The stars have very much collided – both on and off screen – in BBC1 drama A Very English Scandal.
Starring Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw, the three-part biopic of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, is written by Russell T Davies and directed by Stephen Frears. Talent is sprinkled throughout the project; for example, the cinematographer is Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech), while it is produced by Dan Winch (Broadchurch).
Fittingly for a production which melds talent from the big and small screen, it’s also the first drama from Blueprint Television, the new TV arm of film producer Blueprint Pictures (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
The genesis of the project dates back to 2016, when Blueprint acquired the rights to John Preston’s well reviewed book about Thorpe.
Former EastEnders boss Dominic Treadwell-Collins had just arrived as the new head of Blueprint Television. He sent a copy to Russell T Davies, who says he had always been interested in the Thorpe story. It was, says Davies, a “big gay story when I was a young lad, which was rare, so I had always had it in mind.”
Intitially, though, he thought he was too busy to take it on. But when the book arrived from Blueprint, he says it sat like a ‘radioactive tablet’ on his desk. “I started to read it and I’m not kidding, within about three pages, I knew I was going to do it.”
With Russell T Davies on board, Treadwell-Collins pitched the project to BBC senior drama commissioning editor Lucy Richer, who quickly said yes to the project. Amazon later took US rights.
Meanwhile, Blueprint’s film contacts led to Stephen Frears. The combination of Frears and Davies in turn attracted more talent. Frears, for example, had recently worked with Hugh Grant on comedy drama Florence Foster Jenkins.
Treadwell-Collins says he knew the combination of Frears and Davies wouldn’t necessarily make for an easy ride during production. “You’ve got two geniuses – two men who are utter perfectionists.”
He recalls turning on his phone at 7am in the morning, and seeing a stream of late night emails between Frears and Davies. “You would see a very clever, very passionate argument raging through the night. And eventually they would both find a way of agreeing on the way forward.”
That, he adds, was the attraction of working with them – although he and producer Dan Winch have a few more grey hairs as a result. “Brilliant people aren’t always going to lie back and agree with each other. You want the argument because you want the best possible result at the end. In an age when so much TV is being made, you want to be A*, not B+.”
Treadwell-Collins said a key early appointment was a producer ‘who could handle all this and be practical on the ground’. Winch boarded A Very English Scandal last June, ahead of a 10 week shoot which wrapped in early December.
One of Winch’s first jobs was to lock in key heads of departments – such as production designer Helen Scott, costume designer Suzanne Cave and make up artist Daniel Phillips. Then it was about making sure that everyone was ‘clear on the ambition of Russell’s scripts and Stephen’s vision’.
Costumes and make up were key. Hugh Grant spent hours in make-up tests to create a likeness of Thorpe. Plenty of research went into costumes too. “It’s very easy to research costumes, but a whole other level of achievement to make the artists feel like they belong in the costumes, and are not caricatures,” says Winch.
Treadwell-Collins credits Hugh Grant with ‘forensic levels of research’ when approaching the part of Thorpe. “He doesn’t just imitate him, but embodies him.”
Based at Ealing Studios, the production – which had a cast and crew of around 100 – also filmed in Devon, Wales, the outskirts of London and Manchester, where the Town Hall doubled for Parliament.
DoP Danny Cohen filmed with a Red camera. He sought to bring out the vibrancy and colour of the period, rather than the browns and dark oaks of so many political dramas. This was also emphasised in the grade at Goldcrest, which handled post production. The Flying Colour Company looked after visual effects.
The vibrant look in many ways mirrors the drama’s tone. But, because it’s a true story, the drama needed ‘one foot on the ground,’ says Treadwell-Collins. “Stephen very much brings that to it – it is lavish and real and true.
Russell’s writing is also lavish and true, but Russell has the tone of John Preston’s book which is more rambunctious. As such, he reckons A Very English Scandal captures the essence of the writer and director. “It’s as if Russell motors along and Stephen, the slightly older man, just goes, ‘Slow down there…’”
A Very English Scandal (3×60-mins) is the true story of the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy to murder. It is the late 1960s, homosexuality has only just been decriminalised, and Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), the leader of the Liberal party, has a secret he’s desperate to hide. As long as his ex-lover Norman Scott (Ben Wishaw) is around, Thorpe’s brilliant career is at risk.
Writer Russell T Davies
Director Stephen Frears
Exec producers Dominic Treadwell-Collins, Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin for Blueprint Television and Lucy Richer for the BBC Producer Dan Winch
DP Danny Cohen
First assistant director Chris Stoaling
Make up & hair Daniel Phillips
Production sound mixer Alistair Crocker
Editor Pia Di Caula
Casting Leo Davis, Lissy Holm
Location managers Alex Gladstone, Matt Winter
Original music Murray Gold
Camera Red Weapon Helium S35
Post production Goldcrest
VFX The Flying Colour Company