The phone rang. It was Sanjay Subrahmanyan. We chatted of this and that and then before ringing off he asked me to see this Amazon Prime three-part series titled A Very English Scandal. “It is just the thing you will like,” he said before ringing off.
I googled it and found it was all about Jeremy Thorpe. In the late 1970s, just as I was getting to understand the facts of life, this trial burst forth in all the newspapers and The Statesman of Calcutta, which had never quite recovered from Indian independence, gave it quite some coverage. I suddenly realised that there was another side to the facts of life. Anyway, I read whatever was being reported. And then, quite forgot about it. Years later, in 2002 to be precise, a book titled Adventures of a Gentleman’s Gentleman, The Queen, Noel Coward and I, was released. I borrowed it from the British Council Library. Written by Guy Hunting (a singularly appropriate name considering the subject was all about how gays in the British aristocracy preyed on the domestic staff, and how the domestic staff exploited their masters’ weaknesses to the full) it made for an entertaining read. I came away with the impression that the British upper class was full of men with a different orientation, which probably accounts for that country’s declining truly British population. This book too had some details on the Thorpe affair. He had been to bed with Guy Hunting too.
Simply put, Jeremy Thorpe was gay but in a time when this was a criminal offence in Britain, he had to make do with what was called ‘rough trade’ – costermongers, minor pugilists, sailors on shore leave and bit-part actors. And then along comes a groom of horses in some stately home he visits. This is Norman Something who later changes his surname to the more pronounceable Scott. Having enjoyed him for sometime, Thorpe, who is the leader of the Liberal Democrats, decides he needs to be married and have babies to win votes. He wants to become PM you see. So he dumps Scott, marries someone and rather incredibly, has a baby in record time. But Scott is proving to be a nuisance and so has to be disposed off. Unfortunately for Thorpe, things become messy and his attempt at crime is discovered. A trial follows in which thanks to a brilliant lawyer and a biased judge, Thorpe is exonerated. But his political career is finished. The rest of his long life he spent fighting Parkinson’s disease, confined to a wheelchair and robbed of speech. He was cared for by his second wife, the brilliant pianist Marion Stein who after being the Countess of Harewood became Mrs Thorpe. Guy Hunting records his walking down Hyde Park and turning a corner only to come across Thorpe being wheeled away by Marion. If Thorpe recognised yet another of his men he did not give any sign.
The series has Hugh Grant playing the role of Jeremy Thorpe and he is brilliant. So is Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott. The very disturbing takeaway is how different is the politician’s mental makeup – everything is a step in the direction of office, including marriage and babies, and how a complete denial of any wrongdoing is their mantra. And the way the establishment covers up – that is another brilliant takeaway. A meeting with the Home Secretary at your Club, and voila, incriminating papers vanish. They of course turn up later, as they always do. Since the Indian system is so closely modelled on the one in the UK, we can see a lot of parallels.
Now having made you read all that, let me come to the gist of the story. This Marion, the second wife, was at one time the toast of our Madras society. Mami-s gaped at her stilettos and Mama-s at her short dresses. And how could a woman be so tall they all wondered. This was in 1964 when she was still the Countess of Harewood, married to the Earl who was first cousin to Queen Elizabeth II (his mother, Princess Mary, was the only sister of King George VI). They had come to Madras and both being extremely musical, there was plenty of interaction with our singers and performers – Musiri Subramania Iyer, Prof P Sambamurthy, KV Narayanaswami, T Brinda, Devakottai Narayana Iyengar, Semmangudi, Palghat Mani Iyer and MS Subbulakshmi. The couple made repeated visits to the Central College of Karnatik Music (now the Isai Kalluri) where Musiri Subramania Iyer was Principal and Semmangudi an honorary Director. The Earl of Harewood, in his biography, Tongs and Bones, has left behind his impressions of many Indian musicians. I loved his write-up on Semmangudi, which is too long for me to reproduce here.
They also made visits to Kalki Gardens and heard MS sing. The photo I have featured is of the Harewoods with MS, Sadasivam and Semmangudi at Kalki Gardens. The Musiri family has another pic of the couple with a whole host of musicians at the College. Anyway, Madras society made much of நம்ப ராணியோட cousin Harewood and அவரோட ஆம்படையா Marion. It was thanks to this couple that many of our musicians made it to the Edinburgh Music Festival, . Semmangudi did not go. He said he was averse to crossing the seas.
Anyway, while Madras may have celebrated நம்ம Marion, all was not well. In sharp contrast to Thorpe and others of his kind of whom Britain appeared to have had a majority, the Earl was having an affair with his secretary with whom he had a child. Marion divorced him and later, married Thorpe, his first wife having died in a road accident. It was நம்ம Marion who stood by Thorpe in his darkest hour and took care of him till 2014, when she passed away, nine months before he did.
I can imagine the discussions at Kalki Gardens
- What happened to our Marion? Any news?
- Oh, didn’t you know? She and ராணியோட cousin are now divorced. அவன் தன்னொட Secretaryoda குடும்ப்பம் நடத்திண்டு இருந்தானாம்.
- அட ராமா! இங்கெ வந்த போது ரொம்ப சாதுவா இருந்தாரே!
- அப்படி இருக்கறவாதான் இப்பிடி பண்ணுவா.
- நம்ம் மரியனுக்கு என்ன குரைச்சல்? சாக்ஷாத் மஹாலஷ்மி மாதிரி.
And then a few years later, shaking their heads in wonderment at Marion’s second marriage and how her husband may end up being PM –
புடிச்சாலும் புடிச்சா. நம்ம மரியன் உச்சாணிகொம்பா புடிச்சுட்டா!
And then when the gory details began to percolate, a quick shake of the head and
அதை ஏன் கேக்கரேள்? நம்ம மரியநுக்கு ஏதோ ஜாதக கோளார். முதல் புருஶன் அப்பிடின்னா இவன் இப்பிடி.
As I look at the photograph up top, my guess is Semmangudi mama, judging from his facial expression, had an inkling of the shape of things to come.
Hilarious and loaded with information as usual..!
Sriram, one small correction, ‘A very English Scandal’ is available in Prime videos and not in Netflix as mentioned.
Hi Radhika – thanks. I made the change
Trust the British and western world to keep a straight poker face and a stiff upper lip while pretending nothing was amiss when everything was about the Miss, Missus, Mistress and even Mister. When you get away with loot, plunder and colonialism and say it did good to India, guess there is no moral compass to be troubled with. Add to this, Indians are ever willing to play second fiddle, turn a blind eye to such goings on and even consider the Colonial Masters as worthy of emulation.
Thanks for the recommendation. I really enjoyed reading the background and watching the show on Amazon Prime!
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