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The Impersonator

A Very English Scandal

a television series written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Stephen Frears
Ian Tyas/Keystone/Getty Images
Former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe leaving the Old Bailey with his wife, Marion, after he was found not guilty of conspiracy to murder, London, June 1979

The major surprise of Jeremy Thorpe’s trial in 1979 for conspiracy to murder was his decision not to take the stand—it seems that his counsel, George Carman, alert to his client’s histrionic tendencies, foresaw the dangers of Oscar Wilde–like showing-off and self-incrimination. No witnesses were called for the defense, and the narrative of events concerning Thorpe was entirely established by the prosecution: his affair, as a young MP in the early 1960s, with a stable hand and model named Norman Scott; Scott’s repeated attempts to go public with the story (all firmly smothered by the police as well as the press); and the subsequent conspiracy to murder Scott, who had become a threat not only to Thorpe but to the Liberal Party of which he was by then the leader. The defense’s case consisted simply of discrediting the prosecution’s witnesses.

This was a high-risk approach, and part of the drama of the trial lay in the clever calculations made by the defense about several matters: the likely attitude of the whimsical and snobbish old judge, the susceptibility of the jury to the status and dignity of Thorpe, and the impression made by the three main prosecution witnesses, Scott, Peter Bessell, once Thorpe’s closest ally, and Andrew Newton, the comic-book incompetent hired to carry out the killing. The calculations paid off, and after the judge’s summing-up, one of the most biased and misleading in British legal history, Thorpe and his three codefendants in the conspiracy were acquitted. No sitting MP had ever been charged with so serious a crime, and there seems no doubt now that he was guilty of it, whatever the verdict.

Thorpe wasn’t tried for homosexual acts, which had been decriminalized twelve years earlier, but without them there would have been no trial. The Thorpe-Scott story, rambling and rumbling on over a period of nineteen years, isn’t easy to summarize. The two men met in 1960, when Thorpe was visiting a businessman friend who kept horses that were groomed by Scott (then called Norman Josiffe). Thorpe gave Scott his card and invited him to get in touch if he ever needed him. Scott did just that, turning up with his dog, Mrs. Tish, at the House of Commons and asking to see him, largely because he needed help getting a new National Insurance card, without which he couldn’t receive benefits or undertake legal employment. (The pursuit of this card became a central motif of his life.)

Thorpe seized his chance, and to double the excitement of risk, took Scott, under a false name and pretending that he was a cameraman, to stay with his formidable widowed mother at her house in Surrey, oddly enough called Stonewalls. Ursula Thorpe wore a monocle, smoked cigars, and in some photos has the disconcerting look of a female impersonator; she favored Jeremy heavily over his two sisters and had high ambitions for him, including a claim on a long-defunct “barony of Thorpe.” (In changing his name to Scott, Josiffe adopted “the family name of the 4th Earl of Eldon, who sired me, I’m convinced,” so both lovers had aristocratic fantasies, among others.) After a frosty dinner and a hectic piano and violin recital by mother and son, Jeremy visited Norman in his bedroom, kissed him, and produced a jar of Vaseline (“every bachelor’s friend” in Russell T. Davies’s screenplay for A Very English Scandal), telling him to keep quiet because his mother was sleeping in the next room.

After this initiation, Scott was installed for a while in a bedsit, where Thorpe would visit him for sex. Scott enjoyed the attention, was given Gieves & Hawkes suits and dinners at the Reform Club, but resented being a kept man. Thorpe, who nicknamed him Bunny for his startled look, wrote him a letter promising that “Bunnies can (and will) go to France” and ending “I miss you”—a letter that was later to be much analyzed and mocked.

But as time went on, the muddle, incompetence, and sheer bad luck that dogged the emotionally volatile Scott caused a chronic problem for Thorpe, who kept trying to pay him off and find him jobs abroad. Other letters he had incautiously written to him were in circulation and were only retrieved by absurd skulduggery. Scott became suicidal and wrote a long and desperate letter to Ursula, telling her about his affair with her son and begging her to intervene. Like all Scott’s claims about Thorpe she treated it as the incredible fantasy of a deranged self-serving freak, though it would be intriguing to know what unexpressed doubts and intuitions also went through her mind.

