Ben Whishaw on playing Norman in ‘A Very English Scandal’

Ben Whishaw won a Golden Globe this year for his role as the ex-lover who plagued the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder –  in "A Very English Scandal".

With the three-part mini-series now streaming on Showmax, we caught up with the Emmy- and BAFTA-winning star of series like "Criminal Justice" and films like "Perfume" and "Mary Poppins Returns", and chatted about his role as as Norman Scott aka Norman Josiffe.

Why did you want to be part of "A Very English Scandal"?

I got sent Russell T. Davies’ scripts and I loved them. I was fascinated by the story; I’d never heard of it. I liked the way it didn’t shy away from the absurdity and almost farcical nature of this relationship and what ensued from it.

Tell us about your character, Norman?

Norman is very young when we first meet him at the beginning of the story. He meets Jeremy Thorpe, who is a Liberal MP, and he is quite taken by him, by his charisma and status. Norman is in a dire situation – he has nowhere to stay and Jeremy takes him in. Norman survives on his wit and imagination – and the sympathy of other people. But if there’s one thing that I feel about Norman is that he’s a really strong person. I think he’s really tough.

How would you describe the relationship between Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe?

On the one hand it’s quite an unbalanced relationship, in that Jeremy is very powerful and has a certain status and stature within the world and Norman doesn’t have any of that. But on another level, I feel like they meet their match in each other. They are both sharp, clever and funny and quite driven individuals.

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Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant in "A Very English Scandal". Picture: Supplied

What have you discovered about the scandal that has surprised you or changed your perspective?

If I were reading about the story in a newspaper or reading the book, my sympathy would be with Norman, and as an actor my sympathy is with Norman – but weirdly I also do have sympathy for Jeremy, as a gay man who could not live that life honestly and who suffered awful tragedies. I feel sympathy for everybody in the story. I can see things from everybody’s perspective. Both men were grappling with their own troubles, and their own minds and demons.

Did you do much research? Did you meet Norman Scott?

Yes, I did. I met the real-life Norman with Stephen Frears in London shortly before we started shooting, which was really fascinating. He’s a very funny, clever, naughty guy. He’s very delightful in person. That was really important because so much of what happens to him in the story of the film is quite dreadful. But he has a real resilience and a humour, which is very charming.

How would you describe the tone of ‘A Very English Scandal’?

I think it’s a dark comedy or a black comedy in a way but it also flirts with something sadder and even tragic at times.

What’s it been like working with Hugh Grant?  

I have loved working with Hugh. I have admired his acting for so long. He is such a beautiful, delicate comic performer and it’s brilliant to see him play this role, which has this slightly darker edge to it. He’s so inventive and free – but so thoughtful and he won’t let up until he’s got it exactly how he wants it. I really respect that.

"A Very English Scandal" on a true story of Jeremy Thorpe, a member of Parliament who, in 1979, was tried and later acquitted of conspiring to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott. Beginning in the 1960s, Thorpe is the leader of the Liberal Party, the youngest head of a political party in 100 years. But he is hiding an affair with a man at a time when homosexuality is still illegal. 

When Scott threatens to reveal the affair, Thorpe decides upon a plan of action that eventually exposes the scandal and leads to a watershed moment in British social and political life, illuminating the level of dark secrets and cover-ups in the British establishment.

Watch the trailer below.

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