The third and final episode of Russell T Davies drama A Very English Scandal tells the extraordinary story of the trial of former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe at the Old Bailey, on charges of incitement and conspiracy to murder.
So how true to life is the TV drama? With the help of Davies’ source material, the John Preston book A Very English Scandal, we’ve set out to answer the big questions – and the small.
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It should go without saying, but: SPOILER WARNING. Now let’s take a closer look at the real events behind the final episode, from beginning to end.
Did the police beat up Norman Scott?
He says so. While the police were initially sympathetic when he was taken to Minehead Police Station in the hours following Rinka’s death, the next day they were more sceptical about Norman Scott’s fantastical story of a top politician trying to murder him and killing his dog.
Preston writes: “When they questioned him again at Minehead Police Station, they took a much harder line than before. According to Scott, they banged his head repeatedly against the wall and denied him his medication. They also made it clear that they considered homosexuals to be more prone to hysterical fantasising than heterosexuals.”
Did Edna Friendship take down Andrew Newton’s numberplate?
Good old Edna Friendship lived up to her name. Scott had asked her to write down his visitor’s numberplate when Andrew Newton came to collect him from her inn, where he was living – and that proved a wise decision.
Edna was able to walk into Barnstaple Police Station with the number of the yellow Mazda initially rented by Newton, which was then traced to a hire company in Blackpool and to Newton himself. Unlike the events we see on TV, he wasn’t arrested immediately: he and his girlfriend had gone on holiday to Pakistan. Instead he was arrested at Heathrow on his return.
Once arrested, he admitted shooting the dog, but said he had only wanted to frighten Scott. His story was that Scott had been blackmailing him over some compromising photographs that he had obtained.
How did the story of Thorpe’s involvement hit the headlines?
Hurrah for local journalism! In October 1975, the West Somerset Free Press ran an intriguing story: “The Great Dane Mystery: Dog-in-a-Fog Case Baffles Police”. The article explained: “Police at Bridgwater refused to confirm or deny a story that has gained circulation – that the killer of the pet also tried to shoot the man, but that the gun jammed. Neither would say whether the dog owner is a Mr Norman Scott of Park Lane, Combe Martin.”
The story of the alleged plot had started to come out. One reader of the West Somerset Free Press was Auberon Waugh, son of the novelist Evelyn Waugh, and a journalist for the satirical political magazine Private Eye. In December he wrote a column alluding to Thorpe’s involvement in Rinka’s death, linking the two in the press for the first time. The rumours began to gain traction as other papers reported on the story.
What happened at Andrew Newton’s trial?
Scott gave his evidence at Newton’s trial in March 1976, where the gunman was found guilty of intent to endanger life, and for damaging Scott’s property – i.e. Rinka.
But Scott’s explanation for the shooting was ridiculed in court, while Newton stuck to his blackmailing story – still hoping to be paid for his job half-done.
Did Jeremy Thorpe really call Scott “Bunnies”?
Yes: apparently because, the night they first had sex, Scott had looked like a startled bunny. Thorpe had written the affectionate sentence “Bunnies can (and will) go to France” in a letter to Scott during the affair, a reference to a job he was seeking across the Channel.
This line was in one of the letters Scott gave to police in the early 60s as proof of his homosexual relationship with the Liberal politician, once feelings had turned sour between the two men. As the story began to hit the media after Rinka’s murder, Scott issued a summons to try to get his letters back from the police.
To pre-empt this, Thorpe’s solicitor got hold of copies of the letters from the police and offered two of them to the Sunday Times for publication – a sympathetic newspaper he hoped would help contain the story. This included the Bunnies letter.
Did Thorpe’s wife Marion know? How did she react?
We will never know exactly what Marion knew or thought, either about her husband’s sexuality or allegations of conspiracy and incitement to murder. But we do know that she stood by him.
It is suspected that Thorpe talked to Marion about his history with men on the night before the papers came out, at the urging of his colleagues.
But, as Preston writes, “It’s often been thought that Marion knew all about Thorpe’s homosexuality and was quite relaxed about it. After all, she was close friends with the composer Benjamin Britten and his long-term lover, the tenor Peter Pears. But, as Thorpe had told Bessell in New York, she didn’t know anything – or, if she did, she chose to blank it out.”
Even once she knew and privately accepted Thorpe’s sexuality, it doesn’t seem she believed any of the allegations against him. “There’s nothing to suggested that she ever entertained the possibility that he had tried to have Scott killed,” Preston adds.
Did Andrew Newton sell his story to the papers?
Yes, though it wasn’t a done deal the moment he stepped out of prison in 1977. John Le Mesurier paid him £5,000 of the money hoping to keep him quiet, but Newton was set on selling his story to a newspaper.
He began to record his phone conversations with Holmes, Deakin and Le Mesurier for added proof of the alleged conspiracy, and struck a deal with London’s Evening News for a tell-all – although he only got £3,000, a little less than the £75,000 he had asked for. The story was headlined: “I Was Hired to Kill Scott: Exclusive. Gunman Tells of Incredible Plot”.
