A Very English Scandal is a non-fiction, true crime novel by John Preston, arts editor and television critic of the Sunday Telegraph. Published in May 2016, it tells the story of the Jeremy Thorpe Affair, a scandal that occurred in the nineteen-seventies, in Britain, and captivated the attention of the nation. Forty something years later, it is still an infamous story.
Jeremy Thorpe, one-of-a-kind and sometimes eccentric leader of the British Liberal Party, was tried, then acquitted, of a conspiracy to murder his alleged lover, Norman Scott. At the time, being "outed" and being in the public eye were not compatible situations; this was doubly true for a member of parliament. Thorpe never admitted to being gay (his lawyer conceded that at certain times in his life he had experienced "homosexual tendencies") and the book chronicles an early love life that was secretive and illegal - at the time, sex between two men was illegal and an offense that could lead to prison time, and certain career death for a man with Thorpe's political ambition. Although there was a general belief that he had actually been part of the conspiracy to kill Scott, there was never enough proof to make the charge stick, and get a conviction.
The book was an immediate hit and received the critical equivalent of a standing ovation. Preston's telling of the story was universally praised, telling the story of idiot would-be assassins, bent cops and a Home Secretary with a fluid sense of right and wrong without making the characters seem like caricatures. It is also incredibly accurate from a forensic sense.
The one thing that Preston never manages to accomplish is to make his main character, Jeremy Thorpe, likable. An Oxford graduate with an incisive wit, he seemed constantly over-impressed with his own intelligence, and his politics were always more negative (pointing out what was wrong with the opposition) rather than positive (offering a workable solution himself). His dress sense was flamboyant to say the least; frock coats, brocade vests, shoes with buckles, and a watch on a chain), and his gift for mimicry was amusing, yet cruel. As a co-worker he was unpleasant, but as a politician he was very skilled, and despite his upper class background had the common touch that made him beloved by supporters, and that enabled him to never forget a name even if he had learned it whilst participating in a meet and greet with local voters. Preston accurately portrays Thorpe's character, which is why he never manages to make him likable.
The book was adapted into a television movie by Stephen Frears, and starred Hugh Grant, Benjamin Whitelow and Michele Dotrice.