With Hugh Grant playing Jeremy Thorpe in a new BBC drama being filmed at Chittlehampton this month, former assistant agent Peter Bray recalls the real Jeremy Thorpe behind the headlines

Peter Bray and his daughter Gail look at a scrap book of his years as assistant agent to Jeremy Thorpe. Picture: Tony GussinPeter Bray and his daughter Gail look at a scrap book of his years as assistant agent to Jeremy Thorpe. Picture: Tony Gussin

'A tremendous bloke and an MP of the highest stature' is how his former agent remembers Jeremy Thorpe.

Pilton's Peter Bray, 74, has been speaking to the Gazette in advance of the BBC filming a drama on Mr Thorpe's life at Chittlehampton next Tuesday, with Hugh Grant taking the title role.

Mr Thorpe was North Devon MP from 1959-79 and Peter served as his assistant agent from 1971-80 under Lilian Prowse before serving as constituency agent from 1980-85.

Leader of the Liberal Party, Mr Thorpe was the first British politician to stand trial for conspiracy and incitement to murder and the title of the BBC drama is A Very English Scandal.

Jeremy Thorpe was an active MP for his North Devon constituency. Picture: PA/PA WireJeremy Thorpe was an active MP for his North Devon constituency. Picture: PA/PA Wire

Peter said he would not discuss that part of Mr Thorpe's life but he recalls him as a great man who was a leader on the national stage but also a deeply caring local MP and a huge force for good in North Devon.

He said: "I remember Jeremy as he was - he was a much-respected MP and the sort of bloke you could walk through Barnstaple with and everybody knew him, talked to him and he knew a lot of peoples' names.

"He was a friend and he treated you like any other person, he was never superior and I had a lot of laughs with him."

He did not want to speak too much about the BBC production, but said: "I can honesty say that such a programme upsets me, if it is as I think it's going to be broadcast."

Hugh Grant will play Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal. Picture: BBC/Blueprint Television LtdHugh Grant will play Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal. Picture: BBC/Blueprint Television Ltd

A lasting legacy

Mr Thorpe was responsible for some of North Devon's modern landmarks - he campaigned for North Devon District Hospital, which opened in 1979 and for the North Devon Link Road.

Chittlehampton will be the scene of filming next week. Picture: Tony GussinChittlehampton will be the scene of filming next week. Picture: Tony Gussin

Peter said: "He pushed for the Link Road. They are saying today about it being dualled but I can hear him now saying the whole road should be dualled.

"That was one legacy, but there was no end of things he achieved."

When an electoral boundary change saw Mr Thorpe adopt Bideford and the surrounding villages, Peter said he was welcomed wherever they went 'as if he had been MP for years'.

Mr Thorpe was married to Caroline until her untimely death and they had a son, Rupert, who is now a photographer in Australia. He married again, to Marion Stein, who died in 2014 a few months before her husband.

Peter served as a Barnstaple Borough councillor and then town councillor between 1968-79 and he remembers the day someone came into the Guildhall during a meeting.

"I remember the mayor Guy Casey looking straight at me and saying I have some sad news, Caroline Thorpe has been killed in a car crash. Both his wives were two really lovely women."

Codden Hill monument and the Archbishop of Canterbury

They lived in a cottage at Chuggaton, a hamlet near Chittlehampton and when Caroline died Mr Thorpe built the monument on the top of Codden Hill in her memory.

Peter recalled the opening ceremony, when a local coach driver managed to get his bus close to the monument and the Archbishop of Canterbury did the blessing.

He said: "I got on the bus, Jeremy said to me 'you sit there' and I was sat on Claude Pugsley's bus next to the Archbishop of Canterbury and he started speaking to me as if I was a long lost friend."

The highest stature

Peter has a picture on Facebook of when he was deputy mayor of Barnstaple and Mr Thorpe is pictured by his side at the fair opening.

He recalled: "We had to leave Barnstaple straight after and travel to Scarborough for the Liberal party Conference. We jumped in a taxi to Chivenor and got on a little Cessna four times, walking up and down the steps because the television were there and they couldn't get it right.

"I was with Jeremy in a different environment and the way he was greeted really made me realise what a true personality he was nationally."

Peter worked as an agent at by-elections around the country and on another occasion he and a friend had to drive to Berwick in Northumberland. The car was serviced before they left but when they arrived a wheel fell off.

Mr Thorpe wrote a note promising the local garage any bill would be paid - and when Peter went to pick up the car the garage owner had framed the letter and placed it on his wall.

Peter continued: "In those days politics was fun, we put on things to raise money, we had barbecues - you will see pictures of Jeremy carving a lamb roast. We had our annual fete at the Pannier Market, they were events people looked forward to and we could make £1,500 - in those days that was a lot of money.

He concluded: "North Devon has not changed a tremendous amount over the years but it's a lot better than it was when Jeremy was first elected and I am sure it gained a lot from him being the MP."