The Church of England has sponsored some bizarre acts of worship in its time, but seldom one more extraordinary than the thanksgiving service held on July 1, 1979, in the Somerset village of Bratton Fleming on the edge of Exmoor.
The vicar, the Rev John Hornby, had organised the ceremony in order to give thanks to God for the acquittal at the Old Bailey two weeks earlier of his friend, the former leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe, along with three others, had faced a charge of conspiracy to murder his former lover Norman Scott (in the event Scott’s dog Rinka was the only casualty).
The congregation was not a large one, consisting as it did of Thorpe, Marion, his second wife, and a few Liberal Party colleagues including Clement Freud, the MP for the Isle of Ely.
But nothing could dampen Hornby’s high spirits. “My dears,” he proclaimed from the pulpit, “wasn’t God fantastic”, for bolstering Jeremy and Marion throughout their long ordeal. “Don’t you think that if it had been you or me in Jeremy or Marion’s shoes that we’d be either round the bend or in the madhouse or had a couple of coronaries?” There followed a reading of the famous passage from Ecclesiasticus often used at funerals: “Let us now praise famous men”.
As it happened, Thorpe had had little need for divine intervention, as he owed his freedom to his clever barrister George Carman, and particularly to the judge Mr Justice Cantley.
Cantley’s shamelessly biased summing-up had discredited all the prosecution’s witnesses, with Norman Scott dismissed as an accomplished liar and a crook.
Such humdrum thoughts seemed to have passed Hornby by. Only one thing had threatened to spoil this otherwise happy occasion. A day or two earlier he had received a phone call from a Mr Simpson claiming to represent a gay rights organisation in London. He and his fellow members, he said, had hired two minibuses and were planning to take part in the thanksgiving service to show solidarity with a much-wronged member of the gay community.
Hornby did his best to dissuade his caller. It was a long way to come and the church was a very small one. Besides which, the service was more of a private affair.
But Simpson was not to be deterred, leaving the vicar with something of a problem. In the end he decided to wire up the village hall with a loudspeaker system, thus keeping Simpson and his friends informed but at a safe distance from the solemnities in the church, and avoiding any embarrassment to Mr Thorpe and his wife.
On the day, however, there was no sign of a minibus, much to the relief of the vicar. It was, of course, a hoax, though a number of newspapers were taken in. As it happens, I know the hoaxer well: a respected author and fellow Catholic. But nothing would be gained by revealing his name after all these years, or seeking to explain how I myself am so well informed about this childish prank.
As for Thorpe, such was his overweening self-esteem that he would have seen nothing incongruous or tasteless about the Bratton Fleming service. Nor is it likely that he ever reflected that the God who was thanked for his delivery might actually have punished him by allowing him his freedom.
Instead of a prison sentence, which might have redeemed him, Thorpe was to live out his life for another 30 years a forgotten figure, his repeated pleas to various Liberal leaders for a life peerage being rejected. And now he has achieved posthumous fame in the person of Hugh Grant, star of Stephen Frears’s brilliant BBC film A Very English Scandal, the title of John Preston’s book on which it is based.
I had been hoping that the climax of the film would have been the comic service at Bratton Fleming. But Frears gave the last word instead to Thorpe’s monocled mother Ursula, hissing into his ear as he waved to cheering supporters outside the court:
I’m not sure she ever said this, but it was nothing but the truth.
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and the Oldie