The real history behind A Very English Scandal and the Jeremy Thorpe affair

Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw star in Russell T Davies' new show about the first British politician to stand trial for murder – but what is the truth behind the drama?

Jeremy Thorpe and Hugh Grant

Russell T Davies’ new drama A Very English Scandal is adapted from the “non-fiction novel” by John Preston and tells the true story of the 1970s Thorpe affair, in which former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was accused of conspiring to murder his alleged former lover Norman Scott. 

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Who was Jeremy Thorpe MP?

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Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw as Thorpe and Scott in A Very English Scandal (BBC)

Jeremy Thorpe was the first British politician to stand trial for murder.

He was leader of the Liberal Party from 1967 until 1976, when revelations about a homosexual relationship with former model Norman Scott and an alleged murder plot came to light. He was tried and acquitted at the Old Bailey after one of the most notorious judgements in the court’s history.

Born in 1929, he came from a line of Conservative MPs, but his political ideas aligned with the small and struggling Liberal Party and he set his sights on becoming a Liberal MP. After Eton and Oxford and a few years working in law and television, Thorpe was elected to Parliament for North Devon and became a rising star in the Party. Eight years later he had manoeuvred his way to the top and became the Leader.

Was Jeremy Thorpe homosexual?

Jeremy Thorpe marries Caroline Allpass in 1968
Jeremy Thorpe marries Caroline Allpass in 1968 (Getty)

Thorpe had many relationships and liaisons with men, but this was a hugely risky secret life: all homosexual activity was illegal in the United Kingdom until 1967, and the truth about his sexuality would have instantly ended his political career.

He was married twice, first to Caroline and then – when she died in a car crash – to the formidable Marion. On his first wedding, he reportedly told his friend Bessell: “If it’s the price I’ve got to pay to lead this old party, I’ll pay it.”

Long before he was married and before homosexual activity was decriminalised, Thorpe had a short-lived affair with a man named Norman Scott (then known as Norman Josiffe). This would haunt him for the rest of his career.

Who was Norman Scott and what was his relationship with Jeremy Thorpe?

Ben Whishaw – and the real Norman Scott
Ben Whishaw – and the real Norman Scott in 1979 (BBC, Getty)

In 1961, Norman Scott had been suffering from severe depression and was fresh out of a psychiatric hospital. He was 21 and penniless, estranged from his mother, unknown to his father, and working as a groom at the stables of Brecht Van de Vater. It was while visiting his pal Vater that Jeremy Thorpe met Scott for the first time.

It was a chance encounter that would change the direction of his life.

Thorpe had urged Scott to get in touch if there were any problems with Vater as his employer, and sure enough, problems soon arose. Scott went to see his political friend in a state of great distress.

That same night he and his beloved Jack Russell Mrs Tish were taken to the house of Thorpe’s wealthy mother Ursula. During the night, Thorpe slipped into Scott’s room and – according to Scott’s testimony – had sex with him for the first time. Thorpe nicknamed his new lover “Bunnies”.

Scott had no money or prospects, but Thorpe paid his rent and bought him expensive new clothes and introduced him to friends. When the police questioned Scott about the alleged theft of a suede jacket from a fellow former patient of the psychiatric hospital, Thorpe insisted on acting as his guardian and seeing off the threat of legal action. But the relationship soon soured

Why was Norman Scott a problem?

Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal (BBC, EH)
Ben Whishaw and Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal (BBC)

Over the next 15 years, Scott found employment here and there, moving around the country and trying out everything from modelling to monasteries. He had a disastrous and brief marriage, and fathered a son who he was barely allowed to see. He often lived in poverty, and went through periods of severe mental illness, attempting suicide.

Frequently he appealed for financial and practical help from Thorpe, who he blamed for his troubles: the MP had kept (and possibly lost) his National Insurance card, which was absolutely vital for him to get a job or benefits.

Thorpe washed his hands of the affair as much as possible, instead turning to his friend and admirer Peter Bessell MP to clean up his mess.

One particular mess came when Scott casually mentioned to Bessell that he’d lost his suitcase somewhere in Switzerland, containing several letters that Thorpe had written to him. The suitcase was hastily located and sent to the British Consulate in Zurich, where it was forwarded to Victoria station in London. Thorpe went along with Bessell’s secretary Diana Stainton to collect it – with an ulterior motive: as she looked on in horror, he grabbed the case, forced open the locks and extracted the incriminating letters before sending it on to Scott in Dublin.

