A Very British Scandal
By Zoe Williams in The Guardian and The Irish Times and Neil Drysdale in The Press and Journal
Additional reporting by Bill Heaney in The Democrat
Was Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, really a “a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men”?
The screenwriter Sarah Phelps has made Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, the heroine of A Very British Scandal, a new BBC drama starring Claire Foy and Paul Bettany as the aristocrats whose divorce transfixed a nation in 1963.
Thanks to Lord Wheatley, who was the only Catholic on the Scottish Bench at the time, the vile behaviour of the duke, a series of photographs showing the duchess performing fellatio on an unidentified man and her own altruistic, if high-handed, refusal to defend herself, the sexual ins and outs of this separation are a matter of incredibly detailed historical record.
“It was,” says Phelps, “all about, ‘Who’s the man?’, ‘Who’s the headless man in the photos?’, ‘How many men did she f**k?’, ‘Who was she blowing?’ And I almost thought, ‘I actually don’t give a shit. I want to know about her. I want to know who she was.’ So the blowjob matters to me in one way. But it matters less in the prurient sense of needing to know who was on the other end of that erection.”
The duchess of Argyll’s attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call ‘enlightened’ but which in plain language was wholly immoral
To unpack this all a bit: Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th duke of Argyll, accused his wife of infidelity and produced a list of 88 men. Some were gay and had never been involved with Margaret, but she chose not to challenge the account, as homosexuality was still a crime and it would have implicated her friends.
Lord Wheatley concluded that she was a “completely promiscuous woman … Her attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call ‘enlightened’ but which in plain language was wholly immoral.”
The key evidence at the trial, however, was not the list but the so-called headless gentleman in a set of photographs, showing the duchess fellating someone unidentifiable. The drama is “about as explicit as the BBC can be”, Phelps says.
Foy, who plays the duchess, says she felt exposed and exploited as she struggled with filming the sex scenes. “It’s grim – it’s the grimmest thing you can do,” she told BBC Radio 4. “You feel exposed. Everyone can make you try to not feel that way, but it’s unfortunately the reality.”
“But my thing was that I felt very strongly that it had to be in it, but I wanted it to be female. I did not want it be that sort of awful climactic sexual experience you often see on the cinema screen.”
There’s a wonderful scene in which Julia Davis, playing a savagely caustic woman with a collection of hopping golden phalluses and the unwieldy title of Maureen, marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, has just seen some bonobos in the zoo.
Famously, these likeable primates are at it all day long, and Davis’s lip curls in exhilarated disgust as she describes their constant play and foreplay, before she concludes: “And I thought, ‘That’s just like Margaret.’” The duchess replies: “It’s not my fault if you don’t like it and aren’t any good at it. I do like it, and I am extremely good at it.”
Davis, speaking by phone, seems surprised to have made the leap from comedy to drama. “If I was being really honest, part of me thinks, ‘Maybe I’ll be offered some other good work from this.’” Davis recalls regarding the leads as in a different league.
“I felt like I did when I first started out. I was getting all this work suddenly, and I hadn’t been to drama school. I didn’t know really basic things, like when they say, ‘Can you stand on your mark?’ I didn’t know what that meant. And I would keep standing anywhere but that mark.”
In her first marriage Margaret had to give birth to a stillborn child. On its own, that is absolutely heartbreaking. And after that, she had miscarriage after miscarriage
She was also surprised to be so interested in the story. “It’s rare for me to like something like that,” she explains. “But when I read it, it didn’t feel like some cosy, British period piece. To me, this show doesn’t feel like the Establishment. I think Sarah Phelps has a similar anger, rebel thing to me.”
That’s exactly what distinguishes the drama from everything you could name with a similar focus on the British aristocracy: not that it’s raunchier or more adult in attitude and storytelling than, say, Downton Abbey or The Crown, but that it doesn’t have that fawning love of poshness that can be off-putting.
That fawning poshness was common in Argyll and elsewhere, even in Helensburgh, which is now officially part of Argyll, and Loch Lomondside. Posh names crop up during this story including the famous film actor David Niven, who is said to have had a romance with the Duchess.
Niven served in the same Army regiment as Patrick Telfer Smollett of Cameron House on Loch Lomondside who was a close friend and neighbour of Sir Ivar and Lady Colquhoun of Luss whose estate is contiguous with Argyll.
The Colquhous’ daughter, Iona, married the son and heir of the Duke of Argyll whose second wife was Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.
The millionaire novelist AJ Cronin, who was born in Cardross, brought up in Round Riding Road in Dumbarton and educated at Dumbarton Academy and St Aloysius College in Glasgow rented a farmhouse on the vast Argyll estate where he wrote best-sellers, which included Hatter’s Castle, the Green Years, the Citadel and Doctor Finlay’s Casebook.
“I find it really uncomfortable, the level of subservience we have in this country,” Phelps says about Britain. “I find it really strange. We love to serve the big house. We love to know that if we keeled over in our tithe cottage, the squire might come down and give us a farthing. It’s, ‘If I can stand next to this, I’ll be protected. If I’m standing under their umbrella, maybe the rain won’t fall so hard on me.’”
Phelps’s writing implicitly rejects this notion, that the leisured class has more dramatic momentum and potential than average folk. She traces Margaret back to the child and young woman she was before taking her title, finding “a little girl who’d been brought up highly isolated, to live entirely within the male gaze of her father’s approval”.
