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When a British party leader tried to have his ex-lover murdered

A Very English Scandal

Did you know that Norman Scott was married to Terry-Thomas’s sister-in-law? Most people today will have only a fuzzy idea who Terry-Thomas was, just as they will be vague about the Jeremy Thorpe affair, but this revelation was perhaps the key moment in the second part of A Very English Scandal.

The drama comes over as farce, indeed black comedy, coming to a climax with the failed shooting on Exmoor. One didn’t even feel sorry for the dog, Rinka, the one harmless and perhaps purely likeable character in the whole story.

The creators of the television drama had little choice but to go down the comic route, and make of their series a beautiful realisation of the world of Terry-Thomas and Carry On. How else could one have remained faithful to the facts? For the facts of the matter are so bizarre, so outlandish, so simply mad, that they can’t be given completely serious treatment – or rather their seriousness best emerges through the medium of comedy.

I was a schoolboy when the Thorpe affair unfolded, and I followed it closely, having been a keen supporter of the Liberal Party since 1974. (I was 11 in that year of two elections, but I took to politics early, just as some take to football.) I was pretty convinced that Thorpe stood a chance of becoming Prime Minister, and Thorpe himself evidently thought the same.

When it came to the trial in the spring of 1979, I suppose I was not the only one to see the duel between Scott and Thorpe as being not a contest of equals: an establishment grandee versus an archetypal outsider; nor could I have been the only one whose instinctive sympathy was with the grandee. In fact, Mr Justice Cantley, whose summing up was so favourable to Thorpe, became something of a national hero after the trial. And George Carman, who was the defence lawyer, became Britain’s most famous barrister. The underdog, Norman Scott, was widely scorned and derided. But, as we now know, and should have realised then (perhaps we did, but not consciously) Scott was not a liar. But we wanted him to be a liar, I think. Scott was seen as a threat, not just to Thorpe, but to the society as a whole.

All that has now changed. Norman Scott (happily still with us, the only main player still alive) today would no longer be cast as a dangerous outsider, a threat to national stability. Indeed, so much has Britain changed that anything like the Thorpe affair is now impossible.

But there is one thing that continues to make the affair memorable, and that is the way Thorpe conspired to have Scott murdered in so very amateurish and incompetent a way; indeed that Thorpe thought of having Scott murdered in the first place. The whole plan, the whole idea, strikes one as completely mad. Was Thorpe off his rocker, to put it in ordinary terms? Were his actions the actions of a sane and balanced man? If not, and one can hardly see how they could have been, how was it that Thorpe was so plausible for so long?

One possible conclusion is that the leading men of the sixties (and they were all men) really did think they could get away with anything. Thorpe took terrible risks, given the mores of the time. So did people like Lord Boothby and Tom Driberg. But in those days newspapers did not publish scandalous material about politicians, even if it was true. This remained the case until the late 1970s and the time of the Thorpe trial. Thorpe could pose as the innocent victim of a blackmailer. In fact, as Hugh Grant’s brilliant interpretation of his character makes clear, Thorpe was a bounder and a cad, though a charming one.

It all makes for great television: but such wonderful viewing does raise questions of just how divorced from reality and morality someone like Thorpe was. There is underlying seriousness in A Very English Scandal: we all need to treat each other with more kindness.