A Very English Scandal – BBC 1

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The one genuine hero in all this was a minor character, Leo Abse, the middle-class Welsh Jewish Labour MP who led the parliamentary campaign for the decriminalisation of homosexuality – whilst the Old Etonians were off murdering their ex-lovers’ pet dogs. The main characters were all thoroughly unlikeable.  Daniel Cleaver, sorry, Jeremy Thorpe, as brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Grant, was so bloody obnoxious that I just kept wanting to thump him.  I’d expected to feel some sympathy for him in the early part of the programme, as the victim of institutionalised prejudice and a blackmail plot; but he was just odious.  Snooty (in practically the first scene, he and his sidekick Peter Bessell were making fun of Harold Wilson’s Yorkshire accent), ruthless, self-obsessed, conceited, arrogant, entitled … and, whilst (hooray!!) I’m not old enough to remember the 1960s or most of the 1970s, by all accounts that was pretty much what he was like in real life.

As for Norman Scott (Norman Josiffe, until he changed his surname to that of an earl whom he’d convinced himself was his natural father), equally brilliantly portrayed by Ben Whishaw, however sympathetic the viewer might have felt about his mental health problems and financial traumas, it’s very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who tried to blackmail and ruin the career of a person with whom he’d once been in a relationship and had then received help from in finding work and accommodation.  As Peter Bessell pointed out, he at least had the strength and honesty to speak openly about his sexuality; so he deserved credit for that, but that was all.  So it was hard to warm to either main character.  But, as TV viewing, it worked really well!  Cosy Sunday evening viewing, like Downton Abbey or Victoria, it is not; but it certainly kept your attention.

(Just to be accurate, the dog-shooting incident actually took place eight years after the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the UK, but I thought the contrast in priorities between the self-obsessed Thorpe and someone who was actually in politics to try to make a difference to society made the point well!)

You really couldn’t make this story up.  I don’t know who is and isn’t going to turn up in later episodes, but I assume we’re going to get Thorpe’s second wife, who’d previously been married to none other than the Earl of Harewood, Sir Jack Hayward of Wolverhampton Wanderers fame, who provided the funding to the Liberal Party which was allegedly used to try to pay Scott off, and George Carman, the barrister famous in Manchester for trying to keep the Hacienda open but whose first big case was the defence of Jeremy Thorpe against attempted murder charges.  And apparently Thorpe, back in 1960, was considered for the role of best man at Princess Margaret’s wedding.

It all makes for such a brilliant story.  Great TV.  A great book, I assume, although I haven’t read it.  The leader of a British political party, someone who stood a real chance of becoming Prime Minister in a coalition government, ended up on trial for plotting to have his blackmailing ex-lover murdered!   If it had been the storyline in a Jeffrey Archer novel, readers and reviewers would scoff at how far-fetched it was.  And yet it really happened.

And, in so many ways, it was a tragedy.  A promising political career ruined: Thorpe had to resign as leader of the Liberal Party because of the Scott saga. At the heart of it all, Thorpe’s relationship with Scott having taken place when both were single, was the fact that any public figure who was gay had to live in constant fear, knowing that his or her career would be ruined should that fact ever become public.  There was a very poignant scene in which Lord Arran, whose gay elder brother had committed suicide, spoke about the high rate of suicide amongst gay men, and said that they weren’t really killed by their own hands, but were murdered by society.  What a brilliant line, and what a tragic one.

You think, too, of all the other things that people have felt obliged to conceal about themselves over the years, because of prejudice.  Illegitimacy.  Ethnic or religious background – think of all the actors and singers who changed their names to conceal their origins, and the people who concealed the fact that they had non-white ancestry.  Be very glad that we’ve moved on from that – but remember that there are many countries in which that isn’t the case.  And we’ve still got a way to go, even now.  There are, famously, still no openly gay Premier League footballers.  And think of Will Young and – bah, I’ve forgotten the guy’s name, but another singer spoke out about this recently – being told to pretend to be straight, because record producers apparently thought that their popularity would be affected if they were known to be gay.  Which is bloody rubbish: Elton John sang at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding reception!  And remember all the support that the late Stephen Gately got when he announced that he was gay?  But we’ve come a long way – and, in Jeremy Thorpe’s time, things were very different.

That was why I thought I’d feel some sympathy for him – before things got to the murderous stage, obviously! – but no.  The BBC did include one speech about Commonwealth immigration (I’d love to know if that was in the original script or if it was added in in the wake of the Windrush affair), but there was nothing else to show that Thorpe was a well-known anti-racism/anti-apartheid campaigner, his main redeeming virtue.  That was a shame.  He wasn’t all bad.  And it did show him having some affection for his son, but all I felt was overwhelming sympathy for his wife (his first wife, who later tragically died in a car crash), after we’d seen him talking about how he’d decided to get married because he hoped it’d give him a boost in the opinion polls.  OK, it wasn’t uncommon at the time for a gay man to marry a woman for the sake of being seen to be conventional, but the way he spoke about it was so callous, and we didn’t see how he met and courted his wife so we didn’t know if he felt any genuine affection for her or not.  He just came across as being a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

And yet he was pretty popular, at one time.  Was that all about charisma?  Well, charisma in a politician can be a very overrated trait!  Mentioning no names.

