Who’d have thought that a po­lit­i­cal biog­ra­phy would be so en­ter­tain­ing? Well, you’d have an inkling if you’ve seen the tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of this 2016 book, which has a top­tier cast (Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw) and cre­ative team (screen­writer Rus­sell T Davies and direc­tor Stephen Frears).

The book ex­plores the scan­dal that en­gulfed Jeremy Thorpe, one-time leader of the Bri­tish Lib­eral Party who, in the early 1960s, had a re­la­tion­ship with a young man, Nor­man Scott, back when ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was still il­le­gal.

Scott drifted in and out of em­ploy­ment and had a his­tory of psy­chi­atric prob­lems, and of­ten turned to Thorpe for fi­nan­cial help. As Thorpe’s pro­file rose, his his­tory with Scott be­came more and more prob­lem­atic. Even­tu­ally, he de­cided the only way to si­lence him was to have him killed and in­structed his fel­low Lib­eral MP and right-hand man Peter Bes­sell (the most un­likely of as­sas­sins) to make it hap­pen. This plot un­rav­eled badly for all con­cerned and re­sulted in the death, not of Nor­man Scott, but of a great dane named Rinka.

When the press got wind of the story it led to the po­lit­i­cal trial of the cen­tury. View­ers of the TV series must have imag­ined that some of the more out­landish as­pects had been fic­tion­alised but, no, they all come from the book, which high­lights a grand cast of Eng­lish ec­centrics.

Take for ex­am­ple, the Eighth Earl Of Ar­ran, aka “Boofy”, a mem­ber of the House Of Lords, whose wife, the count­ess, was a cham­pion power­boat racer. The two shared a love of badgers and al­lowed the crea­tures free reign in their home, which ne­ces­si­tated the wear­ing of gum­boots to avoid be­ing bit­ten by them and con­tract­ing ring­worm. As well as be­ing pas­sion­ate about the rights of badgers, the earl also took up the cause of Ho­mo­sex­ual Law Re­form as his el­der brother had been ho­mo­sex­ual and com­mit­ted sui­cide after years of psy­chi­atric treat­ment.

This is po­lit­i­cal biog­ra­phy/true crime that reads like a comic novel. It stretches credulity, but real con­ver­sa­tions be­tween the main play­ers come from Peter Bes­sell’s book CoverUp or from his aide-mem­oire, pre­pared for the trial. Pre­ston had first-rate ac­cess to key peo­ple and ma­te­ri­als, in­clud­ing meet­ing Scott him­self and be­ing shown the pri­vate mem­oir he wrote about the af­fair.

Pre­ston also met with the sons of two other (now de­ceased) ma­jor play­ers – Peter Bes­sell and trial lawyer Ge­orge Car­man – and was given ac­cess to Car­man’s trial notes.

In his af­ter­word, Pre­ston men­tions that in writ­ing the book pe­cu­liar noises em­anated from his study, “chor­tles of amuse­ment or – just as of­ten gasps of dis­be­lief than groans of de­spair”.

This thor­oughly grip­ping ac­count is cer­tain to have the same ef­fect on read­ers.

Hugh Grand and Ben Wishaw as ex-lovers in A Very Eng­lish Scan­dal.

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