"A Very English Scandal" Is Getting Rave Reviews. But Have You Read the Book?

Sarah Harrison Smith on June 29, 2018


What are you doing tonight? Based on the incredibly positive reviews, lots of us will be watching  A Very English Scandal, Amazon's three-part mini-series starring Hugh Grant. (Yes, you can binge-watch all three segments now.) The series is based on “the trial of the century” – when Jeremy Thorpe, a supremely self-confident, twice-married British MP faced charges of conspiring to kill his male lover. But Thorpe had many secrets, not least of which was his homosexual activity, which he was desperate to hide in an era when such behavior had only just become legal.

The Wall St. Journal calls A Very English Scandal “rollicking” and “sublimely written;” the New York Times pronounced it a “darkly humorous caper” that chooses “zippiness over ponderousness.” But however good the series – and as the Times said, it’s “very good” – we readers know: the book is always better. Now out in paperback, John Preston’s brilliantly researched, edge-of-your seat expose is funny, briskly-paced, and blood chilling. Here’s his first chapter. We think you’ll have a hard time stopping there.

An Excerpt from A Very English Scandal by John Preston, Courtesy of Other Press 

Part One 

Dinner at the House of Commons

One evening in February 1965, a man with a fondness for mohair suits, an unusually wrinkled face and a faint resemblance to Humphrey Bogart walked into the Members’ Dining Room at the House of Commons. His name was Peter Bessell and he was the Liberal MP for Bodmin in Cornwall. Bessell had been an MP for only six months and he was still a little awestruck by the place. As he had few friends there, he had become used to eating on his own. On this evening, however, he heard a voice behind him asking if he would like to have dinner.

The voice belonged to another Liberal MP, Jeremy Thorpe. Although he was almost eight years younger than Bessell, Thorpe had been in Parliament since 1959. At thirty- six, he was the rising star of the party, widely tipped to become the next Leader. While some of the older members found him brash and hot- headed, one could doubt his appeal to voters. As well as being ebullient and good- looking in a cadaverous sort of way, Thorpe had apparently bottomless reserves of charm. These had been deployed to great effect in his constituency of North Devon.

With its rolling moorland and deep valleys, North Devon may been famously picturesque, but the people who lived there tended to have poorly paid jobs, either on the land or in the fishing industry. Thorpe was about as far from being one of them as possible: a smooth Old Etonian with a distinctive taste in clothes – he favoured a cashmere overcoat with a velvet collar and, rather more eccentrically, a brown bowler hat. However, it didn’t take long forhim to win them over.

Thorpe was charismatic and sympathetic. He also had an extraordinary knack for remembering people’s names and for making them feel that their problems were especially close to his heart. With his arms thrown wide and an enormous grin on his face, he would bear down on his would- be constituents as though seeing them had just fulfilled his wildest dreams. Few were able to resist. They even loved it when Thorpe – a brilliant mimic since boyhood – made fun of their broad West Country accents.

In the 1959 election, he scraped in with a majority of just 362. By 1964, this had gone up to 5,136. As a reward for his success, Thorpehad recently been made the party’s official Spokesman on Commonwealth Affairs. He and Bessell had first met ten years earlier at a by- election in Torquay in which Bessell had stood – and lost. Although they didn’t know one another well, Bessell had been convinced from the start that the two of them shared an unusual bond. Physically, they were roughly the same height, with dark hair and narrow, brooding features. Politically too their views tended to coincide. But it was the similarities in their characters that Bessell was most struck by: ‘We were both wilful, quick to take offence, capable of arrogance and incurably sentimental.’

And there was something else they had in common, something that would soon become apparent – each in his own distinctive way was a colossal chancer. Bessell had left school at sixteen, then become a Congregationalist lay preacher. Setting up a small tailoring business in the Devon town of Paignton, he had drifted into Liberal Party politics, prompted in part by ideology and – possibly in larger part – by a desire to spice up his already hectic love- life.

Bessell did not look like a conventional Lothario. He once likened his face to ‘a badly tessellated pavement’ and the mohair suits he wore caused him to shimmer slightly whenever he stood near an electric light. The effect was capped by his extraordinarily gravelly voice, which made him sound like a lounge- lizard in an Edwardian melodrama. None the less, he enjoyed considerable success with women. Soon after the death of his first wife – from tuberculosis – Bessell married again. He and his second wife, Pauline, went on to have two children, a boy and a girl, but marriage and fatherhood did nothing to curb his appetite for philandering. However rackety Bessell’s love- life was, it was nothing compared with his business dealings. Over the years, he had been involved in a number of schemes that he was convinced were going to make his fortune, including one to market hot- drink vending machines and another to open a chain of motels across Britain. Yet Bessell’s fortune stubbornly failed to materialize. Instead, most of his schemes came hopelessly unstuck, leaving a trail of debts in their wake.

