In Depth

A Very English Scandal: the true story behind BBC drama on Jeremy Thorpe

Three-part drama recounts the former politician's rise and fall as well as changing attitudes in British society

BBC One’s A Very English Scandal concluded last night, just as police have been revisiting the case in real life.

The dramatic retelling of the 1970s scandal involving former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe was described by The Daily Telegraph as the “best drama of the year so far”.

Hugh Grant gives a “career-defining performance” as the politician accused of conspiring to murder his former lover Norman Scott, says the newspaper.

There were “fabulous performances all round” as Thorpe finally came to trial in the finale “in a sea of hypocrisy, prejudice, ghastly snobbery, injustice and a chorus of tittering from the public gallery”, says The Guardian.

The three-part drama, written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Stephen Frears, was “lively and funny and joyously irreverent, a thumbed nose to propriety that delights in showing the old boys’ club with its knickers down”, says Den of Geek.

But the story has not been confined to the realms of period drama.

A re-investigation into the attempted murder was closed last year, with police under the impression that Andrew Newton, who claimed he was paid to kill Scott, was dead.

In the past week, police admitted that Newton might still be alive and have apparently tracked him down to a house in Surrey living under a new name.

Here's what you need to know about the scandal:

Who was Jeremy Thorpe?

Thorpe was an MP for North Devon from 1959 to 1979 and became leader of the Liberal Party in 1967, aged 37, making him the youngest head of a UK political party in 100 years.

Thorpe had shades of his much-later successor, Nick Clegg, as he was ”the beguiling, charismatic leader of a minority party that was developing interesting, radical ideas about what politics was for”, says The Guardian’s Anne Perkins.

The Liberal party improved its standing in parliament throughout his leadership and, by 1974, “he seemed on the brink of power”, says The Independent. The party garnered 20% of the vote in that year’s election but, more importantly, ”Thorpe was the most popular party leader, and (then PM Edward) Heath seemed willing to offer him a power-sharing coalition”.

But in a biography that had to wait until Thorpe’s death before it could be published, Bloch characterised him as a politician who thought the rules were for little people - a bisexual man, who “loved illicit sex for both the immediate excitement, and the later thrill of being able to extricate himself from any potential scandal”.

Though Thorpe was acquitted in 1979, his career never recovered. He died in 2014, aged 85, after a long battle with Parkinson’s.

How did the scandal start?

It arose from allegations by Norman Scott, that he and Thorpe had shared a homosexual relationship in the early 1960s.

Thorpe denied any such relationship, while admitting that the two had been friends. With help from those within the political establishment, he was able to ensure that rumours of misconduct went unreported for more than a decade.

During this time though, “the paths of the two men crossed and recrossed, Thorpe’s career advancing as Scott, suffering from recurring mental illness, struggled”, says Perkins.

Eventually, ”Thorpe and his small gang of cronies concluded Scott was a threat to Thorpe and the party”, Perkins adds.

It was the shooting of Scott’s dog, Rinka, in a layby in Exmoor on 23 October 1975 that “set in motion a chain of events that finally exposed a scandal that might otherwise have lain dormant”, says The Independent.

In May 1976, newspaper revelations prompted by the shooting meant Thorpe was forced to resign as leader. And in 1979 he was tried at the Old Bailey in London for having conspired to murder Scott, with the prosecution alleging the gunman in Exmoor, Andrew Newton, had been paid to shoot Scott.

Before the case came to trial, Thorpe lost his parliamentary seat in the May 1979 general election.

Why is the story still relevant today?

Thorpe’s legacy is a “disfigured memorial to the way the establishment could still look after its own even as the forces of modernity slowly washed away at its foundations”, says Perkins.

Indeed, much of the emphasis now is on “the way the ruling class sheltered Thorpe as long as possible”, says the Financial Times’s Robert Shrimsley. Thorpe, educated at Eton and Oxford, the son and grandson of Tory MPs, was “establishment to the core”.

At his trial, judge Sir Joseph Cantley’s summary was virtually a speech for the defence, famously saying of Thorpe’s chief accuser: “He is a crook, a fraud, a sponger, a whiner and a parasite . . . But, of course, he could still be telling the truth.”

This was because homosexuality may have been legal by the 1970s “but it was barely tolerated”, says Shrimsley.

“Revulsion, mockery or pity were the only acceptable responses,” he says, noting that the Private Eye cover bore the words “buggers can’t be losers” following Thorpe’s acquittal in 1979.

Indeed the judge’s “summing up was so comically biased it became the basis of a famous sketch by Peter Cook”, adds The Independent.

The real story of the Thorpe affair, then, “is the state-sanctioned climate of hostility in which gay men understood that exposure meant ruin”, Shrimsley adds. “We have travelled so far and so fast that it now seems astonishing to recall how bad things were so recently”.

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