Like half the country, I was riveted in 2018 by Russell T Davies’ A Very English Scandal, the three‐part TV series about Jeremy Thorpe and the plot to kill his boyfriend Norman Scott.
As a rule, I’m immune to the charms of Posh Boy acting, move over Benedict Cumberbatch, but the two leads were pitch perfect. Hugh Grant brought off the difficult feat of impersonation which also had genuine character, while Ben Whishaw was adorable and infuriating in equal measure.
The series sent me back to John Preston’s book of the same name from which Davies quoted in several places verbatim. It was if anything even more juicy, Davies having had to leave out a lot of delicious detail for reasons of time.
I remember the original trial and aftermath vividly. There was something of a split within the gay movement between those who saw Thorpe as a victim of homophobia and those who lambasted him for being in the closet. Among the latter was a wonderful queer political theatre group called Brixton Faeries. I believe they went down to Minehead during the trial and performed a street theatre running commentary on its progress, written daily.
Two years later this work, now polished, turned up at the Oval House as Minehead Revisited, a heady cross between Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sandy Wilson’s musical, The Boy Friend. I will never forget Stephen Gee’s brilliant portrayal of Thorpe, crumpling like a rag doll as his hypocrisy and closetry scoured him out inside.
What struck most me about the story, in these tellings and at this distance of time, was those important but disregarded characters, the dogs. Mrs Tish, the Jack Russell, and the famous one, Rinka, the Great Dane. The only givers and takers of unalloyed affection, who yet both suffered and died at the hands of venal humans. To be fair, Mrs Tish had been rather a naughty girl in the small matter of some chickens.
Scott, a vulnerable boy/man if ever there was one, who was treated so heartlessly by Thorpe with his sense of absolute entitlement, only ever found love and consolation in the company of his numerous horses and dogs.
Dogs have evolved into an important sub‐theme in this cycle. There’s Radclyffe Hall’s dachshund, Wotan, in Sauce for the Gander, and a distressing scene in Quarantine too. More will doubtless emerge, because I regard the treatment of dogs as the litmus test of civilised human beings. Robert, the composer, has a fine manic Westie called Tiger. So, I decided to write a libretto about the dogs. It is a love story, but not between the humans.
I wanted to have the whole thing as a dogs’ eye view, with the humans only heard offstage as strange and enormous. In the event, Robert was keen to have Scott onstage, to make the relationships concrete, although other characters, Thorpe in particular, are unseen. None of the offstage characters sing ‐ song is reserved for the emotionally charged ‘real’ relationships between man and his dogs. This is reflected in the script by the spoken dialogue and unseen actions being written in red.
I tried to get into the words the doggy rhythms of the two animals. Mrs Tish, soprano, is snuffly, inquisitive, darting, not excessively bright, and potty about Norman. Rinka, contralto, has immense stately dignity and views the world with infinite condescension. Her rhythms derive from those huge slow barks which Great Danes have. Robert has captured their characters in music perfectly.
There are, of course, staging problems thrown up by the double perspective of man and god. I prefer to leave the resolution of those to the director. In general, I dislike hampering directors with too many instructions; it smacks of possessiveness, and refusal to let one's baby grow up and go out into the world. However, the two instructions I would give are:
It would be a great mistake to try and present the dogs as literal animal impersonations. It would not be convincing, and it would distract from engaging with the actual text and music. Suggestion is what is required.
This is a tragicomedy. The dogs are endearingly funny, but in their deaths, and more especially in their apotheosis with Norman at the end, they should be genuinely moving. All this is in Robert's brilliant music. This is a Liebestod, where Scott, Rinka and Mrs Tish can rhapsodise about the eternal bond between man and dog, who will surely be reunited in Pet Heaven.
Now, go fetch!
Note: Sound Files are created in Sibelius and are only intended to give a rough idea of the opera, so are for reference only and give little idea of what the vocal lines sound like.
All work is copyright of Peter Scott-Presland and Robert Ely.
Anyone interested in performing all or part of it should email email@example.com