject of a three-part miniseries called A Very English Scandal, which debuts in the U.S. on Amazon on June 29. The series stars Ben Whishaw as Scott and Grant as Thorpe.
"Frankly, I think we all expected members of the establishment such as Jeremy Thorpe to probably have some secret in their closet," Grant says.
Gay men lived in fear of exposure, Grant explains. "One of the things that the TV show sort of explores is how difficult it was for men in Britain in the early '60s if they were gay — you know, it was a criminal offense."
On whether Thorpe loved Scott
I believe he did. ... With Norman Scott, at the beginning [of their relationship], it did last almost a year, and I personally think that there was real love and affection. ... Men like Jeremy Thorpe, they had to live their life without the chance to really experience full-blown love in the physical way that they would like to, and that's a great sadness.
On Thorpe being the subject of public scrutiny, an experience that Grant has shared
He was undergoing unimaginable stress. You know, he was the leader of the Liberal Party. ... At that time [he] was married, he had a child. He was the most talked-about politician in Britain. He was a star and everyone thought he was extraordinary. And permanently nagging at him was this possibility of exposure of his secret. ... To feel the net of the law closing in on him slowly — the stress must have been absolutely unendurable, and I was able to use some of my own experience there, for sure.
On the generational difference between Scott and Thorpe
It was sort of dubbed the trial of the century. ... Thorpe's accuser, this outwardly self-confessed homosexual, Norman Scott, who was sort of camp and outrageous — someone that the establishment would expect to be sneered at and laughed at in court — actually captures the court's attention and admiration and is sort of admired by the public, by the press. ... It's a moment at which you sort of finally see the last flicker of the establishment die. The future for Britain is men like him, and the past is men like me.
On whether he believes Thorpe was telling the truth — that he never had a physical relationship with Scott, and he never plotted against him
I went to meet a lot of Thorpe's friends, relations and political colleagues before I made the program and I didn't meet one who would say that. There were some who said they felt he was innocent of the murder attempt and that he'd been misunderstood — and that was always his great defense in court ... it was just rhetoric, he didn't mean it, and his friends took him much too literally and tried to organize a murder. Some defend him like that. But, on the whole, the impression I got from the people who knew him was that he probably was capable of this as a very desperate man.
On enjoying success at this stage of his career
In the past ... I was lucky to make some commercial hits — but I am not sure that very many people wanted to give me prizes. Now, suddenly, in my old, gray years it's the other way around. ... Maybe the parts actually suit me better now that I'm older and uglier.
Sarah Handel and Barbara Campbell produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Jeremy Thorpe was savvy, stylish, progressive and marked to make history as the leader of Britain's Liberal Party. But in 1976, one of the most popular men in British politics was accused of having a homosexual relationship and later hiring a hitman to murder his accuser, a former groom and aspiring model named Norman Scott. Jeremy Thorpe was acquitted but unconvincingly. The story of his closeted life and the plot to keep it so it was portrayed in a posh and pointed three-part miniseries of the kind only British people seem to make. "A Very English Scandal," directed by Stephen Frears, debuts in the U.S. on Amazon next week. It stars Ben Whishaw as the wronged and nearly snuffed lover, and as Jeremy Thorpe - Hugh Grant, who's personified droll British charm in so many roles. Hugh Grant joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.
HUGH GRANT: Oh, well, thanks for having me, Scott.
SIMON: I did the math. I think you were at Oxford when the scandal broke about Jeremy Thorpe, another Oxford man.
GRANT: I was just finishing school. And yes, I remember it pretty well. It was a source of much amusement and sort of schoolboy giggling at the time.
SIMON: Well, what did it mean to Britain in the 1970s?
GRANT: Well, I think we were just coming out of sort of - you know, it was the very last remnants of empire and of having a great British establishment and everyone expecting an Englishman to behave. You know, we'd had the '60s. We'd had "Monty Python." And frankly, I think we all expected members of the establishment, such as Jeremy Thorpe, to probably have some secret in their closet. And sure enough, you know, his was spectacular because he not only had hid the fact that he was gay all those years, but he'd also, it appeared, tried to have his ex-lover murdered to save his reputation and his career and what he thought was the reputation of the Liberal Party at the time.
