There is some sort of irony in the fact that a conspiracy to murder that was plotted on the grounds that “it is no worse than shooting a sick dog” should have in fact ended with the shooting of a dog rather than the intended human victim.
It was of course the very strangest of events in the very strangest of political stories of the twentieth century, and re-told with impressive style, humour and sensitivity in A Very English Scandal episode 2, in which Hugh Grant shone once again, always supported by a stellar cast – which is more than could be said for Jeremy Thorpe himself, surrounded by idiots and sycophants to a degree unusual even in politics.
On a dark evening in 1975 up on Porlock Hill on the edge of Exmoor, a desolate spot in torrential rain, a young man lay in the road cradling a dead Great Dane puppy, bizarrely shot dead with an antique (ca. 1910) Mauser pistol. He had been brought there by someone who gave the false name of Peter, and who would have shot him there too if the gun hadn’t jammed. He drove off, while the intended victim told the people who eventually rescued him that “this is all Jeremy Thorpe’s fault”. “Peter” had told him he wa in “mortal danger” from “a man from Canada”, and promised to protect him, though only succeeding in confirming the conspiracy to murder.
The scene was superbly caught with some stunning photography and direction, and even the stunt dog managed to get its timing and placing just right. The only thing missing was a re-enactment of a reported attempt at mouth to mouth resuscitation on the stricken mutt. Maybe just as well.
We’d already seen with the mostly undisputed genesis of the affair – the troubled relationship between the then leader of the Liberal Party, Jeremy Thorpe, and a former lover, the one time male model Norman Scott – “not a one night stand” as he pleads during the drama. Once again, Ben Whishaw captured the essence of Scott as a confused, confusing, self-destructive and emotionally needy person who had a permanent sense of being a persecuted victim, though of course, as the old joke goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Because they were, too.
Scott was proving as troublesome to Thorpe as Thorpe’s brief affair with him was to trouble him through the rest of his life. Like a rock dropped in a pool, the reverberations play out even today among the few survivors of these events, their friends and families. In amongst the black humour and wit there was and is much human misery attached to the Thorpe Affair.
Back then, Thorpe callously and unequivocally wanted Scott dead, and was prepared to take astonishing risks to do so, going on flights of fancy about dropping Scott’s corpse down a disused tin mine on Bodmin moor (“that’s my constituency” one of Thorpe’s co-conspirators MP Peter Bessel exclaims plaintively and with perfect timing as Thorpe expands on his perfect murder plan). They settled on a shooting: “shoot the bugger stone dead,” orders Thorpe with a straight face.
And so we witnessed the tragi-comical botched attempt at murder played out in all its absurd glory on Porlock Hill. The chosen assassin Andrew “Gino” Newton (Blake Harrison) who mostly managed to remember his pseudonym “Peter” on his mission impossible, was a buffoon whose idea of a good night out was apparently having a few pints whilst on “boob patrol” in seedy clubs, followed by a scrap. Well, it was the seventies.
With admirable economy the long chain of connection between the dead dog and the Liberal leader was established through a short sequence of phone calls (with authentic bell sounds), with a gay carpet wholesaler from the North as an improbable principal go-between. Holmes’ close friendship with Thorpe at Oxford in his case explained much of the kind of slavish loyalty Thorpe inspired in so many. David Holmes (Paul Hilton), like Bessell, seemed in a state of what you might call suspended disbelief, only half believing in any sense in what they were going about.
Much has been made of Scott’s relationships with men, but his relationships with women were equally unhappy, not to say corrosive. He married and had a son by one woman, whose father slagged him off at the wedding reception as a stinking “poofter”, a “dreadful homosexual” and urged her to come home. She shortly did but not before this exchange:
Scott( to new wife cradling their child): “I love you”
New wife , Sue: “You know what you sound when you say that? Queer.”
Nor was he any luckier with another almost random lover, a former sub postmistress in North Wales, who ended up dead from drink. Credit to Lucy Briggs-Owen and Eve Myles respectively, as the women in Scott’s life, the latter for participating in a Carry On-style sex scene with Norman, the caravan rocking with lust, a whippet tied up outside the only witness to Scott’s varying sexual proclivities. Well, it was the seventies.
Had an obscure Welsh Liberal MP, Emlyn Hooson, (played with polite malevolence by Jason Watkins as Thorpe’s would be nemesis), succeeded in getting his parliamentary colleagues to believe Scott’s stories and ditch Thorpe, forcing him out of the leadership and the House of Commons, then he would actually have done Thorpe, Scott and many others an historic favour. As it was, and we can see this quite clearly now, Thorpe was saved, or rather reprieved, by an establishment cover up involving the Conservative Home Secretary, the clubbable Reggie Maudling (Michael Culkin) and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, no less, settled over some gin and sweet vermouth. Unlike Scott, who could barely hang on to friends in low places, Thorpe had friends in the highest places who would reliably help him out. Well, it was the seventies.