Well NOW it’s Christmas. Sarah Phelps has delivered. Not an Agatha Christie adaptation this time but an original drama, A Very British Scandal (BBC One), about the notorious case of Argyll v Argyll – the only one any erstwhile law student ever remembers (and I speak from experience). This is thanks to the fact that it was a vicious divorce case between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll involving multiple allegations of infidelity, one of which was attested to by a photo of the Duchess fellating a man whose face was not visible in the picture but who was not her husband. The duke had various measurements taken so this could be proved in court. The duchess was identified by her pearl necklace. No, really.
It’s surprising that no one has brought the story to the screen before now. Here it is a companion piece – or perhaps furtherance of what seems set to become an anthology series about historical media frenzies, national prurience and social hypocrisy – to 2018’s A Very English Scandal, about the Jeremy Thorpe affair.
The Argyll case (or the ‘Headless Man affair’ as it was also known, thanks to the photo that quickly became infamous) of course provoked a media storm. A Very British Scandal opens in 1963 with the Duchess (Claire Foy, most recently seen on the small screen as the Queen in The Crown and here bringing the same masterful skills to another aristocratic but wholly different character) facing the screaming abuse of a crowd (“Scum!” “Slut!”) as she enters Edinburgh’s court of session to open divorce proceedings. Inside, the Duke of Argyll (Paul Bettany) offers her one last chance to end things quietly “Because I’m an honourable man. You’ve played a spirited game but we both know you haven’t the stomach for this.” The look on the duchess’s face suggests we should all buckle up to enjoy the coming ride.
We flash back to 16 years earlier, when committed socialite Margaret Sweeny (nee Whigham, the spoilt only daughter of a fabulously wealthy industrialist) who is rumoured to have had affairs with everyone from David Niven to Prince Ali Khan and is about to divorce her first husband, meets the dashing Captain Ian Campbell, heir to the Argyll title and lands. They find their interests align quite nicely and – once he’s divorced from Louise (his second wife and mother of his two sons) – get hitched.
At first it seems a good match, if only in the sense that they are as monstrous and self-involved as each other. Campbell’s father dies, they become the Duke and Duchess, move to the family pile in Inverary and she pays for everything from the restoration of the castle to the final bills for Louise’s fur coats.
Fairly soon, though, the duke reveals himself to be a violent, vicious drunk. Margaret’s own essential viciousness serves her well. She remains uncowed by her situation and by the end of the episode we see her forging letters from Louise claiming that Ian’s sons aren’t his, to secure her place at Inverary which would otherwise pass to them.
A Very British Scandal has been billed – I suspect because anything involving a woman and sex in The Past must – as a feminist retelling of the Argyll marriage divorce, but in fact Phelps doesn’t lean too hard into that. Yes, there are moments when the likes of shit-stirring frenemy Maureen (Julia Davis, simultaneously lightly and deeply malevolent, as is her special gift) tries to shame her for her sexual appetite. And it is clear all along that hypocrisy abounded and life in the 60s wasn’t nearly as liberated for women as the men then, or history since, would like us to believe.
But there is, thankfully – because it would do both Margaret and feminism no favours – no attempt to make us view her through a new, heroic lens. We are invited to admire her fortitude with the social odds stacked against her, which is a different thing. The duchess was never a champion of women – she was a champion of Margaret Campbell and Margaret Campbell alone. Not inviting pity, refusing to kowtow to others’ opinions – these are admirable qualities and Phelps and Foy showcase them magnificently, but they are not specifically feminist. The very public divorce came about because the equally stubborn duke and duchess had their teeth buried in each other’s necks equally firmly and wouldn’t let go. A Very British Scandal, with its lean, mean script and its refusal to reinvent the duchess as an icon of the movement, is the very best and fairest tribute that could be given her.