And the Scott saga went on for years.  The relationship between Thorpe and Scott took place in 1962.  Scott’d been working as a groom – how Lady Chatterley-ish is that?  He worked in Altrincham at one time: I didn’t know that until I did a bit of reading up on all this!   He started threatening to go to the press in 1965, but the press didn’t want to know.   That’s fascinating in itself.  We’re so used to the press falling over themselves to print stories about famous people’s private lives.  The story couldn’t be proven.  In the era of fake news, it’s quite impressive to think of the press turning down a story because it couldn’t be proven – although it’s hard to know how much of it was down to integrity and how much of it was due to fear of being given huge fines under the libel laws.  But, whatever the reasons, it says a lot about how good the Establishment were at covering things up back then.  When it comes to protecting someone from attempted blackmail when they’ve done nothing wrong, that’s a good thing; but, as we all know, there were other things which were covered up, by politicians, the BBC, the religious authorities, and other powers that be, at the cost of great suffering to young boys and girls.

Anyway.  But, all along, even though the story didn’t get into the press, Jeremy Thorpe was paying Scott off, and having to live with the knowledge that this could all come out at any time, in an era when gay people, even after decriminalisation, faced horrendous prejudice.  So, in 1968, he apparently decided to have him killed off.  And the TV programme was quite clear about that: we saw Jeremy Thorpe saying, quite clearly and unmistakeably, that Scott had to be killed.  Things like that don’t happen in British politics, do they?  Well, yes, they do.  OK, Thorpe always denied it, and he was acquitted, but … well, what do most people really believe?   It’s difficult to believe that the character portrayed in this series wasn’t capable of ordering his ex-lover to be murdered.

Nothing happened at that time, but, in 1971, Scott went to the Liberal Party with his tale – and was sent packing.  It then all died down again, until 1974, when papers containing details of the various goings-on came into the hands of the Sunday Mirror … which decided not to publish them.  The Sunday Mirror decided not to print the story, and handed the documents over to Thorpe!  Imagine that happening now!  However, Thorpe allegedly decided that enough was enough and that Scott had to be “dealt with”.  And this, in 1975, was when Scott’s poor old dog was shot dead.  I mean, I can’t stand dogs, but shooting one dead is a bit much.  Poor dog 😦 .

Did the gunman really intend to kill Scott, rather than his dog?  And, the crux of the matter as far as this story’s concerned, was this on Thorpe’s orders?  In 1976, the whole tale finally ended up all over the papers, after Scott was brought to court on charges of benefit fiddling and shouted his mouth off about Thorpe: claims made in court are exempt from libel laws.  So maybe the press were just scared of the libel laws, rather than being part of a cover up, or actually showing some integrity in not wanting to risk damaging someone’s career without being sure of their facts?  Whatever, into the papers it went.  And, in 1978, nearly twenty years after Thorpe and Scott met, Thorpe was put on trial on charges of conspiracy to murder his ex-lover.  Well, Scott’s generally referred to as his “ex-lover”, but he denied that Scott had ever even been his lover.

And he was acquitted.  But he’d already had to resign as Liberal Party leader, and his attempts to find a new career outside politics came to nothing.  Because no-one really believed in his innocence?  And then, because of Parkinson’s Disease, poor health also restricted his attempts to re-establish himself in public life.  That’s very sad.  But … well, he couldn’t get back into public life anyway.   It does seem that most people thought he was very lucky not to have been found guilty.  You couldn’t make it up.  Imagine – anyone reading this (I never know if anyone reads anything I write!), if you don’t remember the late 1970s, a senior politician being put on trial for the attempted murder of a blackmailing ex.  Nah, stuff like that doesn’t happen here.  We’re much too safe and boring.  Well, obviously we’re not!

As I said, it’s not cosy Sunday night viewing.  It’s exciting, but it’s also troubling, especially knowing that it’s a true story.  But the script is brilliant.  So is the acting, even if you do sometimes forget that Hugh Grant isn’t actually playing Daniel Cleaver or the baddie from Paddington II.  He plays all three parts in pretty much the same way!  But it really does grab, and keep, your attention.  Fact really can be stranger than fiction.

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7 thoughts on “A Very English Scandal – BBC 1

  1. Chris Deeley

    Shame being too young to remember the ’60s. They were the days! The Great Train Robbery, the Profumo Affair, etc. One of the newspapers declined to publish Profumo’s note to Christine Keeler, on the grounds that it was deemed “effusive but not conclusive”. As you say, such restraint would be rare these days.

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  2. mrsredboots

    Hugh Grant plays Hugh Grant, end of. When they were small boys, it was his brother, Jamie (now a banker in New York) who was thought to be the actor in the family! Having said that, I thought he wasn’t bad as Thorpe. Who I had a huge crush on when he first became leader of the Liberal Party – he was relatively young and handsome and of course, in the 1960s even I was only a child and doubt whether I knew homosexuality existed, other than in the vaguest of ways.

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    • Yes, he seems to have been very charismatic. I think politicians are probably better without charisma! The boring ones like Gordon Brown and John Major seem to do a lot less damage than the “charismatic” ones.

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