The interest of Scott is partly his confused and sometimes tormented attitude toward his own sexuality. Both men and women found him attractive, and he them. He had been raised a Catholic and cursed Thorpe for awakening the “vice” of homosexuality in him, but he loved him too. He married, disastrously, and fathered a child, which the mother took away as part of her complex punishment of him for (in Davies’s screenplay) being “queer.” Davies brings out well the pervasive importance of class: Thorpe with his flats, houses, and cars, Scott an unhappy nomad with everything he owns in one battered suitcase. The old-boy network protects and absorbs the mainly gay Thorpe (whose first marriage, blessed by the archbishop of Canterbury, was front-page news), while Scott’s new father-in-law denounces him as a “poofter” at his own wedding reception. Ben Whishaw as Scott mesmerizingly combines the vulnerable and the determined, with a determination born of principle as much as need.

What Davies, with the necessary economy of drama, omits is any sense of the intricate financial deceit in which the showman Thorpe became embroiled. When Scott’s candor became too great a threat, Thorpe made the astonishing decision that he must be killed—of course in a way that couldn’t be traced to him. Jack Hayward, a generous expat British businessman, had already shown himself willing to part with six-figure sums for good causes, and though not a Liberal was persuaded by Thorpe that the Liberals, as a tiny high-minded party with only a rare and romantic chance of holding the balance of power between the much larger Labour and Conservative parties, deserved his support. Huge checks, solicited by Thorpe for election funds but destined to pay Scott’s would-be assassin, were sent via Nadir Dinshaw, a blameless businessman in Jersey, whom Thorpe subsequently pressured, in vain, to lie to the police about them.

Peter Bessell (immaculately played by Alex Jennings)—a former Liberal MP and a businessman as hapless as Scott, though on a larger scale—was a further intermediary in this squalid affair, along with Thorpe’s great friend and best man David Holmes; while two other men, George Deakin, a Welsh trader in gambling machines, and John Le Mesurier, like Holmes a carpet dealer, were involved in securing the services of Andrew “Gino” Newton, who alarmingly was an airline pilot, to shoot (or was it merely to frighten?) Scott. Sent by Holmes to find Scott, Newton phoned to say there was no sign of him in Dunstable, only to be told he was meant to be in Barnstaple, a town on the opposite side of the country.

In the end Newton, posing as his protector from another putative killer, persuaded Scott to come with him by car to Porlock at night. Scott brought with him his landlady’s Great Dane, Rinka. In the rain on a high lonely stretch of Exmoor, they agreed that Scott should take over the driving, and when they got out of the car Newton shot Rinka dead and turned the gun on Scott; it jammed, and Newton panicked and drove off. This was the moment that, in Auberon Waugh’s words, “lifted the Scott affair from being of minority, largely satirical interest, to being a matter of genuine public concern.”

What tone should the filmmaker take with this story forty years later? From the start the ensuing trial was a subject for satirical comedy: Peter Cook’s parody of the judge, Mr. Justice Cantley (“You are now to retire—as indeed should I—carefully to consider your verdict of Not Guilty”), was performed within days of his summing-up; and in his book-length account of the trial, The Last Word, published the following year, Waugh, a Private Eye journalist, presented the bizarreries of both case and trial in varying shades of mockery—now openly hostile to Thorpe, a long-standing bête noire, now casting the participants as characters from Beatrix Potter (“Tale of a Flopsy Bunny” etc.). Private Eye had had a grand time with the case—their cover the week after the acquittal has Thorpe saying “Buggers Can’t Be Losers” to his wife as they greet the crowds—and Waugh, who lived near Thorpe’s North Devon constituency, had stood against him in the general election of May 1979 as a representative of the reproachfully named Dog Lovers’ Party, attracting seventy-nine votes. He had also stridently opposed the large stone monument that Thorpe had erected to his first wife, Caroline, on a beautiful spot in Exmoor, finding it not only “a permanent source of irritation to those of us who live in the region” but by implication an irksome monument to the former MP himself. So The Last Word, vividly readable and amusing for all its undisguised prejudices, set the tone for an understanding of the trial.

