A Very British Scandal

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy as the Duke and Duchess of Argyll in A Very British Scandal

Alan Peebles/Amazon
A Very British Scandal

The duchess as tabloid target 

Alan Peebles/Amazon
A Very British Scandal

The couple in court

Alan Peebles/Amazon
Fill 1
Fill 1
April 21, 2022
In The Mix

Claire Foy and Paul Bettany are in A Very British Scandal

Amazon Prime's limited series retells the story of the tempestuous marriage and cruel divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll.

Benji Wilson

"He was a cruel bastard."

"She was a piece of work."

It may read like the poster for a two-bit potboiler ("and yet somehow they fell in love..."), but it's Paul Bettany and Claire Foy describing their characters in A Very British Scandal. The limited series from BBC One and Amazon Studios tells the true story of the tempestuous marriage and incredibly cruel divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, a melodrama that played out in public in Britain in the 1960s.

"I just think Paul Bettany is brilliant," Foy says.

"I wanted to do it because for a long time I've been a huge fan of Claire Foy," Bettany says.

As much as the actors admire each other, their onscreen relationship isn't quite so cordial: A Very British Scandal, arriving April 22 on Prime Video, is three hours of intramarital war.

It's telling that what people do know about the Duke and Duchess of Argyll is mostly because of a Polaroid picture — one that gave the "Dirty Duchess" her nickname in the U.K.

Margaret Whigham, played by Foy, was the only daughter of a millionaire Scottish businessman. Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll (Bettany), was her second husband. When they married in 1951, Margaret was a renowned socialite. But as the  marriage began to unravel, the duke, suspicious that his wife had been unfaithful, hired a locksmith to break into her belongings while she was in New York. Inside, he discovered a stash of compromising material — including that Polaroid of Margaret with a partner who became known in court as the "headless man."

It is quite a story, and it caught the eye of writer Sarah Phelps (The Pale Horse, Dublin Murders) more than thirty years ago, long before she'd written her first script. "Margaret's entire reputation and her entire world collapsed on the basis of a Polaroid," Phelps relates. "So much so that even when she died, in her obituary, even then she was known for her scandal. There was just something about that story. And I've never forgotten her."

Phelps "wanted to work out who she was." A Very British Scandal charts the court case, but she says it's also about "everything, everything that came before."

In Margaret's case, what came before was a blueprint for the life of a modern celebrity.

"She was very entitled, extremely wealthy, and initially she could do no wrong in the eyes of the tabloids," Foy says. "Everything she wore was fabulous, everything she did was fabulous. Famous people were put on a pedestal and kept there because we needed someone to look up to — but then eventually she was dragged down from that pedestal in a spectacular way."

The Polaroid was part of the duke's legal case in his divorce proceedings, filed along with a list of eighty-eight men he accused his wife of having slept with. In granting the divorce, the judge described Margaret as "a completely promiscuous woman," whose attitude to "the sanctity of marriage... was wholly immoral." The British tabloids gorged themselves on such contemptuous rich pickings.

It was a shocking early example of what's now known as "slutshaming," and Foy says that sixty years later, attitudes haven't changed much. "The idea that that approach to women's sexuality is no longer present is just not true. Women are still condemned for their sexuality and how they appear."

That in itself would be scandalous, but what makes this scandal so British is the addition of class to the mix. Both Bettany and Foy are British, so they know of what they speak.

"He was a duke with a castle, but he was penniless," Bettany explains. "He needed to marry somebody with money. She had money, but she wasn't from that class. She wanted the access into the aristocracy. Then when it all went wrong, the aristocracy absolutely surrounded and protected him. That's what makes it particularly British.

"The British class system absolutely still exists and has meaning," he adds. "Otherwise people wouldn't be interested in publishing the Honours lists [of titles the Queen confers] every year. It still means something to people."

Combine class, misogyny, wealth and privilege with one volatile married couple and you get an incendiary mix, one that fuels A Very British Scandal from the first frame to the last.

"These people are unexploded bombs," Phelps says, "and they will dash each other to pieces. Because this is the nature of who they are. This is how they've been brought up."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #3, 2022, under the title, "A Very Public Split."

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