SIMON: There's not much you can say to defend someone who plots a murder, but it's sad to see in this series the fear that Jeremy Thorpe lived with that he would be exposed.
GRANT: Well, yeah, it's one of the things that the TV show sort of explores is how difficult it was for men in Britain in the early '60s if they were gay. You know, it was a criminal offense and just how extraordinary - what an extraordinary state of affairs that was, how difficult it was to legalize homosexuality. And - but even after it was legalized, social mores were still such that, you know - I mean, at one stage, my character, Jeremy Thorpe, says to Peter Bessell, his best friend - he says, I don't care if they, you know, legalize homosexuality. If anyone finds out about me, I'll put a gun to my head and shoot myself. And a lot of people felt that way, and a lot of men killed themselves when exposed.
SIMON: Do we also in this story observe, at least towards the end, a generational difference between Jeremy Thorpe, who was closeted, and Norman Scott, who increasingly is not?
GRANT: Yeah, that's exactly right. So the series culminates in this great trial at which Jeremy Thorpe's accuser, this self-confessed homosexual Norman Scott, you know, who was sort of camp and outrageous, someone that the establishment would expect to be sneered at and laughed at in court, actually captures the court's attention and admiration and is sort of admired and wins over my extremely clever barrister. And it's a moment at which you sort of finally see the last flicker of the establishment die. It's - the future for Britain is men like him, and the past is men like me.
SIMON: Critics pointed out you and Ben Whishaw are reunited in this series after you both played major roles in "Paddington 2."
SIMON: Different kind of film - so is that just the actor's life, or did you two joke about that, too?
GRANT: Well, I mean, it is weird that I have in effect spent the last three years trying to either kill or have sex with Ben Whishaw in one way or another.
GRANT: But, of course, on "Paddington," I barely saw him because he was the voice of Paddington and I - we didn't really encounter each other much. But we were in a film called "Cloud Atlas" together a few years ago with him as my wife lying in bed. So we have some history, Ben and I. But life - yeah, life's - the life of an actor is a very strange thing. You know, I like Ben, but, you know, I don't know him that well. And there I am at half past 7 in the morning, you know, licking his nipples and that is - that's my job. It's what I get paid for - quite odd.
SIMON: Excuse me (laughter). I need a moment to recover. Oh, mercy. A question I think will occur to a number of people, Mr. Grant, when they see Jeremy Thorpe having to pick his way out through a scrum of shouting reporters and photographers - you know that feeling too, don't you?
GRANT: Oh, yes. I've been there. And he was undergoing unimaginable stress. You know, there he was, the leader of the Liberal Party. They were doing well for probably the only time in their history. They had a real chance of having a say in government. And permanently nagging at him was this - the possibility of exposure and then having tried to have Norman Scott killed and the (laughter) - having had the murder attempt appallingly bungled in a very English, amateurish kind of way, then to feel the net of the law closing in on him slowly, the stress must be - must have been absolutely unendurable. And I was able to use some of my own experience there for sure. But the bit that was hardest is getting to the point of actually wanting to kill someone. That's pretty heavy.
SIMON: We should point out, of course, we need to say allegedly in this country, and he was acquitted.
GRANT: That's right. He was acquitted. We don't have to say it so much in this country because you can't libel the dead.
SIMON: The first time I think I saw you on screen, you played a boy in the stable yourself in "Maurice," the film. "Maurice" we sometimes say in this country.
GRANT: Yes, yes.
SIMON: Now just this year in your late 50s, you have earned raves from (laughter) my favorite comic performance in a long time in "Paddington 2."
GRANT: Oh, thank you.
SIMON: And now this drama. Are you enjoying this stage of your career?
GRANT: Well, yeah (laughter). I mean, everyone likes a bit of success. I'm only human. And maybe the parts actually suit me better now that I'm older and uglier. I don't know.
SIMON: Hugh Grant - he stars with Ben Whishaw in the three-part series "A Very English Scandal" from the BBC on Amazon. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Grant.
GRANT: Thanks very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.