This evening sees the third and final part, of ‘A very English scandal’ – starring Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw, air on BBC1.
This story of Jeremy Thorpe – the leader of the UK’s liberal party (now morphed into the Liberal Democrats) who allegedly tried to have his gay lover, Norman Scott, murdered in the 1970’s, is unbelievably, not fiction but a true story.
The story has been adapted by ‘Queen as folk’ writer and Doctor Who Russell T Davies, from the book of the same name which details thoroughly the events both prior to and following (the unsuccessful)attempt to kill Norman Scott.
The series is a lighthearted and witty, but nonetheless fascinating – account of these events and the era in which they took place; colorfully encapsulates the swinging 1960’s and the tumultuous 70’s.
Hugh Grant makes a rare appearance on the small screen as the charismatic Thorpe – a bullishly ambitious character who was very popular with the public and came close to being deputy prime-minister in the mid-1970’s.
Bringing a quintessentially British mixture of charm and ruthlessness to the role, Grant is perfect as the doomed politician.
Thorpe was a master of manipulating and persuading people to do what he wanted – and wove a tangled web of secrets and lies, managing to pull the wool over many people’s eyes for years.
He consistently denied any gay leanings or affair with Scott – despite a great deal of evidence and rumour to the contrary.
Meanwhile, the superb Ben Wishaw plays the young man he seduced – the troubled ‘drifter’ Norman Scott, giving him a flamboyant but nervous feyness.
We see the moment when he first crosses paths with Scott – as a naïve, but startling handsome stable boy while working for another older man of dubious moral fiber – in a scene where the shirtless Wishaw is watched by Thorpe as he washes down a horse.
Thorpe was immediately attracted to the beauty of Scott, who for a while became a model in the swinging 60’s, then known by his real name as Norman Josiffe. He told him to get in contact him should he ever have any problems with his employer – a friend of Thorpe’s.
The whole thing is delivered with a massive tongue in cheek, with the old-fashioned, upper class Britishness of the era totally played-up. This makes it very entertaining, although perhaps belies the seriousness of the whole affair
Alex Jennings is brilliant as Thorpe’s right-hand man – the permanently bewildered and anxious looking Peter Bessell. A lay-preacher with terminal financial problems, he also had and an unstoppable eye for the ladies.
Thorpe tries to get him to help with the murder plot but he eventually moved to the US to escape debts and eventually backs away from the fray – before being shafted by Thorpe who tries to point the finger on him as the instigator of the attempt.
National treasure, and mum of Miranda in her sitcom, Patricia Hodge, plays the stern and eccentric be-monacled upper-classed mother of Thorpe, who we saw in episode 1 when he takes Scott and his dog Mrs Tish. to stay at her country home.
In a particularly amusing scene, they sit down at a very formal looking dinner table complete with servant – to an austere meal of hard boiled eggs
We subsequently see Thorpe trying to seduce a very frightened looking Scott in the bedroom next to his mother’s – with the graphic image of a tub of Vaseline next to the bed.
He gives the younger man the nickname ‘Bunnies’ – a term that comes up in the subsequent letters he sends to Scott, that ultimate lead to a saga that runs for over a decade.
Incredibly, the whole series of increasingly dramatic and fraught events essentially stem from a lost national insurance card which makes it difficult for Scott to find work – as he drifts from job to job, place to place and suffers from ongoing psychiatric problems.
Thorpe promised to get him a new card and, in the process, has to term himself as Scott’s employer, for a time paying him an allowance.
After the two fall out and part ways, the emotionally volatile Scott, brazenly open about his homosexuality during a time when it was illegal or just becoming legal but still largely a taboo; tells anyone who will listen about their alleged affair.
This includes turning up at police stations, meeting other MP’s, and also writing to Thorpe’s mother. He is desperate for money, and perhaps – coming from a troubled background, desperate for love.
However, in those days though people found it hard to believe that a ‘respectable’ member of the establishment would be gay, and even though there were persistent rumours around the houses of parliament about Thorpe’s private life, most (although not all) of those in authority were too afraid or unwilling to go there.
Being the 1960’s, both men subsequently try getting married – to varying degrees of success.
Thorpe hopes this means that the problem of Scott has gone away – but being unable to provide for the wife and child he has means that his liaison is short-lived as she returns to her disapproving wealthy parents (we saw her father dismissing the wedding and disdaining Scott as a ‘homosexual’ in a rather tactless speech at the reception).
Thorpe meanwhile decides that he needs to have a wife at his side to boost his popularity in the polls. A suitable lady is swiftly found, and soon he is seen working the PR machine and declaring the wonders of a good woman to the media. Soon after his wife gives him a son.
Tragically though, quite early into the marriage his first wife dies in car crash (he subsequently remarries)– with the suggestion that a phone call from Scott to his wife telling her of the affair with Thorpe, in another moment of financially desperation, coincided with her having nightmares and being unable to sleep, therefore causing her to be distracted at the wheel of her car on the motorway and an ensuing collision with a lorry.
Perhaps Scott was not the only victim of Thorpe’s ruthless drive to the top.
Meanwhile, Scott wouldn’t go away and kept cropping up trying to expose his affair with Thorpe – who with his political career continuing to rise, is shown to become increasingly paranoid about the threat of Scott derailing it and obsessed with finding a way to have him killed off.
In the second episode we saw the botched attempt by hired hitman – Andy Newton which ultimately led to Thorpe and his co-conspirators trial- and despite their acquittal, his subsequent fall from grace.
Clearly a buffoon, Newman however manages to convince Scott that someone has been sent from Canada to kill him, and he is in fact going to protect Scott from this.
However, it all goes wrong after he drives Scott up to the Devon moors with the intent of shooting him. Scott brings Rinka, his beloved greyhound, but Newton has a phobia of dogs so in a panic shot the animal first.
The gun then fails to go off when he aims it at Scott, who runs away before being picked up by a passing car. This would all seem so far-fetched if it didn’t actually happen.
Newton subsequently spent two years in prison for being in posession of a fire arm but wasn’t found guilty of attempted murder.
Following subsequent revelations however from Scott, Thorpe, his close friend David Holmes, and Peter Bessell were tried for conspiracy to murder in 1979.
The trial was widely thought though to have been fixed, and despite a great deal of evidence against Thorpe and his alleged accomplishes, they were found not guilty.
Thorpe’s political career however ended up in ruins and he was shunned by the Liberal party, despite campaigning to be awarded a peerage for the remainder of his life.
While Scott appears a victim for much of the story, it’s worth noting he is the only person involved in the scandal still alive today – leading an apparently stable life in Devon with a coterie of animals (Grant said in an interview he helped Wishaw with the role and the two became quite good friends).
Meanwhile Thorpe suffered from Parkinson’s disease for many years before his death in 2014. Maybe there is such thing as karma after all.
As a footnote, the case has been reopened in light of interest around the TV show.
Newton had been believed to be dead but now reports suggest otherwise. A programme made by the BBC’s Panorama about the case, at the time of the trial in 1979, never shown as seen as potentially too libelous at the time, will also be shown tonight on BBC4 after ‘A Very English Scandal’.
Both programmes mark incredibly important events in British gay (and poltical) history, as well as being totally fascinating.
The final part of ‘A Very English Scandal’ airs tonight on BBC1 at 9pm. The series is also available on BBC i-Player.
‘The Jeremy Thorpe Scandal’ will be shown at 10pm this evening BBC4.
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