The Unbelievable True Story Behind A Very English Scandal
By Paul Schrodt
A Very English Scandal announces what it’s about right in the title. The three-episode BBC drama, which premieres on Amazon on June 29, is indeed English to its core. But what's in it for American viewers? They probably don’t know the true story that inspired the show, but they’d do well to find out.
Set in part during the late 1960s, just after homosexuality had been decriminalized in the UK but long before it would become widely accepted, the show dramatizes the real-life story of politician Jeremy Thorpe, who, in 1979, became the first member of parliament (MP) to stand trial on charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder. The target was Norman Scott, Thorpe's supposed former male lover. A Very English Scandal was written by Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who) and directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen), with Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw playing Thorpe and Scott, respectively.
It’s hard to resist the delicious scenery chewing of both Grant and Whishaw in the trailer (“I was rude, I was vile, I was queer, I was myself,” Whishaw’s Scott says with panache), but the facts are even more outrageous. Though Thorpe was eventually acquitted, the events depicted in A Very English Scandal ended his political career.
RISE TO POWER
As the MP for North Devon from 1959 to 1979, Thorpe helped the Liberal party gain standing during his tenure and accumulated considerable power. In 1967, at the age of 37, he became the youngest leader of any British political party in a century—but the events that would lead to Thorpe's downfall began several years before he was elected to this position.
The controversy surrounding Thorpe resulted from Scott’s assertions that the two had an intimate relationship between 1961 and 1964. According to Scott, their affair began shortly after the stable boy-turned-aspiring model, who had a history of severe depression, was released from a psychiatric hospital following a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt. Though rumors swirled about the politician's sexual liaisons, Thorpe was able to use his influence to keep the affair mostly under wraps for more than a decade. But the game unraveled once Thorpe and his associates began to see the unpredictable Scott—whom the political leader is said to have nicknamed "Bunnies"—as a threat.
While Thorpe always denied the claims, according to a biography by author Michael Bloch, published in 2014, the politician was bisexual and relished illicit sex for both “the immediate excitement, and the later thrill of being able to extricate himself from any potential scandal.” The book also describes Thorpe as an opportunist who saw himself as above the normal rules.
"THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH"
Attempts to silence Scott with money were apparently rebuffed, and the full story came to light in 1975, when Andrew Newton—an airplane pilot who had reportedly been hired to kill Scott—shot Scott’s Great Dane, Rinka, in what was assumed to be a hit-gone-wrong. The story was front page news, and though Thorpe denied that any intimate relationship existed, he was forced to step down as party leader. He eventually faced trial at the Old Bailey court in London, with the prosecution arguing that he had hired Newton to shoot his ex-lover. The story dominated tabloids and became known as “the greatest show on Earth.”
Thorpe lost his Parliamentary seat on May 3, 1979. Just five days later, his trial began; on June 22, 1979, Thorpe was acquitted of all charges. Marion Stein, Thorpe’s second wife—who, as played by Monica Dolan, is seen in A Very English Scandal confronting her husband with the affair and his desires for men—nursed him through his battle with Parkinson's disease until her own death in March 2014. She stood by him even as the foundation of their marriage and his career were rocked. Thorpe died less than a year later, on December 4, 2014 at the age of 85.
But the craziest twist of all is that British authorities may not have still entirely figured out the facts of the case. In 2014, a BBC investigative documentary team spoke with firearms collector Dennis Meighan, who admitted that he had been offered money to kill Scott by a man who "represented a Mr. Big in the Liberal Party." Though Meighan did provide the gun that eventually killed Scott's beloved Great Dane, he passed the job onto Newton, who was an old school friend. Newton ended up spending two years in jail for shooting Scott's dog, but Meighan—who confessed his part in the crime to the police—was never called to testify. Instead, police handed him a prepared statement to sign.
"I read the statement, which did me no end of favors, but it did Jeremy Thorpe no end of favors as well, because it left him completely out of it," Meighan said. "So I thought, 'Well, I've got to sign this.' It just virtually left everything out that was incriminating, but at the same time everything I said about the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, etc., was left out as well."
Scott, who is still alive, maintains his story that the gunman tried to take him down after his dog, but the gun jammed. Parts of the new series, he told the Mirror, still make him cry. “I was so upset by the shooting of Rinka that I tried to give her the kiss of life,” he said. “I was covered in her blood.”
While Meighan's admission shed new light on the crime, and possible conspiracy, no further action was taken as police believed that Newton was dead. But earlier this month, a police inquiry found that Newton, who now goes by the name Hann Redwin, is still very much alive. However, authorities ultimately decided not to reopen the investigation, stating that Newton, a.k.a. Redwin, had no additional information to offer. According to a police statement:
“Having confirmed his status and whereabouts, officers from Gwent Police spoke to Mr. Redwin who is unable to provide any additional evidence to that which has already been obtained in the original inquiry. “As Mr. Redwin’s evidence has already been considered by the CPS prior to this matter being closed, Gwent Police is satisfied that there is no basis to re-refer the matter to the CPS and the investigation remains closed.”
Though many questions still remain, given how much time has passed and that many of the key players are no longer with us, it seems that the new miniseries is the closest we may get to closure.
A Very English Scandal premieres on Amazon on June 29, 2018.