According to Bessell’s account of what happened next, the two men sat at the long table reserved for Liberal MPs. That evening,the place was almost deserted and there was no one nearby to overhear what they were saying. The Members’ Dining Room was not a place that naturally lent itself to gossip. Everything about it – the coffered wooden ceiling, the royal coat of arms hanging above the door, the stern Victorian portraits on the walls – seemed designedto foster an air of solemnity. In keeping with their surroundings, their conversation began conventionally enough. They spoke about the party, and about their Leader, Jo Grimond, in particular. Leader of the Liberals for the last eight years, Grimond had largely been responsible for the revival of the party’s fortunes – in 1964 the Liberals had polled more than three million votes, a swing of more than 5 per cent since the last General Election.

The 1964 election had been won by the Labour Party, led by Harold Wilson. With his pasty face and his flat Yorkshire accent, Wilson neither looked nor sounded like a man gripped by visionary fervor. But Britain, he declared, stood on the brink of a New Age, one that would see the end of economic privilege and the abolition of poverty. Not only that, ‘the British [will] again become the go- ahead people with a sense of national purpose.’

But this snazzy Utopia still seemed a long way off. Having won a majority of only four seats and with the economy floundering, Labour faced a constant struggle to cling on to power. Luckily for them, the Conservatives had just elected a new Leader – the defiantly charmless and far- from-magnetic Edward Heath. As the third main party, the Liberals were ideally placed to pick up disenchanted voters from both sides. There were even those who believed that, for the first time in more than fifty years, power was within their grasp.

Jo Grimond was only fifty- one, but ever since the election the House of Commons had been swept by rumours that he was about to retire. While Bessell felt that Thorpe would be an ideal replacement as Leader, he was surprised, even a little shocked, by rumors that he had heard about his private life. As the party’s only other West Country MP, Bessell thought that he might be quizzed about Thorpe in the event of a leadership contest. Under the circumstances, it might be prudent to furnish himself with as much information as possible. That at least was how he rationalized it to himself. But, as always, Bessell had other, rather less lofty motives. An inveterate collector of tittle-tattle, he was curious to find out if these rumours had any substance to them.

Hoping to draw Thorpe out on the subject of sex, he started talking about his secretary, Diana Stainton. Clearly not much interested by this turn in the conversation, Thorpe asked idly if she was any good.

‘Oh, yes,’ Bessell replied. ‘Particularly in bed.’

Thorpe stared at him for several seconds, then burst out laughing. He told Bessell that he had him marked down as a happily married man. Bessell insisted that his marriage was perfectly happy – this was different.

‘I suppose you might call it a hobby,’ he said. ‘Some people collect stamps, play golf or breed horses. I like screwing.’

By now Bessell had Thorpe’s full attention. But he also knew that Thorpe was easily bored. If he wanted to lure him into any indiscretions, he had to make his next move count.

‘Of course,’ Bessell said, ‘when I was a young man it was more difficult. Years ago, nice girls didn’t get into bed with you until you married them.’

‘So what did you do?’ Thorpe asked.

‘Ah well,’ said Bessell wistfully. ‘In those days I still had homosexual tendencies.'

In fact, this was nonsense. Bessell had never been anything other than unflaggingly heterosexual: he was just fishing to see what the response would be. It could hardly have been more dramatic. Thorpe was galvanized. Leaning forward, he said, ‘Did you? Tell me about that.’

Slightly taken aback, Bessell babbled something about once having had a homosexual fling in a Vienna nightclub. When he had finished, Thorpe didn’t say anything at first. Instead, he signalledfor the waiter.

‘Peter, this calls for a drink. What will you have?’

Bessell said that he would have a port.

‘Couldn’t be better,’ said Thorpe. ‘I’ll have the same.’

While they waited for their drinks, Bessell decided to press home his advantage.

‘What about you?’ he asked. ‘Surely you don’t live like a Trappist monk?'

Thorpe seemed to tense up, and for a moment Bessell wondered if he had overplayed his hand. ‘When I was at Oxford I had homosexual tendencies,’ Thorpe admitted cautiously. ‘Of course, that was a long time ago now.’

They were interrupted by the waiter bringing the drinks. After they had raised their glasses to one another, Bessell said, ‘I suppose people like us never quite lose it, do they?’

There was another pause, and then Thorpe’s face broke into a grin. ‘Peter,’ he said in a half- whisper, ‘we’re nothing but a pair of old queens . . . Tell me,’ he went on as they sipped at their ports, ‘what would you say you were – 50/50?’

‘No,’ said Bessell hurriedly. ‘I would say more like 80/20.’

‘Do you mean 80 or 20 per cent gay?’ Thorpe asked.

Bessell had never heard the expression ‘gay’ before and it took him a moment or two to work out what Thorpe meant.

‘I mean 80 per cent for girls,’ he said.

‘Really? It’s the other way with me,’ said Thorpe. ‘I’m 80 percent gay.’

By now Bessell felt that he and Thorpe had more in common than he had ever imagined. As he was to recall later in characteristically grandiose fashion, ‘Like Jeremy, my extraordinary physical and mental energy was coupled to a desire for conquest in many things.’ Or, to put it another way, when faced with the faintest glimmer of sexual temptation both of them were powerless to resist.

Thorpe went on to talk about how disastrous it would be if his constituents ever found out about his homosexuality. As well as signalling the immediate end of his political career, the revelation might also land him in prison – homosexuality still being a criminal offence in 1965.

‘But we’ve done pretty well so far,’ he said. ‘Nobody in the House knows about me.’

‘Would anyone care?’ Bessell asked.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Thorpe glumly. ‘Neither of us could ever be Leader of the Party if they found out.’

By now the dining room was closing and Thorpe called for the bill.

‘Very well,’ said Bessell. ‘Then we shall have to see to it that no one ever finds out.’

‘You’re right,’ said Thorpe with a sudden burst of passion. ‘And by Christ, Peter, we’ll see that they never do.’

Four weeks later, Bessell was in his office on Clarges Street one morning when the phone rang. It was Thorpe. Could they meet for lunch, he asked. Bessell noticed that Thorpe sounded much more tense and less ebullient than usual. Something was clearly wrong.

At Thorpe’s suggestion, they went to the Ritz. This also struck Bessell as odd, as both were members of the National Liberal Club, which was much nearer the House of Commons, but he didn’t say anything. By the time Bessell arrived, Thorpe was pacing impatiently around the lobby. After giving him a cursory greeting, they went through to the dining room, where they were given a table overlooking Green Park.

The spring flowers were just coming into bloom, and Bessell, who prided himself on having an eye for beauty in all its forms, thought the park was looking especially pretty. However, the view was plainly the last thing on Thorpe’s mind. Glancing briefly at the menu, he ordered the steak tartare. As soon as the waiter had gone, Thorpe took a letter from the inside pocket of his jacket and handed it to Bessell.

‘Read it,’ he said.

Bessell saw that the envelope was addressed to Thorpe’s mother, Ursula, at her house in Oxted, Surrey. The letter inside was written on blue notepaper. Although it was very long – seventeen pages – and the handwriting hard to decipher, Bessell soon got the gist of it.The writer began by apologizing for bothering Mrs Thorpe but reminded her that he had once been a guest in her house. He went on to claim that he and Jeremy Thorpe had been lovers.

‘For the last five years as you probably know, Jeremy and I have had a “homosexual” relationship. To go into it too deeply will not help either of us. When I came down to Stonewalls [Ursula Thorpe’s house] that was when I first met him. Though he told you something about the TV programme and Malta. This was all not so true. What remains is the fact that through my meeting with Jeremy that day, I gave birth to this vice that lies latent in every man.’

Thorpe, the man claimed, had promised to look after him. But the affair had ended and he had reneged on his promise. All his subsequent attempts to get in touch with Thorpe had failed. The man was now living in Dublin and needed help. In particular, he wanted Thorpe to return his National Insurance card, without which, he wrote, he was unable to get a job. But to tide him over he wondered if Mrs Thorpe would be kind enough to lend him £30.

‘I hate asking because I know it may cause friction and I know how close you both are. This is really why I am writing to you.Jeremy owes me nothing, possibly I owe him a lot, although I feel we balance out. Now instead of a cast- off friend I appeal to his finer feelings as a man to help me who is in real need. I promise I shall repay every penny as soon as I am on my feet – believe me I mean this.’

He ended with an apology and a plea. ‘Can you understand any of this, Mrs Thorpe? I’m so sorry. Please believe me, I’m desperate for help.’

The letter was signed Norman Lianche Josiffe.

Bessell looked up to see Thorpe staring intently at him.

‘Is it true?’ Bessell asked.

Slowly Thorpe nodded.

‘What did your mother think?’

‘She didn’t believe it,’ he said.

Then Thorpe took out another letter. This one was much shorter, just two pages long. He explained it was the draft of a letter he was going to ask his solicitor to send to Josiffe. In the letter, Thorpe vehemently denied that any sexual relationship had ever taken place and threatened a libel action if Josiffe ever repeated his allegation: ‘Our client utterly rejects the damaging and groundless allegations which you have made against him and desires us to give notice that he will not hesitate to issue a writ, whether in the English or Irish Courts, claiming damages for defamation upon receiving the slightest scintilla of evidence that you have repeated this wholly obnoxious and untrue allegation.’

There was more, all in a similar vein. Bessell read the letter, and strongly advised him not to send it.

‘Why not?’ Thorpe wanted to know.

‘Have you forgotten Oscar Wilde?’ Bessell asked.

To Bessell’s surprise, Thorpe seemed to have no idea what he was talking about. Bessell had to remind him that Wilde had been destroyed by a libel action he had brought against the Marquess of Queensberry in 1895 alleging that he was a ‘somdomite’ (sic ).

‘Then what the hell am I to do?’ Thorpe muttered.

Bessell told him that he couldn’t really give him any more advice until he knew all the facts of the case. Thorpe looked thoughtful, then warned him that it was a long story. That was fine, said Bessell; he had no particular plans for the afternoon.

He couldn’t possibly have known it, of course, but it was a decision that would ruin his life.

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot at the Heart of the Establishment (Other Press Trade Paperback; 2018) by John Preston. Copyright © John Preston. With permission from Other Press.

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