Jazz Tangcay Talks Vaseline, Frears and British Politics with Hugh Grant
For the American audience watching Amazon’s series A Very English Scandal, the odds are you weren’t aware of the 60s scandal that rocked British politics and would pave way for New Britain and the era of Thatcher. Jeremy Thorpe – a Liberal politician, 1960s Britain was accused of taking a hit out on his lover, Norman Scott.
Hugh Grant plays Thorpe and Ben Whishaw plays Scott in the Amazon series. Thorpe rose through the party, but behind the scenes, he was known to be a narcissist and people either loved or hated him. He was also a closeted gay man which in the 60s was a taboo, despite moves to decriminalize homosexuality in Britain.
Thorpe’s eventual downfall came when he stood trial for conspiracy to commit murder. Thorpe would be found not guilty and maintained he never had a sexual relationship with Scott, just an emotional one, refusing to admit it even up to his death.
The thrilling series streams on Amazon Prime and I caught up with Hugh Grant to talk about playing Thorpe and diving into the English scandal.
What do you remember about the scandal when you first saw it in the headlines?
I remember it being a source of great joy and merriment to us teenage schoolboys and really to the whole of Britain because it was such perfect Monty Python nonsense with The Establishment falling apart in front of our eyes.
All the jokes about vaseline and pulling your nipples, we all loved it.
It’s Eton. It’s Oxford. It’s as you say, The Establishment falling apart. Aside from that and the vaseline, what was it that attracted you to the script that lured you back to TV?
I was having dinner with Stephen Frears and we’d already done Florence Foster Jenkins. He asked what I was up to next, and I told him that there was something I might be doing in America. He said, “No, don’t sign up for that. I’m going to send you something.”He sent me the scripts, and my first reaction was, ‘What is this nonsense? It’s three scripts of television, and I don’t do television.’
I read them and they were, I have to say rather brilliant. I’m a man who hates everything. I didn’t understand what he wanted me to play. I called him back and said, “I don’t get it, what part do you want me to play?” He replied, “You idiot, Thorpe.”
Frears is very clever at seeing things in me that I don’t see. I had a long panic about it and thought I was too old. At the beginning of the series, Thorpe is in his early 30s and there I was at the age of 57 thinking this was absurd. I was persuaded out of my worries, and I did it and I’m glad I did.
What was it like to dive into the research for Thorpe?
It was quite fun. From being someone who was not interested at all in politics, through doing all that stuff eight years ago and having to get involved with politicians, I became very interested. So, to go back and research what was going on in Britain in the 60s and 70s, albeit that I was alive, I wasn’t taking much in. I thoroughly enjoyed the research, and I had tons of time to do it.
I did take a very deep Thorpe bath and met lots of people who knew him politically and personally. I watched a lot of footage and listened to a lot of his radio interviews.
Did you find that there were people who didn’t like him? What was the general feeling about him when you talked to people?
It was very strange. There were people who adored him who said that Jeremy would never hurt a fly and all that talk on ordering her murder was absolute nonsense. There were people who said he was very sinister. In the end, you find he was both.
How did you strike that balance in the performance?
I think it helps if you can help if you can find the tragedy of someone. He had two tragedies. He was closeted, and that can’t have been fun. All those decades of not being yourself in terms of sexuality. He was also a tremendous narcissist, everyone said that, even the people who adored him. I think that is a tragedy and pain as well because it stops you really connecting with people properly. The combination of those two things – not being able to be gay and not being able to connect because he was so obsessed with himself and his career, were quite lonely. I leaned on those things a bit.
Back then, life was so different. What was it like looking back at that era in history and that attitude towards homosexuality back then?
It’s amazing how different life was back then. You were in nappies, but I was a teenager and it’s incredible looking at it and realizing how utterly different everything was. I can remember chatting with my parents in the car when I was a teenager or younger. I asked about what homosexuals get up to and they’d say, “We don’t really know they get up to, but it’s not very nice.” It’s just amazing that it was such recent history.
Even my father, to this day, he’s an ex-soldier and he’s 90. I have dinner with him on Sunday nights and I went over when the show was on the BBC and he said, “Wait a minute, isn’t your buggery film on tonight?” I said, “It is, but I don’t think it’s really your cup of tea.” And he replied, “Nonsense! I’m a great supporter of yours. I’d like to see it.” He wanted me to show him how the TV works and wanted to watch it together. He was very nice. When we got to the vaseline scene, he went off to bed. [laughs].
You’re reunited with Ben for those scenes. What was it like shooting them?
I never really met him on Paddington, so I don’t really know him that well. There we were at 8 in the morning saying hello. Frears yells “action” and I’ve got my tongue down Ben’s throat. It’s an unusual way to earn a living.
Did your view of Jeremy change after you played him?
I don’t think I had a focused view of him before. I remember this character of him from Private Eye and all the scandal. It didn’t change much. You’re coming at it from two directions. One from the outside in where you’re watching all the footage. It’s very useful when you’re playing a part to have this YouTube footage. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the way he moved and the way he spoke. I loved the way he spoke because he was such a great orator and he thought of himself as great. He was. He enjoyed every vowel and syllable. He loved using his lips and tongue and palate. I enjoyed working with Daniel Phillips who did such clever things with my makeup.
I also tried to work out what his species was and his species, I realized was the last of The Establishment. In a way, that’s what that trial was. It was the turning point where The Establishment fizzled out and New Britain started. You see Thorpe expecting The Establishment to rally around the jury, the press, the public and exonerate him and send the impoverished homosexual away with the tail between his legs, but they loved Norman and hated Thorpe even though he got off. It was the last hurrah of The Establishment.
I knew those guys somewhat because some were friends of my mother from her Oxford days, they were quite Thorpish and reptilian. They were very smooth. I was very interested in his sense of humor. I kept reading that he was so funny and so amusing. Watching all his interviews and listening to his radio shows, I couldn’t find anything funny about him. People were laughing, but it wasn’t funny to me. Then I realized that he was dated, and that word became very important in finding the character. He was dated. It’s the end of that type of man, and they don’t exist anymore.
Things haven’t changed that much in the sense that he especially and those around him at the time, I think, were exactly the same type of people that I’ve been meeting during my act-off years, the parliamentarians who really are fantastically narcissistic. It’s showbiz for the ugly. I think they have a principle when they start and after a year, they completely dry up and you’re left with these desiccated beasts where everything is a strategic chess move to advance their career and their party.