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Literature / A Very English Scandal

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A 2016 non-fiction novel by the journalist and novelist John Preston, it details the Thorpe Affair, a British and political sex scandal that took place over the 60s and 70s.

Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party and Member of Parliament, was alleged to have carried on an affair with Norman Josiffe, at the time a young stable hand. The consequences of the affair to Thorpe's political career, coupled with the fact that homosexual acts were illegal at the time, threaten to come to light when the scorned and abandoned Josiffe (later known as Norman Scott) seeks retribution for Thorpe's actions, including what he views as societal sabotage when Thorpe refuses to help him procure a new insurance card. When Thorpe and his associates fail to shut Norman up, they turn to darker means to try to silence him, leading to disastrous consequences.

It was adapted into a critically-acclaimed television serial in 2018, written by Russell T Davies, and starring Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott. Both received raves for their performances, with Whishaw earning a BAFTA, Critic's Choice Award, Golden Globe and Emmy.

The book and series provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Wimp: The real Norman Josiffe/Scott criticized the series for portraying him as a weak wimp.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Thorpe calls Norman "bunny." Subverted in that Norman got the nickname for looking like a "frightened rabbit" when Thorpe came onto him for the first time, and the nickname comes back to bite Thorpe hard.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's left ambiguous as to whether Norman genuinely couldn't get a new insurance card and Thorpe prevented him from doing so, or if he could but wanted to keep the issue going in order to keep a line of dialogue open with Thorpe, who he still had feelings for for a long time.
  • Amoral Attorney: Carman was known for defending the manager of the Battersea Fun Fair (whose malfunctioning ride caused the deaths of five children) and isn't above getting dirty to discredit witnesses.
  • Armored Closet Gay: One of Thorpe's one-night stands suddenly goes into a violent rage when Thorpe makes a move on him.
  • Assassination Attempt: Thorpe continuously plays with the idea of shutting Norman up this way after Norman phones his wife, though his associates just assume he's being facetious. He goes through with it when he sees Norman again completely by chance, though it's famously bungled.
  • Author Filibuster: Norman's speech to the jury is pretty much a dressing-down from the author of treatment of gay men at the time, treated like they don't exist and aren't important, while the men in power who exploit, abuse and abandon them get to enjoy all the glory.
  • Author Tract: Both the original book, and the adaption, clearly thinks that Thorpe did it and sympathise with Norman, though the general public opinion is... murky at best. Thorpe managed to repair his reputation before he died, at least with his own party, and when the evidence was re-examined back in the 2010's it was decided not to re-open it. (suggesting that, whether the allegation was true or not, the trial was bad idea from the start)
  • British Brevity: It only had three episodes under an hour long, making it more the length of a film than the typical miniseries.
  • Cassandra Truth: Norman is always ignored when he tries to get the truth out about Thorpe, not only because Thorpe is in a protected position of privilege, but also because he often says it in a way that makes it hard for the average person to believe.
    • Pretty much all the advice that Peter Bessell gives to Thorpe in the first episode regarding Norman is correct. Namely, that the best way for Thorpe to leave the whole mess with Norman behind him would be to get him his new national insurance card, that Norman shouldn't be underestimated simply because his personality is more feminine than his and Thorpe's, and that planning to kill Norman is a very bad idea. Sadly, Thorpe refuses to listen to him and take his advice out of a mixture of desperation and underestimating Norman's strengths.
  • Comically Small Bribe: Inverted; it's Norman who asks for only thirty pounds after he reveals to Thorpe's mother that he's been having an affair with her son. Thorpe is annoyed that Norman can't even blackmail properly.
    • Played straight when Peter Bessell offers Norman only small sums as a retainer to shut him up, which the broke Norman accepts.
  • Convicted by Public Opinion: Though the reaction to the not guilty verdict is initially positive by anyone except gay rights activists, it nevertheless ruins Thorpe's career.
  • Cool Old Lady: Edna Friendship. Not only does she record Andrew Newton's vehicle and then bully a police officer into investigating him, she also turns up at the trial to support and encourage Norman, and denounce Thorpe and his ilk.
  • Determinator: Despite all the shit Norman goes through, he refuses to be silenced by everyone protecting Thorpe's interests. After Thorpe is acquitted, the script notes that Norman "recovers, as he always does."
  • The Ditz: Norman has his moments; he can hardly hold down a job, can't get himself a new insurance card and leaves his suitcase full of incriminating letters on a train after falling asleep(!) In the last example, it allows Thorpe to intercept his suitcase, seize most of the letters and dispose of them.
  • Empathic Environment: It's a dark, stormy night when Newton makes his murder attempt.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Carman is late to his appointment with Thorpe because he's spent the night in jail, and remarks to security that they should get better blankets for the next time he's in.
  • Foil: Norman and Thorpe's lives run parallel to each other during the first episode: as Thorpe enjoys a meteoric rise to political success, has a happy marriage of convenience with a lovely new baby, and enjoys a life of privilege, Norman can't hold down his job, has a short and unhappy marriage that ends in his wife taking their child away, and drifts around from job to job, unable to get proper work without an insurance card.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Thorpe and his associates are acquitted of all charges, but Thorpe's career is ruined as a result.
  • Happily Married: Despite considering himself "80% gay" and going into marriages with women solely for convenience, Thorpe genuinely loves his first wife and is devastated at her death; he also seems to truly love Marion, who loyally stands by his side all through the trial.
  • Hanging Judge: Chief Justice Cantley is a complete Jerkass, giving obvious privileges to the defense while repeatedly trying to silence the prosecution. He famously delivers extremely biased instructions to the jury calling Norman a lying parasite and fraud, though he spends the rest of his career being mocked for it (all of which happened in real life).
