In 1979, Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe was acquitted of the attempted murder of Norman Josiffe in what was dubbed the ‘trial of the century’.
Josiffe alleged Thorpe had attempted to murder him in fear that he would reveal Thorpe’s homosexual tendencies to the public; conduct which at the time was punishable as a crime.
This unusual and quite fascinating story is currently being dramatized by the BBC in A Very English Scandal with Hugh Grant playing the confident, charismatic and somewhat reckless leader of the Liberal party.
We meet Thorpe at a luncheon (‘lucheon’ becomes a prominent member of vocabulary in the programme owing to most of Thorpe’s affairs being conducted over one lunch or another).
Sat in the commodious dinner halls of parliament with fellow Liberal Peter Joseph Bessell, the two men discuss their homosexual tendencies. Bessell’s is 80/20 female male inclined while Thorpe’s is 80/20 the other way round.
Within a couple more sentences it’s made clear that this must all be kept ‘discreet’ as Bessell’s not sure any ‘boy’s worth ending up in prison for’.
The warning seems to fall on deaf ears, Thorpe immediately eyeing up the young waiter who served him his steak tartare then conducting a whirlwind romance with a young handsome penniless stable boy; Norman Josiffe.
It is an ideal role for Grant, almost to the point that Thorpe’s existence and the trial of 79 happened entirely for the purpose of Grant portraying the man forty years later.
Grant’s portrayal of the corrupt Liberal leader is charming, eloquent, and holds details lightly peppered into the performance as subtle and appetizing as Thorpe’s steak is peppered at the beginning of the show.
Ben Whishaw plays Josiffe, his boyish features perfect for the role of the innocent stable boy Thorpe prowls upon and corrupts. Whishaw does a good job of exhibiting the downfall of Josiffe (who later turned his name to Scott during a drink and drug fuelled modelling career).
The BBC has spared no expense bringing one of Britain’s most established actors from the big screen to the small. The sets and costumes look fantastic, bringing a real sense of nostalgia to viewers who probably still remember the scandal.
And remember it they should. Forty years later the topic of homosexual acceptance in greater society is still one of great significance and red-hot debate.
The programme shows its hand regarding its opinion on the matter with a rather sombre and heartfelt monologue by Lord Arran who describes seeing all these young men committing suicide over the guilt of their sexual desires as societal murder.
But this is where a fundamental paradox arises. Thorpe himself was not a sympathiser with the gay community, admitting in a moment of solace spent with his right-hand man Bessell that if ever word got out he was gay, he’d kill himself.
A strange contradiction from a complex man astute enough to be Prime Minister, but asinine enough to attempt murder.
A Very English Scandal has three parts to run, shown on Sunday Nights 9pm. See the first episode on iPlayer now.