How Do We Feel About Jeremy Thorpe? A Brief Review of A Very English Scandal

Hugh Grant, England’s quintessential bad boy, has risen to a new level of storytelling. His slope-eyed face and easy wit has drawn me in since Bridget Jones. But there’s something about Grant’s most recent dramatis persona that simultaneously fascinates and repels me. Last Thursday, Amazon Prime released A Very English Scandal, based on the novel by John Preston. I was at once drawn to the cover: before the brilliant backdrop of a Union Jack, Hugh Grant stands front and center with his hands poised on his hips and Ben Whishaw positions himself timidly behind him. What can I say, I can’t pass up a British drama. And dramatic this story most certainly is. It follows Jeremy Thorpe, a British politician who served as Member of Parliament for North Devon from 1959 to 1979, and as leader of the Liberal Party between 1967 and 1976. He was a star that burned bright and fizzled into nothingness. Grant steps into the shoes of the charismatic and infamous public figure who fell victim to an unparalleled public trial following a succession of accusations involving his alleged homosexual relationship with Norman Josiffe, later known as Norman Scott, played by Ben Whishaw. The sudden and intense series of revelations were like a flame to paper on Jeremy Thorpe’s reputation.  Though whether he deserved his theatrical professional demise is a question the audience must answer. To say that Jeremy Thorpe “fell victim” is a phrase not entirely suitable. Can one be a victim and a perpetrator? For indeed Thorpe was a powerful man when he instigated a romantic relationship with the 19-year old stable boy turned male model. Herein lies my dilemma: is it right to feel bad for Jeremy Thorpe following the decimation of his life’s work and ultimate downfall? One thing is absolutely certain: Hugh Grant can play devious, and I see that clearly now.

JT and HG(Jeremy Thorpe / Hugh Grant in A Very English Murder, Radio Times, 2018)

While sifting through the archives of the New York Times, I stumbled upon an article written in 1978. In bold black letters the headline reads: “The Rise and Fall of Jeremy Thorpe.” The writer, R.W. Apple, Jr mourns Thorpe’s potential: “He was the brightest promise of the Liberal Party. There was a chance he would become Prime Minister of Britain. But today his career is in ruins, and the Rt. Hon. Jeremy Thorpe is facing the charge that he conspired to murder a former male model.” This collective despair among many followers of Thorpe’s politics and admirers of his attitude—even in the United States—seems somehow misplaced. Despite the public trial at the Old Bailey in London, in which the history of his relationship with Norman Scott became general knowledge, Jeremy Thorpe was seen by some as a victim of circumstances out of his control. In one way, perhaps, he was unfairly persecuted by British homophobia, which at that point in history was still alive and well despite the House of Common’s passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, which decriminalized private homosexual acts between men aged over 21 and partially repealed the original Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. In another way, however, his own ruination is the direct result of the same ruthless search for power that drove his ascent in the world of politics.

The opening scene introduces Hugh Grant’s remarkable transformation into Jeremy Thorpe. He dines with his best chum, Peter Bessell, a British Liberal Party politician, and Member of Parliament for Bodmin in Cornwall from 1964 to 1970, played by Alex Jennings (some may recognize him as the Duke of Windsor in Netflix’s The Crown). As Grant breaks the yolk atop a pink mound of sausage (I can’t quite decide if this meal looks appetizing), he discusses his endeavors to become prime minister. But their conversation morphs into sexual innuendo and betrays the priggish environment of the House of Commons Dining Room. Jennings aka Bessell claims that his sexual appetite is so monstrous that in times of desperation he has “gone looking on the spear side,” to which Thorpe responds “are you telling me… that you were musical?” The two men exchange matters of preference, scanning the room sheepishly, both cautious of being overheard and teasingly inviting suspicion from their fuddy-duddy contemporaries. The series opening ends with a toast, in which Thorpe says “Peter, we are nothing but two queens.” In perfect unison with what audiences expect from English television, the two men raise their glasses in satirical appreciation for Her Majesty the Queen.

PB(Jeremy Thorpe, played by Hugh Grant and Peter Bessell played by Alex Jennings, Daily Mail)

The initial impression of Jeremy Thorpe is that he’s clever and sociable. It’s not hard to imagine how a career in politics might attract someone so endearing. As the three-part series progresses, this charming façade gradually slips to expose a most impressive malice. The first episode quickly dives into how Thorpe and Norman Scott met and subsequently began their affair. According to Preston’s book and the scenes played out on the screen, in 1961 Thorpe invited a young Scott to his mother’s house where he introduced him as a cameraman who would follow him on an international trip the next day. What follows is the introduction of a disconcerting power dynamic as Thorpe enters Scott’s room that night and essentially demands a sexual encounter that, by all appearances, Scott consents to. Had Scott refused his advances, one has to wonder how Thorpe might have reacted to the rejection. His obituary reads: “Thorpe did not suffer fools gladly. Erring subordinates were treated to the sharp rebuke or the snappish aside; and in the face of any challenge to his authority the mask of the jester quickly gave way to a fixed, distant and icy stare.” 1

According to one biographer, Michael Bloch, Jeremy Thorpe was “a politician who thought the rules were for little people – who loved illicit sex for both the immediate excitement, and the later thrill of being able to extricate himself from any potential scandal.” 2 But Thorpe couldn’t extricate himself from the scandal that would become an exemplary blend of farce and political gravity. At the time of the affair, the atmosphere for gay men, especially, was repressive to say the least. The slightest indication of goodwill for a person of the same sex could easily have been construed as a homosexual relationship by overzealous law enforcement. Knowing this, it is actually impressive that the almost year-long relationship between Thorpe and Scott was largely kept secret.