The story was enough to force Thorpe to call a press conference and deny all allegations.
But behind the scenes the police had been working on the case, flying out to California to meet Peter Bessell and persuade him to be their principal witness. On the morning of 4th August 1978, Thorpe was taken to Minehead Police Station and arrested.
Did George Carman’s wife leave him for George Best?
Apparently so. Footballer and womaniser George Best hired libel expert George Carman to represent him in the sixties, and then had an affair with his second wife Celia.
Carman’s son Dominic wrote in his biography: “I was made aware of what was going on when Celia told me why Best’s red E-type Jaguar was parked outside our house. Celia claimed that when her husband found out about the affair he went berserk and asked for a divorce. She agreed to his request.”
What was the story of Auberon Waugh and the Dog Lovers Party?
Auberon Waugh stands on a stage in North Devon as the 1979 general election results are read out for the Dog Lovers Party, and as Thorpe loses his seat in Parliament.
This is a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the TV drama, but there’s a great backstory. Having helped break the story about Rinka, Evelyn Waugh’s son stood for election in Thorpe’s constituency as representative of the Dog Lovers Party, printing up a manifesto: “Rinka is NOT forgotten. Rinka lives. Woof Woof, Vote Waugh, to give all dogs the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thorpe’s legal team secured an injunction on the grounds that it might prejudice the trial.
He won 79 votes anyway.
Did Jeremy Thorpe sit on a cushion in court?
Yes. According to the Washington Post’s report in 1979, he used “three pastel-coloured pillows” to cushion the wooden chair.
Did Peter Bessell admit to being a liar?
Peter Bessell was granted immunity to return to England and testify at the Old Bailey. In court he went through all the details: how he and Thorpe had discussed where to dump Scott’s body, and the history of the affair.
But Carman tore him apart in the witness box. He suggested that Bessell had financial motives for Thorpe’s conviction, because he’d signed a contract with the Sunday Telegraph to tell his story – with extra money promised if Thorpe was found guilty. He pointed out that Bessell had never been to the police about all this, asking: “Does this make you a thoroughly amoral person?”
Yes, said Bessell, it did. He also admitted to being a hypocrite, in that he went against his religious beliefs. He also admitted to having lied in the past, to protect Thorpe, and to having been addicted to sleeping pills – even saying it was “possible” that affected his moral values. As the cross-examination continued, he seemed prone to self-laceration: “I have been guilty of quite disgraceful behaviour.”
What was Norman Scott’s testimony at the Old Bailey?
Carman was equally ruthless with Scott, but this prosecution witness put up more of a fight – although he also had to contend with a hostile judge, Sir Joseph Cantley.
He questioned him on his history of mental illness, and also highlighted his past lies and the money he had gained from TV and media appearances. Although Carman seemed to concede that Thorpe had homosexual relationships, he suggested that Scott had never had a relationship with his client and was instead a delusional fantasist.
Memorably, Scott also declared: “National Insurance is my lifeblood” – a reference to his years-long mission to get his National Insurance card back from Thorpe so he could work and claim benefits.
Did Jeremy Thorpe decline to testify at the Old Bailey?
Yes. His barrister Carman had gambled that Thorpe could damage his case if he went in the witness box. He also knew that co-defendants Holmes and Le Mesurier had declined to give evidence, so there was no need for Thorpe to deny any accusations those two men might have made.
The decision meant that the case against Thorpe rested almost entirely on the evidence of Bessell, Scott and Newton, and as John Preston has pointed out, Carman had already demonstrated that all three were liars in some way.
Did the judge Joseph Cantley make those extraordinary comments in his summing-up speech?
What we see on screen at the end of the Old Bailey trial seems beyond belief, but it is entirely true to life: Joseph Cantley really did give a notoriously biased summing-up speech.
He called Bessell a “humbug”, and Scott a “hysterical, warped personality, accomplished sponger.” He added: “He is a crook. He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite.”
Unbelievably he then added: “You must not think that because I am not concealing my opinion of Mr Scott I am suggesting you should not believe him. That is not for me. I am not expressing any opinion.”
The speech inspired Peter Cook’s parody, “Entirely A Matter for You”.
All four defendants were found not guilty.
Was Thorpe’s barrister Carman gay – and did they have a heart-to-heart?
While most of A Very English Scandal stays close to reality and to the narrative of John Preston’s book, this intimate scene between Carman and Thorpe is more of an invention by Russell T Davies. Nothing like it is known to have happened.
The conversation is presumably based on a detail from Dominic Carman’s book. Barrister George Carman married three times, but apparently two of those marriages went unconsummated. Dominic suggests his father had affairs with men and was probably homosexual or bisexual. However, this is unconfirmed.
This article was originally published on 3 June 2018