The Unbelievable True Story Behind A Very English Scandal

BBC
BBC

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.

Jeremy Thorpe arrives at the Old Bailey, where he was being tried on charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder, while gay rights supporters protest in the background.Aubrey Hart, Getty Images

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.

Amazon

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."

JUSTICE INTERRUPTED

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.”

Norman Scott makes his way to court at the Old Bailey in London, during the trial of Jeremy Thorpe on May 21, 1979.Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

Electronics

Dash/Amazon

- BISSELL Lightweight Upright Vacuum Cleaner $170 (save $60)

- Dash Deluxe Air Fryer $80 (save $20)

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- COMFEE Toaster Oven $29 (save $9)

- AmazonBasics 1500W Oscillating Ceramic Heater $31 (save $4)

Home office Essentials

HP/Amazon

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- HP Printer Paper (500 Sheets) $5 (save $2)

- Mead Composition Books Pack of 5 Ruled Notebooks $11 (save $2)

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- Officemate OIC Achieva Side Load Letter Tray $15 (save $7)

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Selieve/Amazon

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Home Improvement

DEWALT/Amazon

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Home Décor

NECA/Amazon

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

Getty Images

In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.