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…

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