Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Secret Lives

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Secret Lives

Article excerpt

Nowadays a sporty young MP up for a bit of weekend sleazing can think of nothing more imaginative than taking a few bob from some launderette magnate for asking questions in the House on fabric conditioner demographics.

Myself, I blame it on comprehensive education. Listen to teenage editorialists and you'd think that Neil Hamilton had invented sleaze. But it was in the old days, when Tory cabinet ministers would share hookers with Russian spies and whole estates in the north-east were designed on the back of T Dan Smith's chequebook, that sleaze was really sleaze.

Can you imagine, for instance, wan, wet Paddy Ashdown threatened by a thwarted gay lover - as if! - and finding himself up at the Bailey on a charge of incitement to murder? Of course you can't. But then Paddy Ashdown isn't Jeremy Thorpe.

Then again, as far as one could see from Secret Lives (Channel 4, Wednesday, 9pm), nor was Jeremy Thorpe Jeremy Thorpe. Or at least not the sweater-and-trilby Jeremy Thorpe he sold so chirpily to the voters of north Devon. Or, later, as leader of the Liberals, the velvet-collar-and-homburg Jeremy Thorpe he sold to voters everywhere else.

It seems like ancient history, all those half-remembered names - the Deakins and the LeMesuriers and the rest - tumbling out of the mist. The Thorpe trial was never quite the British Watergate that this film painted - Thorpe was no Nixon and the Liberals are only the Republican Party in their dreams - any more than it was the "trial of the century". And whatever the commentary said, Thorpe was certainly not the British JFK.

Secret Lives told us a lot we didn't know, but not much we couldn't have guessed. People involved in the affair handed over the taped phone-calls they had made, in their understandable paranoia, and talked for the first time since the trial. It told us a great deal about Thorpe, the principled fighter against apartheid and ruthless backstabber, that so many Liberal elders were willing to sit in front of the camera shrugging their shoulders as they bad-mouthed their sometime hero. …

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