Skip to content

Why was Jeremy Thorpe so adored?

June 5, 2018

We can’t seem to get away from Jeremy Thorpe at the moment. It sometime feels as if we are in a bizarre 40 year time warp with his name dominating the headlines once more.

Some of us may have our own vivid recollections of the events portrayed in A Very English Scandal and the subsequent trial but for many others it is a little piece of political and social history they knew nothing of until the last few weeks.

Several people I have spoken to expressed surprise at the jubilation when he was found not guilty and the adulation in the final balcony scene in A Very English Scandal (also shown from real life at the end of Tom Mangold’s 1979 documentary).

It is hard to explain to people just how adored Thorpe was but I thought this picture of my late mother (nearest the camera) might help.

I took it for her at a Liberal Party conference (or Assembly as we called them) in the mid-70s. She was with a colleague (Sue Skinner) from her constituency (Wanstead & Woodford). As you can see Jeremy was accompanied by Marion.

Thorpe had only met my mother once before. She was just another constituency activist from a part of the world I don’t think he ever visited – Wanstead & Woodford – but within seconds he had recalled her name and where she came from. He was genuinely engaged in a conversation with them, making them feel very special. He had that effect on so many people, maybe not always for the best, but it goes some way to explaining the reaction to the trial.

Many of those people, including my mother, thought it wouldn’t be long before he made a political comeback. His judgement – or Ursula’s in the drama – was that he was finished as a public figure. That balcony scene with Thorpe displaying all his old élan and panache was a sad last hurrah.


Politically I was a huge fan of Thorpe for reasons I recounted an the Appreciation I wrote after his death. Nothing I have seen in the wonderful BBC drama or Tom Mangold’s documentary has made me change those views.

From → Politics

  1. Nick Starling permalink


    Did you see this letter from Paul Tyler in today’s Guardian?

    Hugh Grant’s brilliant portrayal of Jeremy Thorpe, and the quality of the whole production, could persuade us that this drama is a factual documentary (‘We’re all watching’: What Liberals make of Thorpe TV drama, 2 June). However, the weakness in the screenplay – and in the book on which it was based – is that crucial episodes depend exclusively on the uncorroborated evidence of Peter Bessell.

    I thought I knew Thorpe reasonably well, having served as a Liberal MP under his leadership, but as the trial approached I realised I only knew the public persona. Not so Bessell. As his successor as Liberal candidate in the Bodmin constituency (and subsequently MP) I was able to observe him closely. I have never encountered anyone so skilful in self-deception or deceiving others. I read his book, written after his humiliation at the trial to justify his role in the affair (and published only in the US to avoid a libel action in the UK), which is to my knowledge unreliable.

    No doubt the judge had his own curious justification for doubting the Bessell evidence. However, I too would not rely on it to conclude that the TV series has told us the whole truth. In addition to the quality of the acting, for me it still has an extra attraction, since it leaves us with a tantalising element of mystery.
    Paul Tyler
    Liberal Democrat, House of Lords


    • Thanks – I hadn’t seen that one.

      Bessell was a very unappealing character and he got off lightly in the drama series. He introduced Thorpe to several rather shady businessmen, one of whom effectively asset-stripped the National Liberal Club.
      I also think Scott was treated a little too sympathetically. His behaviour was vindictive, obsessive and probably amounted to blackmail.
      As for Thorpe, I know from friends who were very close to him that he maintained to his dying day that he did not arrange the attempt on Scott’s life (or participate in any of the other alleged conspiracies if they actually existed).
      The drama, the book on which it is based and Tom Mangold’s documentary never get beyond circumstantial evidence and the testimony of compulsive liars to connect Thorpe directly to any of the conspiracies.
      The only truth is that we will never actually know the truth.


  2. Sarah Clark permalink

    Great photo and fascinating recollections, David.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: