Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

A Very British Scandal

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st May, 2018

A Very British ScandalI watched the first episode of Stephen Frears’ three-part TV bio-pic about the Thorpe Affair, A Very British Scandal, with a degree of trepidation. Despite the director’s esteemed back catalogue and the stellar cast, could it be anything else but a travesty of the truth? I knew Jeremy Thorpe from the time he came to speak at the Oxford University Liberal Club (of which I was then Secretary) in about 1970 right up until his death in 2014, so well over 40 years, and like most of his numerous friends I was very fond of him. He was one of the most charismatic politicians I have ever encountered — witty, charming and urbane to such a degree that most of us failed to perceive a darker side to his character. Right to the end, he denied having plotted Norman Scott’s murder, and indeed a court found him not guilty of that charge. So I think he would have been shocked — probably to the point of litigation, for which he did have a bent — by the dramatic assertion at the end of episode 1 of A Very British Scandal that he effectively commissioned Peter Bessell to have Norman bumped off. Bessell was of course an extremely dodgy character himself (beautifully played by Alex Jennings, very much as I remember Bessell), who moved to America and was an unreliable witness, to put it mildly. I never encountered Norman Joliffe/Scott, who was much less attractive in real life than the super-talented and winsome Ben Whishaw, but Whishaw absolutely nails the element of helplessness about Norman which Jeremy did find immensely appealing, sexually stimulating even, until things started to turn terribly sour. So what about Hugh Grant as Jeremy? He accurately mimics some of Thorpe’s mannerisms, though the voice wasn’t quite that Edward-Fox-plummy, and naturally the Edwardian-style clothes that Jeremy favoured are down to a T. But I think the audience needed to see more of Thorpe’s undeniable charm and splendidly theatrical showmanship before the storm clouds gathered and the murder plot was allegedly hatched. Frears shows he is still very much the master of his art. Indeed, as a TV mini-series this promises to be outstanding entertainment. But is it really true or fair? And will it be that it manages in later episodes to show why talented and successful people like Jeremy Thorpe (or, indeed, at an intellectually and creatively higher level, Oscar Wilde) dice with danger for the thrill of the risk and a fatal curiosity about what it would be like to be found out?

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7 Responses to “A Very British Scandal”

  1. Mick Taylor said

    I think it is very sad that some people want to dredge up the past and insinuate that Thorpe was guilty. Jeremy was above all a showman, perhaps a somewhat seedy one at times, whose main fault was his choice of friends. I suspect that rather like a famous king he may well have said who will rid me ofd this troublesome man, never thinking for a minute that anyone would take it seriously. The Jeremy Thorpe I knew was one of the most brilliant mimics able to do all sorts of people from Frank Byers to the Archbishop of Canterbury. There are almost no politicians today with his flair for showmanship and oratory and we are poorer for it. He did not deserve the ordure poured on him by the establishment and the press. Of course one could argue that he made his own misfortune with his obsession for secrecy rather than simply saying and if I did have a gay relationship, so what. The party would have backed him if he had. Instead he managed to alienate many, who would, albeit reluctantly, have defended his right to whatever sort of relationship he had wanted.
    The obvious question is why drag it up now?

  2. Iain Sharpe said

    I didn’t see the programme and agree that as Thorpe was acquitted it is misleading to portray him as unequivocally guilty. But the problem for Thorpe’s post-trial reputation was that it seemed plain that at some level he had been up to no good. While he ‘ denied having plotted Norman Scott’s murder’ what he didn’t and doubtless couldn’t do was to say he had no involvement in any kind of plot. Not giving evidence in court doubtless helped him secure an acquittal, but the fact that he didn’t (couldn’t) stride confidently into the witness box and rebut the charges ensured his reputation was ruined.

    In his (very anti-Thorpe) book about the trial Auberon Waugh commented that before the dog-shooting no newspaper or opposition party would touch the Norman Scott story. It was ‘sordid without being particularly funny, it was defamatory, unprovable and… more than ten years old.’ If Waugh was right then Norman Scott could have kept babbling away without it adversely affecting Thorpe’s career beyond being a minor nuisance.

    • Mick Taylor said

      If you employ a barrister like George Carmen and he advises you not to go into the witness box, you surely take his advice? Otherwise why employ him at all.

      • Iain Sharpe said

        Yes, it was good advice for achieving an acquittal, but inevitably left a suspicion around Thorpe’s behaviour. He was not able to rebut or refute the accusations.

  3. PoetSpeak said

    It is really helpful to read comments from one who knew Mr Thorpe. At the end of the day drama is mostly one thing, reality another. The sad thing is that people watch dramas and think it is the truth in spite of notices by the film producers like in the series The Assassination of Gianni Versace.

  4. Katerina Porter said

    In those days one could not say I am gay so what and it would have been difficult for the party to back him. It is now hard to believe but it was illegal and did ruin many. With Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary the law at last changed.

    • Mick Taylor said

      The homosexual reform act was passed during the Wilson administration 1964-70, so by the time of the ‘Thorpe affair’ consenting homosexual acts between consenting adults were legal and had been so for at least 10 years. I joined the Liberal Party in 1964 and was a party activist and I think I know what the mood of the party would have been had Thorpe brazened it out as later Paddy Ashdown did about his affair. Many of us didn’t terribly like Thorpe, because of his attitudes to party democracy and his distain for radical activists like me. However – and I discussed this with many at the time – had Thorpe said ‘it’s none of your business and if I did so what’ we would have backed him. The trouble was that Thorpe didn’t trust the party he led and was badly advised by his so-called friends and chose instead to deny the whole thing. That Thorpe had had homosexual relationships was no great secret. The Liberal Party had long been a political home for homosexuals and indeed bisexuals. For what it’s worth – and I knew Thorpe from my time as a Young Liberal Officer and several years on Party Council – I don’t believe for one minute that he would have conspired to murder anyone.

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