Davies’s brilliant screenplay takes its name, as well as much of its manner, from John Preston’s entertainingly novelistic account of the case.1 Anything described as “very English” is being subjected to a subtle form of ridicule, an instant suspicion of stuffiness, hypocrisy, and ineptitude. It’s an idea of Englishness that has been the lifeblood of British film comedy, from the Ealing Studios of the late 1940s and 1950s through the saucier Carry On films of the following three decades, which are knowingly evoked in Stephen Frears’s direction of this richly enjoyable miniseries. Whishaw, with his wiggling walk in revealingly tight jeans, is one moment as camp as the TV comedian Dick Emery, the next as ingenuous as Michael Crawford in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, the popular 1970s sitcom in which Michele Dotrice—here playing Scott’s protector, Mrs. Edna Friendship—was Crawford’s sweetly exasperated wife.

Murray Gold’s score for the miniseries has an endlessly redeployed tune suggestive of risqué capers, futile caution, and looming comeuppance—a minuet danced in heavy boots. It fits with the elements of pastiche in Frears’s direction, but at times foists an overinsistent interpretation on scenes that without it might have been more complex, more like life and less like a miniseries.

Davies, who created Queer as Folk nearly twenty years ago, is justly celebrated as a screen dramatist of gay lives, and at moments he follows Thorpe into undocumented scenes of anonymous sexual pickups, sometimes dangerous ones. In one of numerous clever echoes and foreshadowings, Davies has Thorpe declare early on that if anything came out about him and Scott, he would blow his brains out. He later shows Thorpe smoothly agreeing to support the MP Leo Abse’s bill to decriminalize homosexuality, which would bear fruit in the Sexual Offences Act of 1967; and he has a marvelous scene in the home of “Boofy” Arran, the badger-loving earl who was to pilot the bill through the House of Lords. Arran’s elder brother (“Queer as springtime,” his wife affirms) had indeed shot himself, and David Bamber as Boofy speaks movingly about him and the cruelty of the law: “I don’t think it’s suicide, I think it’s murder.”

In Davies’s screenplay Thorpe’s trial emerges as a conflict between the hopelessly bungled deceit of Thorpe and his cronies and the fearless and relentless truth-telling of Scott, “an open homosexual, a new world blazing,” in the words given to George Carman. In reality much of Scott’s testimony was barely audible, and he broke down completely at one point and had to be coaxed to continue. What Waugh called his “petulant rages” at other times appear here as a heroic stand on behalf of men sexually abused by others in power—“You will not shut me up!” It’s a gay #MeToo moment—Scott emerging from the Old Bailey to pose for the cameras amid a gay rights demonstration, with “Knock on Wood” pounding on the soundtrack. It was a central paradox of the trial that when Bessell and Scott most clearly told the truth they were most expressly disbelieved, but the trial could certainly have been depicted in more detail, with the savage and (in Waugh’s words) “gratuitously offensive” judge’s steering of the whole thing made more evident.