Though what was most farcical in this whole ordeal was the event that ostensibly led to the murder charges against Thorpe. After the relationship between Thorpe and Scott soured, Scott wrote Thorpe’s mother a letter in which he described in detail his homosexual relationship with her son. Thereafter, as an act of loyalty, Peter Bessell offered Scott cash installments to make up for his lack of a National Insurance card, which he insisted Thorpe took from him to ensure that he would never work again. The audience sees this exchange take place in Bessell’s car as Alex Jennings and Ben Whishaw comically argue whether or not to use “JT” as the not-so-code name for Jeremy Thorpe. Ultimately, this blatant attempt to keep Scott quiet does very little when Scott’s life is threatened. Knowing full well his dark past is soon to come to light, Thorpe contacts the best man at his first wedding, merchant banker David Holmes, who then finds someone willing to hunt down Scott and shut him up for good. Andrew Newton is the final contact: the man who is told to simply “frighten” Scott into submission. Instead, he enrages Scott by shooting his beloved Great Dane, Rinka, before attempting to kill Scott—but his gun jams. This event is the true force behind what becomes a very English scandal as Scott moves to retaliate against what he believes is Thorpe’s twisted attempt on his life.

Newton(Andrew Newton arrives at the Old Bailey in 1979, Independent UK)

At this point in the series I began to waver back and forth between absolute disgust in Jeremy Thorpe and pity for him. Newton is (obviously) apprehended. His appearance before Minehead magistrates warrants the involvement of the defendant, Norman Scott, who takes this opportunity to announce his suspicion of Jeremy Thorpe. If Newton hadn’t shot Scott’s dog, would the later trial at the Old Bailey have taken place? The legal proceedings can be read here. During the final trial in which Thorpe faces charges of murder, what stood out for me was the moment before the final verdict. Thorpe waits on a bench outside the courtroom next to his lawyer George Carman, played by Adrian Scarborough. At this point evidence that Thorpe has enjoyed homosexual relations has accrued. Thorpe has been elusive up to this point, skirting consequences and evading the law. Now, at the pinnacle of his successful career, he begins to decline all because of an affair he had a decade prior. The audience sees Carman lean towards Thorpe and confide his own homosexual leanings. In an apparent attempt to extract the truth from his client, Carman asks “why him?” Why had this affair been the longest in Thorpe’s romantic history? Why had it been the most affectionate? Their clear tenderness towards one another had been made immortal through writing, and Scott had tried to use these letters to earlier slander Thorpe. The sign-off sparked talk across the nation: “ ‘Bunnies can (and will) go to France. Yours affectionately, Jeremy. I miss you.’ ”

article(“Top British Liberal Quits Over a Homosexual Furor,” New York Times, May 11, 1976)

The audience sees a series of flashbacks in which Thorpe’s former experience confronting men for sex backfires and ultimately ends in violence. Men choke him as if channeling their own masochistic anger. Other men attempt to ridicule him and we see one man rob him in an alleyway. All these experiences reflect the very real and very intense prosecution of gay men in the United Kingdom. According to The Guardian, “in the mid-1950s, there was an atmosphere of a witch-hunt (probably not unrelated to what was happening in America with McCarthy), with consequent opportunities for blackmail.” This manifested as a rounding up of gay men and a number of people taking advantage of the secrecy surrounding one’s sexuality. Knowing that gay men were bound to discretion, any violation against their person had to be endured lest they be threatened with exposure. Thorpe answers his lawyer, simply saying that perhaps Norman Scott was the best.

Thorpe(Thorpe’s and Scott’s first sexual encounter)

How does the audience reconcile the image of a merciless public figure hell-bent on shushing his former lover with that of a heartbroken man made victim of homophobia? This brings me back to my original question: can a victim also be a perpetrator? I think in the case of Jeremy Thorpe, yes. One can be both. Like other gay men in 1950s and 1960s England, he was forced into hiding his sexual preferences. Due to the antiquated sectional 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885:

Outrages on decency, Any male person who in public or private commits or is a party to the commission of or procures (a) or attempts {b) to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency (c) with another male person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor^ and being convicted thereof shall be liable at the discretion of the court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour. 3

While Thorpe’s personal history ignites empathy, his treatment of Norman Scott is distracting proof that in many ways he was a villain. Perhaps the most emotionally moving scene is when Whishaw’s Scott is worn down at the stand. After offering clever jibes and holding his own, he is eventually provoked to passionately profess that he will not be shut up. He has revealed to the court that Thorpe had sexual relations with him, and that the pain was so intense that he was forced to bite his pillow. “I will not be shut up” is a powerful statement: despite the bribe, despite the attempted murder, Norman Scott wants the world to know of Jeremy Thorpe’s lechery. Because love is not just taking, nor is it oppressive. Although Jeremy Thorpe is acquitted of conspiracy to murder his former lover, the revelation of his behavior towards Scott and his violent obsession to erase him from his past proves damaging enough:

In short, the trial bore out the impression created by Thorpe’s political career, that he was essentially a fixer and an operator. Far from being a tragic hero — a noble nature ruined by a single mole of nature — he appeared, whether innocent or guilty, amply provisioned with common human flaws, cast by his gifts and ambition into most uncommon relief. 1

Thorpe

(Jeremy Thorpe, Daily Express)

The series is an impressive encapsulation of the event that is now known, and quite rightly, as the “trial of the century.” Hugh Grant is more than a lead in a romantic comedy and Ben Whishaw, with his small voice and slender build, carries serious weight in his portrayal of the eccentric Norman Scott. Just as the actual events leading up to the trial in 1979, A Very English Scandal is a ridiculous romp punctuated by tender reflections on the plight of the English homosexual community.

For a comprehensive timeline of the Thorpe Affair, read this.

Works Cited

  1. Jeremy Thorpe, Obituary
  2. Jeremy Thorpe by Michael Bloch
  3. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885

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