Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Thorpe Affair—Back When English Scandals Led the World

Zoë Sharp

Tonight (Sunday) is the final episode of a three-part BBC drama written by the excellent Russell T Davies called A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, about the Thorpe Affair of the late 1960s/early 1970s. As I write this, I have so far watched only the opening instalment, but will certainly be catching up on the rest.

Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, with his second wife, Marion (r)
For a start, Hugh Grant’s performance as Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal Party politician embroiled in a scandal of sex and politics, is a revelation. Gone are the foppish tics and verbal fumbling that have (let’s be honest) characterised just about Grant’s entire career to date. In their place is an acting tour de force of sleazy intensity.

Jeremy Thorpe (l) played by Hugh Grant (r)
Maybe Grant had no choice but to up his game, appearing as he does opposite the excellent Ben Whishaw—an actor whose previous credits include Q in the Daniel Craig Bond movies, and the voice of Paddington Bear. Wishaw plays Thorpe’s gay lover, Norman Josiffe, who became better known as Norman Scott.

Ben Whishaw (l) as Norman Scott (r)
Much of their affair was conducted at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, but it was Thorpe’s alleged attempt to have his inconvenient and troublesome ex done away with that led to them both appearing at the Old Bailey in May 1979.

Jeremy Thorpe joined the Liberal Party whilst he was studying law at Oxford and was later adopted as a prospective candidate, successfully being elected to Parliament in 1959 as one of a handful of Liberal MPs.

He met Norman Josiffe, as he was then, while Josiffe was working as a groom at stables owned by Norman Vater, a friend of Thorpe’s. When Thorpe came to visit in 1961 the two met and Thorpe told the young man to contact him if ever he needed to.

After Josiffe lost his job with Vater, had a mental breakdown and spent some time in psychiatric care, he visited Thorpe at the House of Commons, homeless and seeking help. Thorpe took Josiffe and his dog to the home of Thorpe’s mother, Ursula, for the night and, it’s alleged, there began the affair.

Although it was relatively short-lived, all this took place before homosexuality was legalised in 1967, and would have spelt the end of Thorpe’s political career. He was the Liberal Party’s leader from 1967 until 1976.

Jeremy Thorpe became leader of the Liberal Party in 1967
For a short while, Thorpe put Josiffe up in a flat and bought him clothing, introducing him to friends. Josiffe had various jobs working with horses but always seemed to end up out of a job. He was prone to bouts of depression and attempted suicide.

One recurring problem, which also features in the dramatisation, was that Josiffe had mislaid his National Insurance card, which he needed in order to claim any state benefits, and a replacement card appears to have been withheld by Thorpe.

Josiffe changed his last name to Scott in 1967. By this time he had been through a variety of horse-related jobs, as well as periods of depression and mental illness. Throughout this period, he continued to contact Thorpe on occasion. The higher Thorpe’s political kudos rose, the more of a threat Scott became to his ambitions, until in 1969 Thorpe called two colleagues into his office and apparently first began to suggest the idea of having Scott killed.

This continued, waxing and waning according to how much of a nuisance Thorpe and his people believed Scott had become. After a promising showing in the 1974 General Election (when it looked for a time that the Liberals might hold the balance of power in a coalition) this became an even more sensitive issue.

With the threat of Scott’s embarrassing re-emergence once again on the horizon, a large amount of cash was supposedly siphoned off from a political donor and used to pay an airline pilot called Andrew Newton to kill Norman Scott.

Airline pilot Andrew Newton, who was supposedly paid to kill Norman Scott
Scott botched the job, only succeeding in shooting dead Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka. Newton was caught and claimed Scott had been blackmailing him. A piece in the December 1975 issue of Private Eye by Auberon Waugh ended: “My only hope is that sorrow over his friend's dog will not cause Mr Thorpe's premature retirement from public life.” It would seem that most of the newspapers had heard the rumours concerning Thorpe and Scott, but were wary of being sued for libel.

Scott continued to contest that his life had been ruined by his relationship with Thorpe, even doing so in court during the case against Newton. Thorpe was finally convinced to resign from his position as Liberal leader, although he claimed to have done nothing wrong. Newton was convicted of destruction of property (Rinka) and sentenced to two years in prison.

In May 1979, Thorpe and his co-conspirators were put on trial, during which Thorpe elected not to give testimony. After the Not Guilty verdict, satirist Peter Cook performed a version of the somewhat controversial summing-up as stand-up at The Secret Policeman’s Ball.

Peter Cook at The Secret Policeman's Ball performing the biased judge skit

Despite being acquitted, Thorpe’s reputation was beyond redemption. He resigned and remained on the sidelines. An attempt to appoint him to a high profile position with Amnesty International in the early 1980s was met with such public outcry, the job offer was rescinded. Jeremy Thorpe withdrew almost entirely from public life after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He died in 2014.

Jeremy Thorpe in 1999
Now, it has just been announced that the police are reinvestigating the case. Apparently, it was incorrectly assumed that Andrew Newton was dead, and there are various other factors that could lead to a rather different verdict this time around. It may have been a long time coming, but Norman Scott might get his vindication after all.

Norman Scott
This week’s Word of the Week is cacoethes, meaning the urge to do something inadvisable. It dates back to the mid 16th century and comes via Latin from Greek, kakoēthes, meaning ill-disposed, from kakos, bad and ēthos, disposition.

No events on the horizon, but I do have a new book coming up at the beginning of July. DANCING ON THE GRAVE is a standalone crime thriller featuring CSI Grace McColl and DC Nick Weston. It’s my take on the Washington Sniper incident, but set in the English Lake District, and is now available for preorder.


  1. This is the first political scandal I remember, although, I really only recall the dog Rinka. And the T-shirts at the time that said 'Vote Liberal or we'll shoot your dog.' Haven't seen all the TV show yet but Grant is impressive. Just got to the bit where the party are telling him to get a wife as voters like their politicians married!

  2. I remember it, too, Caro -- probably because of the footage all the news channels showed of Norman Scott on a horse.

  3. Oh, the havoc the criminalization of homosexuality has caused. I have never believed it a choice of “lifestyle.” For the very reason that it seemed impossible that anyone would elect a love life that likely would lead to blackmail and prison. I look forward to the importation of the series to this side of the pond.