It seems that you have to be of a certain age to know about The Jeremy Thorpe Affair. From talking to people younger than me – or even the same age – it appears to be a cultural memory of the 1970s which really hasn’t survived.
That seems bizarre. You’d have thought that the leader of one of the main British political parties standing trial at the Old Bailey for paying a hitman to kill his secret gay lover is the kind of juicy bit of scandal that would stand there magnificently gaudy in the cultural memory.
Maybe it’s the fact that Jeremy Thorpe – who had until recently been Leader of the Liberal Party – was actually found not-guilty at the trial. He and his co-conspirators walking innocent from the dock after one of the most bizarre summing ups given by a judge in British legal history.
Jeremy Thorpe, found innocent.
Theoretically this should have meant Thorpe going on and reclaimed his place in public life. But instead he was buried in a grave of yellowed news print and forgotten about. The establishment, which seems to have gone out of its way to help its own, preferring that once the deed was done, Thorpe just be politely shunned.
Equally theoretically, it should have stopped the press from reporting the case as if he was a guilty man. Certainly while he was alive and the threat of a libel action was in place. But that’s not the way I remember it growing up. The consensus was that he was guilty as hell, and no one seemed too worried about saying it.
(Although I do wonder whether a book like this would have got past a publishing house’s legal team if he was still alive.)
John Preston gives us here a gossipy, witty, and ultimately frothy version of what is a bizarre tale – one that involves two MPs up to various skulduggeries, an inept hitman afraid of dogs and even a cameo from bloody Jimmy Saville. He and Thorpe apparently appeared together on TV and straight-faced advised people not to break the law.
My favourite detail though – and this is for entirely personal reasons – is that the man who actually procured the hitman was a carpet salesman from my home town of Bridgend, who went by the name, John Le Mesurier. Although obviously not the one who was Sergeant Wilson.
Without a doubt it’s highly entertaining, although it does make the odd omission of not mentioning Peter Cook’s judge’s summing up sketch, which is an absolute classic and was a direct response to this case.
If you get chance, do watch it. It’s hilarious, and – incredibly – not that far from what the actual judge said.