'I was afraid they'd want me to take role of the dog Rinka!'
A Very English Scandal marks Hugh Grant’s first return to the small screen since the early 1990s. Gemma Dunn meets the reluctant star
Hugh Grant is about to tick off what he calls "part three of my trilogy of narcissists". "It started with the guy (St Clair Bayfield) I played in Stephen Frears' film Florence Foster Jenkins, who is a sort of 'Me, me, me; I want to be on stage'," lists the once-king of rom-com. "And then there's Phoenix Buchanan in Paddington 2, who is just outrageous." The third? Arguably, his most egotistical portrayal yet: the part of disgraced Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe in BBC One's A Very English Scandal.
Based on John Preston's book of the same name, the three-part drama tells the shocking true story of Thorpe, who, in 1979, was tried, but later acquitted of conspiring to murder his ex-lover, Norman Scott (played by none other than Grant's Paddington co-star Ben Whishaw).
For those unfamiliar with the bizarre tale, the former MP was said to have embarked on a whirlwind affair with Scott in 1960s England, when homosexuality was illegal. And, with the relationship eventually turning sour and Thorpe's career on the up, it was said to be a secret that the politician was desperate to hide.
This, it was claimed, led to the hiring of a hitman, a failed murder plot and an assassinated Great Dane by the name of Rinka.
It's an absurd turn of events, but one Grant (57) remembers well.
"I grew up with it," recalls the London-born star. "In fact, the timescale of this series - 1960-1979 - is me from 0-19, so I became more and more aware of Jeremy Thorpe. And then, of course, we all had a lot of fun when the trial came about, all the jokes about dogs and the sniggering, because, in those days, people sniggered at gay secrets and things like that."
He adds: "But the more I read about Thorpe, the more I realised, like a lot of politicians, they're show business. It's show business for the ugly, as they say. It was the Jeremy show. All his life, he was the star."
A comedy tinged with tragedy, Grant believes it to be a "celebration of the oddity of life - particularly English life".
"I love things which are funny and sad at the same time, which rejoice in eccentricity. And I've become very interested in politics over the last six years, so I love that aspect of it.
"But, unlike what Stephen (Frears) said - that it was an obvious casting - it wasn't obvious to me. He rang me up and said, 'Well, what do you think?' And I said, 'Well, which part? I'm about 400 years too old to be Jeremy Thorpe at the beginning of this film'. I thought he might want me to play Rinka the dog or something."
Thankfully not. But the role of Thorpe itself would take some groundwork.
"It's unlike me to do any prep at all, really, but I was quite panicked by this project," confesses Grant. "I quite respect Stephen and then Ben Whishaw? I thought, 'I better try and be good'. I just thought, 'Everyone is going to watch this.
"I'm particularly frightened of the British and British audiences, so I panicked a lot."
To combat his fear, he read "every single book on the subject".
"I went to meet lots of people that knew Thorpe, I dug up old films, some of them out of the bowels of the BBC that haven't been seen for decades. I don't know if it does any good, but it seems to soothe me a bit."
He even learned to channel Thorpe's musical prowess by taking violin lessons.
"I tried. God knows I tried for months. But the violin is completely impossible, as it turns out.
"That piece (in the drama) is a sort of virtuoso piece, so I said to my violin teacher, 'How long would you have normally been playing before you take this on?' And he said, 'About 10-12 years'. So, I did my best. And, then, my children broke two violins."
Does he hope the series will introduce a whole new generation to politics?
"Well, we're all quite politically aware these days," he replies, simply. "Big events, Brexit, Trump, we've got everyone juiced up and so a political drama set back in the 1960s-1970s could be very interesting."
And, as he admits, the subject of media scrutiny is not unknown to him.
"I've certainly been in the middle of Press storms, such as (Thorpe) was when the scandal started to break around him," says Grant, who is famously pro-privacy, having given evidence to the Leveson Inquiry and taken a seat on the board of Hacked Off.
"I knew what that felt like. But there's lots of other things. You always look at the character here and you look at yourself here. And you say, 'Oh, that matches up there' and it's not just that."
A Very English Scandal, BBC One, Sunday, 9pm