But the problem refused to disappear. Scott remained a threat to the politician’s reputation – so Thorpe decided to do something about it.

What was Jeremy Thorpe alleged to have done?

Jeremy Thorpe was made leader of the Liberal Party in 1967
Jeremy Thorpe was made leader of the Liberal Party in 1967 (Getty)

“The higher he climbed on the political ladder, the greater was the threat to his ambition from Scott,” the prosecution lawyer began at Thorpe’s 1979 trial. “His anxiety became an obsession and his thoughts desperate.”

The prosecution alleged that, early in 1969, Thorpe had invited his colleague Bessell and friend David Holmes to his room at the House of Commons, where he tried to persuade Holmes to kill Scott. Both men were pretty taken aback. For the next few years they humoured him, tried to dissuade him, and suggested alternatives. But the idea of murdering Scott never went away.

Bessell was having his own difficulties and left the country, but Holmes was finally convinced. He began a farcical attempt to recruit an assassin, enlisting the help of a dealer in carpets and a dealer in fruit machines. The men tracked down an airline pilot called Andrew Newton who, after 16 pints, agreed to kill Scott for £10,000. The money was funnelled away from the Liberal Party election funds.

Newton’s nickname was “chicken-brains” and his initial plan, as he testified in court, was to attack his victim with a chisel hidden inside a bouquet of flowers. His eventual plan involved a gun – but didn’t go any more smoothly.

In October 1975, pretending he’d been sent to protect Scott from a would-be killer, Newton persuaded him to get into his car. But Scott insisted on bringing along his giant Great Dane Rinka. Newton was terrified of dogs.

When Newton pulled over in the Exmoor fog and jumped out at a pre-determined spot, there was a complication: the excited hound apparently thought she was going for a walk and clambered out alongside Scott. So Newton shot her to death. He then turned the gun on Scott, but it did not go off and Scott scrambled away. (Newton later claimed he’d never intended to kill his victim, just to frighten him.)

The hapless gunman was caught and sent to prison for a couple of years for destruction of property (Rinka) and for intent to endanger life. Still, Scott’s testimony about Jeremy Thorpe – and the ludicrous idea of a murder plot – was laughed out of court.

When – and how – was homosexuality legalised?

Anthony O'Donnell plays Leo Abse in A Very English Scandal
Anthony O’Donnell plays Leo Abse in A Very English Scandal (BBC)

In 1957, the Wolfenden Report had recommended that “homosexual behaviour” between consenting adults in private should no longer be criminalised, but it was some time before Parliament was ready to consider the issue in earnest.

One politician who was determined to change the law was a Welsh Labour MP called Leo Abse. Unfortunately, despite his best attempts, in the early 1960s he was getting nowhere: the Lord Chancellor Lord Kilmuir refused to sit in any Cabinet meeting where the “filthy subject” would be discussed. What Abse needed was an ally in the Lords.

In 1965 he went to see the eighth Earl of Arran, known to friends as “Boofy”. Lord Arran and his wife were utterly obsessed with badgers. At their home in Hemel Hempstead badgers were given the run of the place, so all humans were advised to wear gumboots and watch out for ringworm. But aside from badgers, he was also passionate about homosexual law reform – for undisclosed reasons.

It wasn’t until later that Abse learned that Boofy’s elder brother had been gay, and had killed himself.

The bill made steady progress through Parliament, but was sidelined when the Prime Minister called a general election; Abse and Arran persevered and managed to get it back on the table once a new government was formed. The Sexual offences Act was passed in 1967.

How did the Jeremy Thorpe affair come to light?

Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal
Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal (BBC)

Up until this point, Thorpe had mainly kept rumours about his sexuality and his relationship with Scott under wraps, with the help of political colleagues, a compliant press, friends like Bessell, and the police. But in December 1975 the Private Eye and the Sunday Express caught on to a story from the local press about the mystery of the “dog in the fog”.

As Preston writes, “in the tea rooms and corridors, people began to talk. And, as the gossip swirled, so did half-remembered rumours from years before.”

The press started to dig, finding out that Thorpe’s men had paid thousands to buy back potentially incriminating letters. Statements were made by Holmes and Bessell and Scott and Thorpe and the whole messy story began to emerge. Old letters between Thorpe and Scott were published in the newspapers, showing their once-affectionate relationship: “Bunnies can (and will) go to France,” the MP wrote to his young lover. No one quite knew what it meant.

