The creators of A british Scandal, a BBC drama about shame politician Jeremy Thorpe, explains why his story is still relevant.
A gay affair, a messy plot and a dead dog on Exmoor have been the ingredients of what was dubbed “the trial of the century”.
At its center was Jeremy Thorpe – leader of the Liberal Party, a pillar of the constitution and the first British politician to be tried for conspiracy and incitement to murder.
Now, nearly 40 years after Thorpe’s sensational acquittal, the history behind the case of a man told in three parts BBC drama.
Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Russell t. Davies, An English Scandal star Hugh Grant Thorpe, and Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, the ex-lover he was accused of trying to have killed.
Based on John Preston’s 2016 book, the drama begins with Thorpe meeting and seducing Scott, a young and sexually inexperienced worker at a horse ranch.
Once the deal has run its course, Thorpe found Scott to be a persistent thorn in the side that poses a serious threat to his political ambitions.
At the end of the first episode, Thorpe was seen exhorting a colleague (played by Alex Jennings) to arrange for Scott, the death, the coldness of the reasoning that “it’s worse than shooting a sick dog”.
And it was a dog, a great Dane called Rinka – which ended up being shot on Exmoor in October 1975, by a man that Scott believed that he had been sent to kill him.
“It was absolutely idiotic story, unless you’re the dog,” says Frears. “But in the end all this has been murderousness.
“It’s a wonderful, very funny and ridiculous story of corruption in public life.”
“But it is also very sad,” says Russell T Davies, Doctor Who and Queer as Folk fame. “Life has been ruined by this.
“These events were so devastating, people fell out of the story. The story continues to create controversy, even after all these years.”
Grant recalls the case of being “a compelling and juicy business” that was “a source of much sniggering” when she was in school.
“I love everything that is funny and sad at the same time, who delight in the eccentricities and oddities of the people,” he continues.
However, the star of Notting Hill and Love, Actually admits to being perplexed when Frears first approached him about the project.
“Stephen phoned me and I said:” Which part?'” the actor recalls. “I thought that maybe I wanted to play for Rinka the dog”.
Not completely absurd idea, given Grant’s recent role in the Paddington 2 washed-up dramatic reduced to appearing in dog food commercials dressed as a dog.
The canine eventually landed the Rinka role has been a source of frustration for Whishaw, who provided the voice of Paddington, and played Q in the recent James Bond film.
“Alani, I learned, are not so smart,” sighed the actor. “They are quite highly strung and not so smart.”
Whishaw is, however, full of praise for the real Scott, now 78, who met the actor in the course of production.
“Stephen said I should meet the real Norman so I did it,” Whishaw says. “It was nice to see him and hear how he remembers these events.”
A police investigation in Exmoor incident led to Thorpe and three associates accused of conspiracy to murder Scott.
Scott has given proof of this to their 1979 trial, during which he was infamously maligned by the judge as “a sponger, a whiner and a parasite”.
Sir Joseph Cantley’s remarks were seized from the satirical comedian Peter Cook, who took the stage shortly after, to deliver a merciless skewering of the court.
Whishaw admits to feeling the outrage on Scott’s behalf. “But I don’t want to be the story of a man who is, or has seen himself as a victim,” he continues.
“He was always described as pathetic and a ‘fairy’ but it is not true. He’s more complicated than that, and so is the story.”
Grant, for his part, recognizes that there are a comparison between Thorpe’s fall from grace and its evidence by the media.
“I suppose there is a little parallel because I am in the middle of a whirlwind of press attention,” he says, alluding to the time in which he was arrested with a prostitute in 1995.
“But the most difficult thing was getting my head round a boy, you grew up with such privilege, in reality, uttering the words: “let’s kill him’.
“For me, it was the changing of the guard, and the final act of the constitution. See Thorpe, the world greying and fading like Norman comes to life.”
Thorpe was acquitted but his career never recovered. He died in 2014, at the age of 85, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Obituary: Jeremy Thorpe
Revealed: the Letter to silence Thorpe
After four years, Davies says his role of a writer is to understand why these mad things happened, and to get inside these people’s heads”.
“This drama could not be more relevant,” he continues. “Wherever there is money, and the conservatism and family, there are always secrets and lies.
“I think that what we have done is very forgiving for both men,” he concludes. “In the end, it’s just a great piece of history.”
Very English Scandal starts on BBC One on 20 May at 21:00 BST.
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