Monday 22 October 2018

A Very English Scandal 5 star review: Hugh Grant's latest TV role reminds us how good he is

A Very English Scandal stars Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Continues on BBC 1 next Sunday at 9pm
A Very English Scandal stars Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Continues on BBC 1 next Sunday at 9pm

Pat Stacey

Imagine an alternative universe where Hugh Grant and not Christopher Eccleston had become the ninth Doctor in Doctor Who. It’s an easy one to buy into. It very nearly became a reality, too.

When the BBC decided to relaunch the long-dormant time lord’s adventures in 2004, with all the advantages a bigger budget and modern special effects could offer, the star of Four Weddings And A Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually was the first actor to be offered the role by showrunner Russell T Davies, who’d always wanted to work with Grant and considered him one of Britain’s finest actors.

Technically, Grant had already played the character – but only briefly and strictly for laughs in the 1999 Comic Relief spoof The Curse Of Fatal Death. But when offered the role for real, he turned it down.

He later confessed to regretting the decision. At the time, he didn’t believe the revival would be a success and so didn’t give the offer much thought. In a 2007 interview, Grant said: “It’s only when you see it on screen that you think, ‘Damn, that was good, why did I say no?’.”

Grant would most likely have made an excellent Doctor. No screen actor since his namesake, Cary Grant, has been able to juggle comedy and drama so deftly, or make it look so effortless – which, in reality, it rarely if ever is.

In retrospect, it’s probably just as well Grant passed on the chance for a spin in the Tardis. It would certainly have been fascinating to find out how his Doctor would have affected the future direction of the series.

Yet to be umbilically linked in the public mind to a single character is the last thing Grant needed at that point in his career, especially since he’d spent a full decade trying to shake off the image of the floppy-haired, tongue-tied bumbler that had clung to him like a leech ever since Four Weddings And A Funeral became a global box-office smash and propelled him to A-list stardom.

Perennially underrated by most critics (the late Roger Ebert was one of the exceptions) and boxed into a “king of the romcom” niche by audiences, Grant has always been a far more versatile, complex and adventurous actor than he’s usually given credit for.

As producer/star he pushed against typecasting in the 1991 medical thriller Extreme Measures, where he was excellent as an ER doctor who uncovers a ghoulish conspiracy involving exploitation of the homeless.

In the 2001 film of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy, Grant played casually selfish, comfortably trust-funded layabout Rob, who realises how empty his life is when he reluctantly becomes entangled in the lives of a misfit 14-year-old (Nicholas Hoult) and his hippy-dippy mother (Toni Colette).

He gave a terrific, Golden Globe-nominated performance, funny, layered and affecting, as a character who couldn’t be more different to Charles in Four Weddings.

A more risk-averse, image-conscious star might have thought twice about playing six characters – including the heavily face-painted chief of a cannibal tribe – in the wildly ambitious 2012 film of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. Grant, however, attacked the opportunity with relish.

Like George Clooney, who’s the same age (57), Grant seems to be welcoming the onset of age and wrinkles as an opportunity to play juicier character roles.

He’s bagged arguably the juiciest of all in BBC1’s three-part drama A Very English Scandal, which began last night.

Grant plays the late Jeremy Thorpe, the bisexual Liberal Party MP who was tried and acquitted of conspiring to murder his gay lover Norman Josiffe, later Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw). It’s a superb performance full of charm that pivots into ruthlessness and menace.

A Very English Scandal sees writer Russell T Davies finally getting his wish to work with Grant. It’s been worth the long wait for both of them – and for us, too.

A Very English Scandal continues on BBC 1 at 9pm next Sunday

Herald

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