A very British review of scandal – Claire Foy is masterful as ‘dirty duchess’ looking for blood | TV & radio
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Well NOW it’s Christmas. Sarah Phelps delivered. Not an Agatha Christie adaptation this time around but an original drama, A Very British Scandal (BBC One), about the notorious Argyll v Argyll case – the only one a former law student remembers (and I speak from experience). This is thanks to the fact that this was a vicious divorce case between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll involving multiple allegations of infidelity, one of which was evidenced by a photo of the Duchess in train to suck a man whose face was not visible in the photo but who was not her husband. The Duke had various measures taken so that this could be proven in court. The Duchess was identified by her pearl necklace. Not really.
It’s surprising that no one has brought the story to the screen before now. This is a complement – or perhaps an extension of what appears to be on the way to becoming a series of anthologies on historical media frenzies, national itching and social hypocrisy – to A Very English Scandal of 2018, on the Jeremy Thorpe case.
The Argyll affair (or “The Headless Man Case” as it was also called, thanks to the photo that quickly became infamous) of course caused a media storm. A very British scandal opens in 1963 with the Duchess (Claire Foy, seen more recently on the small screen as queen in The Crown and here bringing the same masterful skills to another aristocratic but totally different character) facing the screaming abuse from a mob (“Scum!” “Slut!”) as she enters Edinburgh courthouse to open divorce proceedings. Inside, the Duke of Argyll (Paul Bettany) offers him one last chance to end it quietly “Because I am an honorable man.” You’ve played a fiery game, but we both know you don’t have the guts for it. The look on the Duchess’s face suggests we should all buckle up to enjoy the ride ahead.
We go back to 16 years earlier, when engaged socialite Margaret Sweeny (née Whigham, the spoiled only daughter of a fabulously wealthy industrialist) who is said to have had affairs with everyone from David Niven to Prince Ali Khan and is on the not to divorce for the first time. husband, meets dashing Captain Ian Campbell, heir to the title and lands of Argyll. They find that their interests align quite well and – once he divorces Louise (his second wife and mother of his two sons) – get married.
At first it seems like a good game, if only in the sense that they are each equally monstrous and self-centered. Campbell’s father dies, they become Duke and Duchess, move to the family heap in Inverary, and she pays for everything from restoring the castle to the final bills for Louise’s fur coats.
Fairly quickly, however, the Duke is revealed to be a violent and vicious drunkard. Margaret’s core meanness serves her well. She remains intimidated by her situation and at the end of the episode we see her forging letters from Louise claiming that Ian’s sons are not her own, to guarantee her place in Inverary that would otherwise be passed on to them.
A very British scandal was presented – I guess because anything involving a woman and sex in The Past has to do it – as a feminist account of the Argyll marriage divorce, but in fact Phelps doesn’t lean too much into that – above. Yes, there are times when Maureen (Julia Davis, both mildly and deeply malicious, as is her special gift) tries to shame her for her sexual appetite. And it is clear that hypocrisy abounded and life in the ’60s was not as liberated for women as it was for men then, or history since, would have us believe.
But there is, thankfully – because it would do Margaret and feminism a disservice – no attempt to make us see her through a heroic new lens. We are invited to admire her courage in the face of the social obstacles that accumulate against her, which is different. The Duchess was never a women’s champion – she was a champion of Margaret Campbell and Margaret Campbell alone. Not inviting pity, refusing to bow to the opinions of others – these are admirable qualities and Phelps and Foy present them beautifully, but they are not specifically feminist. The very public divorce came about because the equally stubborn Duke and Duchess had their teeth sunk into each other’s necks with the same firmness and were unwilling to let go. A Very British Scandal, with its lean and mean script and its refusal to reinvent the Duchess as an icon of the movement, is the best and fairest tribute that can be paid to her.
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