Hugh and cry over the leader and his ‘lover’

Hugh Grant playing Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott on set for BBC One's A Very English Scandal.
Hugh Grant playing Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott on set for BBC One's A Very English Scandal.
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Hugh Grant strode on to the lawn at Westminster, his famously floppy hair covered by a floppier fedora, and on the hands of Big Ben behind him, time stood still.

He had stepped into the highly polished shoes of Jeremy Thorpe, the dandy who had led the old Liberal Party out of the wilderness and to within a sniff of power.

Jeremy Thorpe in 1977

Jeremy Thorpe in 1977

But 40 years ago this week, the walls of Whitehall crumbled around him.

Made to resign the leadership in the face of persistent rumours of an affair with a male model in the early 1960s, when homosexuality was still illegal between consenting adults, Thorpe was forced on to the defensive by the story of convicted former pilot called Andrew Newton. He had, he told the papers, been paid “by a leading Liberal” to hunt down the model and execute him.

Thorpe’s sensational hour-long question and answer session with reporters, in which he denied the affair and any involvement with a murder plot, was supposed to clear his name. Instead, it blew open Westminster’s biggest secret and led directly to Thorpe’s prosecution for conspiracy to murder.

The BBC announced earlier this year that Grant would play Thorpe in A Very English Scandal, a meticulously recreated reconstruction of the affair, and its release of a picture provides a timely glimpse ahead of its screening next year.

Pictured alongside Grant is Ben Wishaw, cast as the male model Norman Scott, whose dog was mistakenly killed by Newton on a lonely stretch of Exmoor.

A Very English Scandal has been written by Russell T Davies, who wrote the series Queer As Folk and was behind the revival of Doctor Who, and is being directed by Stephen Frears.

Thorpe had begun his fateful press conference, his wife Marion at his side, with a point-blank denial of every aspect of the affair. But he then spoke for the first time about his acquaintance with Scott and of the alleged plot in which Newton was supposed to have been offered £5,000 to kill him.

Mr Thorpe said he had enjoyed a brief “affectionate friendship” with Scott but that “no sexual activity of any kind took place”.

He then denied discussing with his friend, the financially ruined former Liberal MP Peter Bessell, or with anyone else, any proposed murder plot or attempt to harm Scott.

Nevertheless, he had opened a can of worms and triggered the re-opening of an earlier police investigation into Scott’s claims of an affair. The following year, Mr Thorpe was charged, along with the Liberals’ deputy treasurer David Holmes and two other men. All were cleared.

In spite of the jury’s verdict, Mr Thorpe lost his seat in the Commons and never again held high office.

Meanwhile, his successor, David Steel, sealed the “Lib-Lab pact”, the ad-hoc coalition that propped up James Callaghan’s Labour government. It was a bitter irony for Mr Thorpe, who had earlier, in a series of events that prophesied those of present-day politics, proposed a coalition with Edward Heath’s Conservatives “in the national interest”, in the wake of a referendum result on joining the European Community.

But Steel had demanded Thorpe’s resignation after the first seeds of the Scott scandal had been sewn.

Amazon has already bought the American rights to the BBC mini-series, which its producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins described as an “extraordinary true story”.

Mr Thorpe himself said in 2008, six years before his death: “If it happened now, I think the public would be kinder. Back then they were very troubled by it. It offended their set of values.”