Blueprint Pictures
Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott with his dog, Mrs. Tish, in A Very English Scandal

Thorpe is played with breathtaking plausibility by Hugh Grant. Only at one moment did I have doubts. Thorpe became “the youngest man to lead a British political party in more than a century” when he gained the Liberal leadership: he was thirty-seven. Grant is fifty-eight, and his age, perfect for the more cadaverous Thorpe of the late 1970s, lends a perhaps misleading color to the flashback scenes in 1960, when he first meets and seduces Scott (“Now I’m going to kiss you, and you will enjoy it”). Thorpe, a well-connected Old Etonian, had all the readily exploitable power and prestige of class and status, but he was only thirty-two, a young man himself, not the late-middle-aged predator we see onscreen. The social dynamics may have been similar, but the personal ones must have been somewhat different. In reality Thorpe was one year younger than Grant was when he played the tousle-haired Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Still, Thorpe is a marvelous subject for an actor with Grant’s experience and background. A lifetime of observation of English manners and psychology informs a performance of sustained subtlety, wit, and sparing but powerful pathos. The fascination of Thorpe as a character study lies partly in the intense self-belief of a man who seems eerily empty, dynamic in self-advancement, impressing others as well as himself with his clarion views on hot topics, but lazy as to detail and easily distracted, powered by ego but used to getting his way through a magnetic exercise of charm—a political type recognizable in all periods. That it worked is shown by the extraordinary loyalty of friends like Bessell and Holmes, who put themselves at serious risk to obey him and save him from himself, and by the hearty support of his constituents, more than 23,000 of whom voted for him five days before he was due to stand trial for conspiracy to murder. They were under his spell and they didn’t believe it.

Michael Bloch, in his 2014 biography of Thorpe, quotes an interview, given when Thorpe was awaiting trial, by the art dealer David Carritt, who had been Thorpe’s lover in the late 1950s before a rancorous breakup. “One of the most self-centered people I’ve ever met,” says Carritt:

Mildly entertaining, slightly sinister. Said to be witty, but his wit consists entirely of impersonations and if one doesn’t care for impersonations, he’s really a bit of a bore. He had a form of ambition so extraordinary it was hard to believe in, because it was ambition in the abstract, an ambition for vulgarities—to be rich, powerful, famous. He took these ambitions so seriously that one really considered him a bit dotty. Cultured? Not by my standards. Can play the violin a bit, that’s all. He was all dressed up like a ham actor…a character out of Disraeli.

Impersonation is a fascinating subject, for original and actor alike. Thorpe had been a noted mimic since childhood, and his years as a politician coincided with the rise of a much better-known figure, the impersonator Mike Yarwood, whose TV shows were among the most popular British light-entertainment programs of all time. Mimicry as commentary was in the air, and affectionate for the most part until the more grotesque turn of Spitting Image in the 1980s and the fiercer TV satire that was to follow. Yarwood’s favorite subject was the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson, whose dry Yorkshire tones Davies has Thorpe and Bessell mimicking in an early scene in the Members’ Dining Room of the House of Commons (the demise of Wilson’s government being in question). Thorpe’s ability to “take off” other people—an unsettling means of both mocking and indulging them—was a prominent part of his social performance; he even risked mimicking the strong Devon burr of his own constituents, who seem to have lapped it up.

What Grant brings out is the self-delight, and eventually the perplexity, of a man who is also somehow acting himself, a confected chancer in double-breasted waistcoats, watch chains, and a trilby hat. Thorpe’s manners and habits, his taste for opulent parties and reckless expenditure, were more like those of a Tory grandee than of the leader of a progressive political party (he marked his second marriage by hosting a gala evening at the Royal Opera House). It was a curious act heightened by the necessary pretenses of a gay man who was thirty-eight when his sex life was decriminalized and who, beyond his counsel’s allowance that he had had “homosexual tendencies” when young, never publicly acknowledged his dominant sexuality.

Thorpe’s first marriage, in Preston’s and Davies’s reading, was purely for reasons of political expediency: a married leader of a party was thought to improve its electoral prospects. Caroline Allpass (played by a flawless Alice Orr-Ewing) was nine years younger than Thorpe, lively, loving, and reassuringly inexperienced. Their son Rupert was born in 1969. Caroline was kept in the dark, of course, about her husband’s other life, and the ambivalences of what seems to have been a generally happy marriage are caught in a scene in their Devon cottage where she presses him to dance with her; the socially adept Thorpe deliberately treads on her toes to get out of it. Not long after, Scott, desperate as ever about his National Insurance card, telephones the house and informs Caroline that her husband had been not only his employer but his lover. The idea is so appalling to her that she refuses to contemplate it, telling Thorpe, “We will never discuss this, in any way, ever.” The chance to do so was curtailed a year later by her death in a car accident.