Thorpe was forced to resign his leadership of the Liberal Party in 1976. In 1978 he was arrested and charged, alongside Holmes and two other men: the carpet dealer and the fruit machine dealer who had allegedly conspired to find the hitman.

What happened at the Thorpe trial?

(RT/FC)

The choice of trial judge came as a surprise. The Honourable Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley, as Preston explains, “was so little known outside legal circles that not a single news agency possessed a photograph of him. Hesitant of manner, fond of laughing at his own jokes and looking like a startled dormouse in his ermine robes, Cantley was not considered to be an intellectual heavyweight. He was also reckoned to be a crashing snob.” Cantley was a gift to Thorpe.

Thorpe also benefitted from a talented lawyer, George Carman. In court he painted Bessell and Scott and Newton as hypocritical, untrustworthy and amoral liars – but his master stroke was to ban Thorpe from entering the witness box. This was a gamble: calling “no evidence” for Thorpe could make him look like he had something to hide. But it also saved him from facing questions from the prosecution that he may have found difficult to answer. It was a gamble that paid off.

And when it came to summing up, Cantley’s extraordinary speech became so notorious that it inspired a Peter Cook sketch, Entirely A Matter For You.

“It is right for you to pause and consider whether it is likely that such persons would do the things these persons are said to have done,” he told the jury. While the accused were of “hitherto unblemished reputation,” Bessell was a “humbug” and Newton a “chump”. As for Scott, he was “a hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger and very skilful at exciting and exploiting sympathy… he is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”

Unbelievably, he added: “But of course he could still be telling the truth… you must not think that because I am not concealing my opinion of Mr Scott I am suggesting that you should not believe him. That is not for me. I am not expressing any opinion.”

Having not expressed any opinion whatsoever, and having warned the jury that they must be beyond all doubt that the witnesses were telling the truth, he called the case to a close.

The jury acquitted all four men on all charges.

What happened to Jeremy Thorpe after the trial?

Jeremy Thorpe leaves the Old Bailey with his wife Marion
Jeremy Thorpe leaves the Old Bailey with his wife Marion (Getty)

Thorpe’s public reputation had been damaged irreparably. Preston writes: “Although he had been acquitted, Thorpe soon discovered that almost everyone thought he was guilty – and treated him accordingly.”

He had already lost his seat in the May 1979 General Election before the trial began, and the fact that he turned down the chance to speak in court and give his own side of the story left many things unexplained. He was never able to return to public life: when he was chosen as Director of Amnesty International’s British arm in 1982, there was such a public outcry that the job offer was retracted. His long-running campaign to secure himself a peerage also came to nothing.

Are Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott still alive?

In the mid 1980s Thorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which progressively robbed him of his power to communicate. He died in 2014 at the age of 85, outliving his ever-faithful wife Marion by just a few months.

Jeremy Thorpe in 1999
Jeremy Thorpe in 1999 (Getty)

And what of Norman Scott, formerly Norman Josiffe? Now 78, he lives in an ancient farmhouse on Dartmoor in Devon alongside a collection of chickens, horses, and dogs, and has spent the last 20 years in a relationship with an artist. “I’ve got the most lovely life and have had for years,” he recently told The Times. But does he think justice has been done? “Not at all.”

He told the newspaper: “I think he should have gone to prison. And that also would have made my life so different, because people would have believed me.”

Few of the other players in the story are still around. Peter Bessell had already been suffering from incurable emphysema at the time of the trial; he died in 1985, having lived his final days in Oceanside, California.

David Holmes was arrested in 1981 for “importuning for an immoral purpose” – that is, approaching men for sex – and exposed in the tabloids. His reputation also suffered because of the Thorpe case, and so he quit the financial and political world and instead became a manager of a roller-disco in Camden.

How accurate is A Very English Scandal?

Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal
Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal (BBC)

The BBC drama has been adapted by Russell T Davies from the “non-fiction novel” A Very English Scandal by John Preston, which was published in 2016, with additional research by the production team. But Davies also left space for his imagination.

“We did kind of re-research everything,” Davies says. “The book had done an awful lot of research and had been published without John Preston being sued. At the BBC you have to re-prove everything, and go through that, and have two sources of evidence for everything.

“Also, at the same time, that’s all very well, it’s not a documentary – they get me in, I’ve got a good career as a writer, I have to say, ‘What am I being brought in for?’ And that’s to imagine what those people said. And why they said it.

“That’s an act of imagination, there’s no proof in that, and that’s what I’m actually good at. That’s what I write about in my career, the madness of men.”

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A Very English Scandal will air on BBC1