BOOKS: A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL
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.