  • He Knows Too Much: Thorpe wants Norman dead after Norman's statements repeatedly threaten his personal and professional life.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Norman really loves dogs.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Despite neither Thorpe nor Peter Bessel being 100% straight, they do not particularly appear to be sexually attracted to each other, so they still qualify for this trope.
  • Hidden Depths: Norman reveals himself to be surprisingly clever on the witness stand, which frustrates Carman when he proves to be more popular than suspected. Bessell tries to warn Thorpe of this already in the first episode after having met Norman in Dublin and gotten an indication of the latter's personality, telling Thorpe not to be so sure that Norman can be easily intimidated, pointing out that unlike them, Norman is perfectly comfortable with his homosexuality and tells it freely no matter who's listening. Bessell goes so far as to tell Thorpe that he thinks Norman is one of the "strongest men in the world" because of it.
  • Idiot Ball: After being so discreet that he keeps Norman locked away in a room so that their affair won't be discovered, Thorpe writes love letters to him on official government paper, which could easily be traced back to him.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Bessell has a coughing fit while being interviewed, eventually revealed to be terminal emphysema.
  • Irony: Thorpe tries to get Norman killed off before Norman can ruin his political career. The assassination attempt fails, and destroys his career anyway, and Norman outlives him.
  • That Liar Lies: Carman's main attack against Norman is that he's lied about other things (such as his parentage) to make himself look more interesting and important, so he must be delusional and lying about the affair. Norman undercuts this by casually owning up to the fact that he did lie in the past, but isn't lying now, and the only reason he had lied about being penetrated by Thorpe during his initial report was simply because sodomy was illegal and they both would have been arrested.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Despite not being particularly interested in women, Thorpe weds one anyone to improve his public opinion and have a defense in case Norman accuses him again, fully intending to just use his new wife to have a child and then beg off sleeping with her. In spite of all of this, he genuinely cares for his new wife.
  • Nice Guy: Norman can be a bit of a ditz at times, but he's genuinely sweet and kind. Thorpe admits that he liked having Norman around because Norman was gentle and would never hurt anyone, whereas Thorpe's attempts at other affairs often ended with fear or violence.
  • No Bisexuals: Though Thorpe and Norman are both involved with women at different points, both are firmly assumed to be gay, which are standard assumptions given the lack of education and exposure in the time period. (While Norman's portrayal is quite straightforwardly bisexual, it's a bit more ambiguous for Thorpe, who is never shown getting passionate with women, leaving open the interpretation that his wives are beards.)
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted. When first meeting Norman, Thorpe is amused that his employer is also a Norman.
  • Police Brutality: An officer beats Norman for trying to get his story about Thorpe out.
  • Questionable Consent: Norman and Thorpe's first encounter is set up with an uncomfortable atmosphere: Thorpe enters Norman's bedroom uninvited with a jar of petroleum jelly and makes advances on the clearly nervous and reluctant Norman, citing Norman's arousal as proof that he's doing nothing wrong; at the trial, Norman also recalls that he was in pain, and had to bite the pillow to avoid alerting Thorpe's mother next door. There's also an implication that Norman feels he owes Thorpe for obtaining lodging for him, and Norman's dependence on Thorpe for the chance at employment. Even the rest of the relationship, which Norman apparently consented to, reeks of Norman being helpless against Thorpe even as he grows attached to him. Hugh Grant stated that he considered the first encounter to be a "gray area," but that it was "predatory" and likely rape.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: During the trial, Norman stands up for himself by calling out people like Thorpe for getting to enjoy fame while carrying on illicit affairs, while lovers like himself are shunted off into the dark and shut up. Though it's not enough to move the jury to conviction, it does warm up outside opinion to him.
  • Running Gag: One of Holmes's associates is John Le Mesurier — not the actor, of course.
  • Shirtless Scene: Thorpe meets Norman for the first time while the latter is shirtless in a stable.
  • Stupid Crooks: Andrew Newton is Coen brothers level of bumbling, and he only almost succeeds with the assassination attempt because Norman is naive and trusting. His gun jams repeatedly after shooting Rinka, thus failing to kill Norman when he's standing right in front of him, and drives off in a panic in the same car whose description Edna has already recorded. Unsurprisingly, he's the only character who ends up serving time.
  • This Is Going to Be Huge: In one scene set in the 1960s, Thorpe argues in Commons in favour of the UK joining the European Community, very obviously inserted for timely irony and not very consequential otherwise.
  • Unequal Pairing: One of this issues in the relationship between Norman and Thorpe is that Thorpe is a powerful, respected politician while Norman is a broke and fragile young man, dependent on Thorpe for even the chance to be able to get back to work and support himself; this leads to him essentially being trapped in his apartment for days on end, waiting for Thorpe.
  • Unsportsmanlike Gloating: After Thorpe wins over Hooson, he gloats that "the best man won."
  • Wham Line: Carman gets Bessell to reveal he has (terminal) emphysema, that he made no attempt to report Thorpe's assassination suggestions, and finally, that he had a deal to sell his side of the story to the papers — making double if Thorpe is found guilty, thus portraying Bessell as a terminally ill man with nothing to lose who benefits from a guilty verdict, which ruins his reputation as a witness.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Bessell never returns to England and dies abroad; Cantley spends the rest of his life being mocked; Thorpe's career is ruined, and he withdraws from the public eye after being diagnosed with Parkinson's a few years later, dying a few months after Marion; and Norman remains alive and well, with a small menagerie of animals and still no insurance card.note 
  • Woman Scorned: Carman tries to portray Norman like this. Norman replies cheekily that he would be — the difference being that he's not a woman.