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A Very English Scandal
18 June 2018 18:46


TV that we have found interesting over the last few weeks (technically it was broadcast a bit longer ago than that but we've been using the catch-up service) has been a three-part drama-documentary based on the Jeremy Thorpe scandal of the 1970s.

I found it interesting because I can just about remember the event. CS3 found it interesting because she likes dramas based on true-life events – especially when they include an element of murder-mystery and/or legal processes. In fact, she voluntarily and unprompted watched the first episode on her own, and the final episode twice: first on her own and then with us.

Long story short: Jeremy Thorpe was a prominent politician in the 1960s and 1970s, including being the leader of the Liberal Party for several years (this was in the days when a party leader was in it for long-term, and didn't resign when the party lost an election). In the mid-1970s he was accused and tried for conspiracy to murder. The alleged target was his former male lover (from times when homosexuality was illegal).

This was different times: politicians were still generally treated with reverence and respect; homosexuality was still viewed as somewhat immoral and something that only went on in the seedier parts of society. Well, thank goodness society has moved on in at least one of those respects.

The idea that a politician could have had a gay affair* both horrified and tantalised the population – somewhat overwhelming the small matter of conspiracy to murder. In fact, the whole motive for the alleged murder plot was that the lover, Normal Scott, was about to reveal details to the press and so end Thorpe's career. Yes, murder was deemed to be less career-limiting than homosexuality. Different Times.

*CS3 asked "so if neither of them were married at the time, why was it called an affair". Good question to which I didn’t have the answer.

As I said, I can just about remember the events; it's probably the first political scandal I was aware of. I would overhear adults talking about it in hushed tones – though never very clearly as they were talking in hushed tones. People didn't want to admit to being interested in such tittle-tattle but also didn’t what to miss out on the juicy gossip.

My schoolfriends and I, being the age where we were interested in such title-tattle, pored over the newspaper reports. "Bunny" and "biting the pillow" probably got far more attention than they merited.

And what happened in the trial? Pretty much against everyone’s expectations, Thorpe was acquitted. Many people think he got away with murder - or would have done had anyone been murdered (the only thing that died was a dog). Interestingly, the defence brought forward no witnesses. This cleverly meant that Thorpe never had to answer questions under oath.

The judge was widely criticised for giving what is widely viewed as a less-than-partial summing up. For example, he described Scott as a fraud, a sponger, a whiner, and a parasite – adding "but of course he could still be telling the truth" in what appears to be a lame attempt at balance.

Here's Peter Cook's take on the summing up:

But it was a pyrrhic victory: Thorpe's career was over and we never heard much from him again.

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A Very English Scandal - 18 June 2018
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