In 1973 he married Marion Stein, three years his senior and the divorced wife of the 7th Earl of Harewood, a first cousin of the queen. Thorpe, who had once had fantasies of marrying Princess Margaret,2 must have been pleased by the high social connection. Marion was the daughter of Erwin Stein, a prominent Viennese musician who had fled with his family to London after the Anschluss. She had briefly met Benjamin Britten as a child when he’d come to Vienna in 1934 in the hope of meeting Alban Berg. When a fire in the Steins’ London flat left them homeless, they lodged for some time with Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, in St John’s Wood. She was a fine pianist, and Britten became a significant figure in her young life, playing duets with her and taking her to rehearsals; after the war he and Pears involved her intimately in the foundation of the Aldeburgh Festival. So, among other things, she was attuned from childhood to the domestic life of a famous gay couple.

In Preston’s account, Marion, with whom Thorpe had warily brought up the matter of his gay dalliances, was not only shocked but disgusted by the thought of them. But in Davies’s film something more complex happens: Marion (exactly and movingly played by Monica Dolan) is a voice not of prudery but of conscience. “I practically grew up with Benjamin Britten,” she says. “There’s no need to protect me.” Thorpe, of course, is really excusing himself: “One word brought me down,” he says, referring to the notorious “Bunnies” letter. “No,” says Marion: “it’s because you lied.” Besides, what had struck her in the letter was not “Bunnies” but the closing phrase, “I miss you”: “I think that’s a wonderful thing for a man to say to his friend.”

This is certainly a wonderful thing for a misled wife to say in a film, but in its quiet clear-sightedness and loyalty it feels true to her character. Of course, the truth of what anyone felt at the time about homosexuality, in principle and in practice, at a distance or close up, is rarely fully knowable. To Marion the trial was a desperately public test of honor—she attended every day and had, Waugh claimed, “a steady, depressing influence over the press benches.” For her it wasn’t satirical at all.

At the close of A Very English Scandal, as the Thorpe family celebrates the acquittal with a quasi-royal appearance on the balcony of their London house, Ursula mutters to her son, “Of course, you’re ruined—you know that, don’t you.” The others go in, but Jeremy, loath to leave the limelight, grins and capers for a minute longer, miming his own reluctance to leave the press and its cameras for the stiffer conclave of mother, wife, and son indoors. Whether he really understood that it was all over for him is unclear—he made various attempts to come back, to find a role, to be useful to the party. He looked with an undimmed sense of entitlement into the ways he might be awarded a peerage. But if not ruined, he was never to be allowed to make much progress.

In the same year as the trial, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; he survived for thirty-five more years. I used to see him for a few days each summer in the late 1990s, when I stayed at the Red House in Aldeburgh during the festival—the double-breasted figure shrunken, shuffling, bent steeply forward. One year a change of medication had him briefly upright, bolting in and out of rooms at alarming speed; but the voice was an ever-dwindling husk. Everyone fell silent to hear his whispered remarks, his features immobilized but still somehow confident that the often-heard joke would amuse. Marion gave herself entirely to looking after him, her heavy smoking the sole index of tensions otherwise tightly contained. But the concerts at last grew impossible for Thorpe, his unstoppable shaking disturbed those around him, and Marion would be forced to lead him out. The grim life sentence of Parkinson’s must have given him many such involuntary rattlings, even in those places where he had once felt most welcome and secure.

  1. 1

    A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament (Other Press, 2016). 

  2. 2

    On hearing of her engagement to Antony Armstrong-Jones, he wrote, “What a pity about HRH. I rather hoped to marry the one and seduce the other.”