Episode two of A Very English Scandal is EVENTFUL. Some of the events seem utterly ludicrous and unlikely – and yet, Russell T Davies’ three-part BBC drama is based on a true story.
So how accurate is what we see on screen? With the help of Davies’ source material, the John Preston book A Very English Scandal, we’ve set out to answer the big questions.
It should go without saying, but: SPOILER WARNING. Now let’s take a closer look at the real events behind episode two, from beginning to end.
Did Norman Scott really get married and have a baby?
Yes! But it was a disaster.
In 1969 Scott married Sue Myers, a friend of a friend in London who was besotted with him. As we see on screen, there were few guests at their wedding: Sue’s mother, sister and brother-in-law (the actor Terry-Thomas) all refused to attend. At the low-key reception, the bride’s father Captain Myers gave a pretty awful speech, declaring the marriage between his daughter and her “homosexual” husband to be doomed. At this point, Sue was pregnant with Scott’s child.
The newlyweds moved into Sue’s sister’s cottage in Dorset. But despite their rent-free living, all was not well. They could not claim maternity benefits without Scott’s long-lost National Insurance card; they had no income; they were soon reduced to living off vegetables scrounged from the fields. At this point Scott called Thorpe’s house to demand the return of his NI card. It was Caroline who picked up – and Scott poured out his heart about his “ex-lover”.
When the two of them did get their hands on some emergency funds, Sue went out to buy baby clothes and came back with a black dress, four books and 12 Peacock feathers. The marriage broke down.
In the TV series they’ve already had their baby when they’re living in the cottage, but in reality they didn’t make it that far: when she was eight months pregnant, Sue went home to her parents to have the baby, a little boy called Benjamin.
The family of three later moved back to Sue’s old flat in London, but they lived an isolated and unhappy existence. Scott hooked back up with an old boyfriend and Sue left him again – this time for good.
Did Thorpe’s wife Caroline really die in a car crash?
Yes. Shortly after the 1970 General Election, Thorpe’s wife Caroline was driving from Devon to London in a green Ford Anglia packed with all the family’s luggage when she suddenly veered from one lane into another, hitting a 13-ton lorry, colliding with another car and flying twelve feet in the air. By the time she arrived at hospital she had died of a ruptured spleen.
Because of all the luggage, Thorpe and his 11-month-old son Rupert had travelled to London on the train. That afternoon, the police arrived at parliament to break the news. Thorpe was utterly devastated.
Why did Peter Bessell move to America?
Russell T Davies has made a wise decision to cut out a lot of the convolutions and details of Peter Bessell’s story. But in brief: Bessell’s string of failed business ventures and investments had left him in debt and in trouble with a lot of creditors. No longer an MP, he planned to disappear to a country with no extradition treaty, taking with him his younger American girlfriend Diane Kelly.
It didn’t all go to plan – Bessell had a heart attack en-route – but the two of them were able to make arrangements to stay in Oceanside, California, where they lived together in a beach shack.
Did Bessell really leave a briefcase of letters in the ceiling?
Yes, though he may have accidentally left them behind in his hiding-place in the ceiling, rather than making the decision to leave them there on purpose.
Did Norman have a fling with Gwen Parry-Jones?
Scott met Gwen Parry-Jones, a recent widow and a middle-aged woman of strict moral principles, during the time he was living in Wales in a run-down caravan. Her husband, a soldier in the Welsh Guards, had recently died. The two of them became close – and began an affair that scandalised the locals in Tal-y-bont.
When Scott ran out of money, Parry-Jones let him live rent-free in her cottage. She also happened to be a devoted Liberal and a friend of MP Emlyn Hooson’s father.
Did Norman Scott meet Emlyn Hooson at Westminster?
Yes. When Parry-Jones heard Scott’s story, she wrote directly to Hooson hinting at the problem. Alarmed at the potential for scandal, Hooson arranged to meet them both at the House of Commons.
They were actually greeted by the Liberal Chief Whip David Steel, but when he heard what Scott had to say, he asked him to come back the next day so Hooson could be in the room. The two men interrogated Scott about all the details of his involvement with Thorpe but were unsure whether to believe him.
Thorpe was furious when he found out that Hooson had been asking questions and the two men had a full-blown row.
The matter went to a party inquiry, but ultimately Thorpe was able to survive relatively unscathed.
Did Emlyn Hooson defend Ian Brady?
Yes, in his successful professional career as a barrister. Emlyn Hooson QC represented Moors Murderer Ian Brady when he was tried and convicted in 1966.
How did Gwen Parry-Jones die?
The relationship between Scott and Parry-Jones soon broke down after their trip to the House of Commons. Parry-Jones became increasingly depressed. Some time later, Scott learned that Parry-Jones’ aunt had been repeatedly trying to contact her – with no response – for at least two weeks.
When the police broke down the door they found her lying on her bed, dead. The central heating was on and her body was badly decomposed. The coroner concluded she had died of alcohol poisoning.
When did the alleged murder conspiracy begin?
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: perhaps they could pretend they had tried and failed to kill Scott, and Thorpe would give up on the idea?
But the idea of murdering Scott never went away, and Holmes was finally convinced to carry out the plan – though he did not intend to pull the trigger himself.
Holmes 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.
Did Jeremy Thorpe nearly form a coalition?
The general election of February 1974 ended with a hung parliament, putting the Liberals – with their 14 seats – in a strong position. He was offered a Cabinet position by Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath if he joined a coalition, but talks collapsed when Heath refused Thorpe’s demand: electoral reform.
Heath stepped down in favour of a minority Labour government and there was another General Election within the year.
Did Norman Scott trot past Jeremy Thorpe on a horse?
In 1972, Norman Scott moved into his friends’ house in North Devon, which just happened to be Thorpe’s constituency. One day he was riding his newly-acquired horse through town when he caught sight of Thorpe for the first time in eight years, sitting in his car. As we see on screen, Thorpe let him pass and Scott yelled out “thank you!” – presumably startling his old lover.
Was that a real party that Andrew Newton attended in Blackpool?
Small-time airline pilot Andrew Newton was getting very, very drunk at the Showmen’s Dinner at the Savoy Hotel in Blackpool when he was approached by a friend of his, with a job that could earn him £10,000. He immediately agreed to be the assassin.
It was an eventful party. In his book A Very English Scandal, John Preston writes: “After dinner there was a mock-auction of topless women, during which Newton tried to stick meringues on the nipples of one of them. The woman’s boyfriend, who was also among the guests, asked him to stop. but by this point Newton was swigging brandy straight from the bottle and long past the point of no return.”
He adds: “Later that night, Newton was violently sick all over his bed.”
Did Newton go to Dunstable instead of Barnstaple?
Yes. Newton’s initial attempts to track down his victim did not go well, to put things mildly.
Did Newton pretend to be a man called Peter Keene?
Also, yes. And, ludicrously, at one point he forgot he was calling himself “Peter Keene”, introducing himself to Scott on the telephone as Andy.
Did Andrew Newton shoot Rinka the Great Dane?
Yes. In October 1975, pretending he’d been sent to protect Scott from a would-be killer, Newton persuaded him to get into his car for his own safety. Scott insisted on bringing along his giant Great Dane Rinka, but 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 final episode of A Very English Scandal will air on Sunday 3rd June at 9pm on BBC1