When Jeremy Thorpe met Norman Scott

Sunday, July 14, 2002 by

The downfall of Jeremy Thorpe is characterised by absurdity and convolution. It remains resistant to dramatisation in that the plot continually stops-starts, turns back on itself, or sets off on an entirely different course. Thorpe and the whole affair are forever associated with the 1970s, and any attempt to pick away at the story now, or indeed find closure (which Norman Scott appears hell bent on achieving) seems as much folly as a modern day attempt to track down a Texan bar.

Besides does anyone really care these days? When Jeremy Thorpe Met Norman Scott is keen to remind us that the news of Thorpe’s arrest for conspiracy to murder was greeted as the most unbelievable and sensational British political scandal ever. The subsequent court case was, we are reminded, dubbed “the trial of the century” and accompanied by the kind of media circus comparable to the 1994 OJ Simpson trial. Yet the passing of time has withered this story. The numerous permutations and evolutions of the Liberal Party over the last 20 years has ensured that the modern day observer remains baffled as to what actually Thorpe was leader of, and as soon as what he stands to lose becomes indistinct and hazy, the story’s underlying drama – that of the fall from public office of a “great man” is eroded to such an extent that the story becomes the tale of an insignificant political figure caught in flagrante seducto.

So why make the documentary at all? Patently, When Jeremy Thorpe Met Norman Scott owes its existence to Norman Scott’s willingness to submit himself to a television interview. Told mainly in his words, the “Thorpe affair” is a tale of how a powerful politician befriended a weak and mentally fragile, animal-loving wastrel and proceeded to effectively imprison him by retaining his National Insurance papers and use him for sexual gratification. Scott’s narrative is inconsistent, although never truly contradictory. His own feelings toward Thorpe remain confused and range from what seems to be genuine affection for the man, to active dislike. Such conflicting responses suggest that even almost 40 years later, Scott remains still disturbed by his bizarre relationship and it is this realisation that ensures we do not take what follows too lightly.

Whilst dwelling on Scott’s narrative provides the programme with a fresh voice with which to retell this well-worn tale it does have it’s drawbacks. Scott’s route through the exposition is the most direct course, which while ensuring viewers are able to keep up with what is at times a very complicated tale, misses out a number of intriguing points of interest along the way. A counter pointing narrative, perhaps driven by Barrie Penrose (one half of the famed “Pencourt” investigating team who uncovered the scandal in the first place) would have revealed related and tantalising snippets like the fact that the investigation into Thorpe’s private life was inadvertently initiated by Harold Wilson’s paranoia, and his attempt to prove that he and his great political friend were the subject of a concerted right wing, South African campaign to discredit them.

Missing too, and really rather criminal of When Jeremy Thorpe Met Norman Scott, is any sense of Thorpe as a man. No defence of his position is provided, and whilst we are presented with clip after clip of the famed raconteur on the election trail, we barely hear his voice at all. The programme concludes with a statement confirming that Thorpe declined to appear, but still we are left with little sense of the man himself, making it extremely difficult for the modern day viewer to appreciate Thorpe’s charisma and panache, and therefore, how sensational his fall was to a 1970s voter. Instead Thorpe is left to fulfil the role of the “other”, a kind of black hole into which Scott, Vessel and others in the story are inexorably absorbed. Cyril Smith provides a welcome view from within the Liberal Party, but again one cannot help feel that the absence of any true political context in this retelling is to the detriment of the story.

But, in the final analysis, this is still a most evocative story, filled with 1970s silliness, as all involved parties lose themselves amidst the reverie of the intrigue. But then, in the 1970s everyone seemed to have aspirations to be a private eye, or a celebrity, or a superhero, and in this context the Thorpe – Norman affair is a wake up call to the dreamers of that decade. Politicians as dashing amateurs were out of the window as soon as the Conservatives aligned themselves with Saatchi and Saatchi, and amateur sleuths and assassins just ended up looking plain stupid. From our historical perspective the demise of Thorpe signals the end of a whole type of Great British aspiration and the onset of a Great Britain far more recognisable as the one we know today.


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