Set in the aggressively homophobic '60s and '70s, the new BBC drama A Very English Scandal is actually an adaptation of a book of the same name by John Preston; it tells the story of a scandal that culminated in Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe (played in the TV series by Hugh Grant) being tried for conspiracy to murder Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw), with whom he had a relationship.
Norman Scott, who is also known as Norman Josiffe, met Thorpe in the early 1960s, as he recently recounted to The Times, while Scott was training in dressage and working at a yard owned by Brecht van der Vater, a friend of Thorpe’s. After van der Vater failed to return Scott’s national insurance card, Scott contacted Thorpe for help. The relationship that followed was abusive, Scott said: Thorpe raped him, and withheld his national insurance card, preventing him from finding work. After their relationship ended, Scott remained in contact with Thorpe about the card, telling him he was struggling financially without it.
Meanwhile, Thorpe proceeded to climb the ranks of the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats, after merging with the Social Democratic Party), becoming leader in 1967. Sex between two men over 21 was decriminalised in 1967, several years after Thorpe and Scott met, and Britain remained deeply homophobic; public knowledge of any relationship with Scott, therefore, had the power to extinguish Thorpe's career.
In 1975, a small aircraft pilot named Andrew Newton shot Scott’s dog, Rinka, before attempting to shoot Scott too, only for the gun to jam. Newton was imprisoned on firearms charges; upon his release in 1977, Newton said he had actually been hired to kill Scott. In January 1976, while appearing in court on a minor social security charge, Scott said, “I am being hounded because of my sexual relationship with Jeremy Thorpe,” as the BBC reports. Stories about their relationship continued to circulate, and Thorpe resigned his Liberal Party leadership the following May, saying in a statement, "You will know from the very beginning I have strenuously denied the so-called Scott allegations, and I categorically repeat those denials today."
Thorpe was subsequently charged with conspiracy to murder. As The Washington Post reported at the time, Liberal Party colleague Peter Bessell alleged in court that Thorpe aimed to permanently silence Scott and said killing him would be “no worse than shooting a sick dog.” The conspiracy was allegedly co-ordinated by David Holmes, Liberal treasurer and close friend of Thorpe, who funnelled money to Andrew Newton.
At trial, Thorpe was acquitted. The judge, who The Times calls “infamously biased,” attacked Scott’s character in his summing-up, branding him a “fraud” and a “parasite”. Despite the verdict, the scandal ended Thorpe’s career. Scott later told The Times, “I think he should have gone to prison. And that also would have made my life so different, because people would have believed me.”
Alongside Grant and Whishaw in the central roles, the TV adaptation also stars Monica Dolan as Thorpe’s wife Marion, Alex Jennings as political and prosecution witness Bessell, and Jonathan Hyde as Thorpe’s solicitor, David Napley. Coincidentally, the series is also something of a Doctor Who reunion: it’s written by NuWho showrunner Russell T Davies, and also stars alumni Eve Myles and Adrian Scarborough.