She was born not into class but money, and a lot of it. She had a terrible stammer, probably the result of being a left-hander forced to write with her right, and a restless, traffic-stopping beauty. She was rumoured to have had an affair with David Niven when he was 17 and she was 15. “I like to think it’s true,” says Phelps, “but I couldn’t put it in the script because it’s just hearsay.”
Margaret’s first marriage was to Charles Sweeney, a businessman. Lasting 14 years, this union has in previous histories been consigned to a footnote in Margaret’s life, Sweeney himself being neither as rich as her father nor as famous as many of her other lovers. But Phelps places this marriage, or at least the events of it, at the centre of her character’s story.
“She had to give birth to a stillborn child. On its own, that is absolutely heartbreaking. And after that, she had miscarriage after miscarriage after miscarriage after miscarriage – having her own two children nearly damn killed her. It’s to the point where it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got. It doesn’t matter whether or not that mink stole you threw so casually round your shoulders was the most photographed mink stole that day.”
So even though the script takes the contemporary perception of Margaret of Argyll, up to a point – “she was boastful, she was vain, she wanted to be the cynosure of all eyes” – this portrait represents a fundamental revisionism. The duchess was reviled at the time, and is periodically reclaimed as a feminist icon for her sex-positivity and as a proto-LGBTQ+ ally. But she would never have described herself as a feminist. “I’m not convinced she really liked women that much,” says Phelps, “because what could a woman give her? Not what she craved, which was adulation, sex, jewels, validity.”
This is a drama that comes from the same stable as EastEnders’ golden-era storylines
Part of what makes this drama so gripping is the detective work that’s gone in, not to sift truth from fiction in this mightily unusual divorce trial, but in finding a breathing, believable human under the layers of frivolity and scandal that history lacquered on.
A Very British Scandal is fascinated by class and its effects, while being repelled by notions of superiority and servility, yet it is never so revolted that it’s not trying to figure out what’s going on with the people locked within it. Which is an attitude that’s always been discernible in Phelps’s work, since she dropped out of school, left home at 16, began looking after horses and made this discovery: “Never mind cocaine as God’s way of telling you you’ve got too much money – polo is a different league.”
A Very British Scandal is the latest piece of Phelps’s work in a career spurred by indignation at polo players in Bentleys calling for the army “to be sent out against the striking miners” – causing her to end up at Cambridge as a 23-year-old mature student. Eventually, in 2002, she wrote the first of what would be 94 EastEnders scripts.
This is a drama, therefore, that comes from the same stable as EastEnders’ golden-era storylines – the apex of the Slater sisters’ story arc, the time when everyone said it might be as good as Corrie. It follows Phelps’s adaptations of Agatha Christie (five in total – and I loved And Then There Were None) and Dickens (Oliver Twist in 2007, Great Expectations four years later).
These are works that had been rendered on screen before, some multiple times, and they may not have warranted revisiting, had it not been for Phelps’s distinctive outlook, part iconoclast, part psychoanalyst. Phelps mines her characters for the rebel inside. With Margaret of Argyll the scandal may feel very British, but the rebel Phelps uncovers is a citizen of everywhere.
It has been said that the Duchess of Argyll loved sex the way that Billy Bunter loved food and never made any apologies for her mantra: “Go to bed early and often”.
But was Margaret Campbell really “a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men”, as she was described by Lord John Wheatley, the presiding judge in the most notorious court cases of the 1960s?
He duly granted the Duke of Argyll a divorce, following a litany of lurid revelations which included a set of Polaroid photographs of the Duchess naked, save for her signature three-strand pearl necklace, in the company of another man. Was it actor Douglas Fairbanks? Or politician Duncan-Sandys, the son-in-law of Winston Churchill, who offered to resign from the Conservative cabinet? Or was it a member of the Royal Family?
Many of these issues are examined the television series, A Very British Scandal, written by Sarah Phelps and televised on BBC Scotland on Boxing Day. It is now available on BBC i player.
But while the Scottish-born Duchess, who died in 1993 at the age of 80, had her reputation trashed in the tabloids and in the courts by people such as the judge, who traduced her “disgusting sexual activities” and “wholly immoral lifestyle” as if he was wiping something nasty off his shoe, she always came back with the same reply: “It takes two to tango.”
Double standards abounded in her life
Controversy was never far away from Margaret, the only child of Helen Mann Hannay and George Hay Whigham, a Scottish millionaire who was chairman of the Celanese Corporation of Britain and North America.
Even as a teenager, her beauty was much spoken of, and she had youthful romances with playboy Prince Aly Khan, millionaire aviator Glen Kidston and publishing heir Max Aitken, later the second Lord Beaverbrook.
To the fury of her father, she became pregnant as a result.
She was rushed into a London nursing home for a secret termination and “all hell broke loose,” according to her family cook, Elizabeth Duckworth.
But while she was portrayed as the villain of the piece even by her own kith and kin, nowadays it would be Niven, left, who would be standing in the dock.
In 1933, Margaret married American businessman Charles Francis Sweeney in London and such was the publicity surrounding her Norman Hartnell wedding dress, that the traffic in Knightsbridge was blocked for three hours.
The couple had three children: a daughter, who was stillborn at eight months; another daughter, Frances Helen, and a son, Brian Charles, but she also suffered eight miscarriages. And she gradually grew bored of domesticity.
Whenever life became “tedious”, she craved adventure. But even Margaret was unprepared for what happened in 1943 when she suffered a near-fatal fall down a lift shaft while visiting her chiropodist on Bond Street.
“I fell forty feet to the bottom of the lift shaft”, she later recalled. “The only thing that saved me was the lift cable, which broke my fall.
“I must have clutched at it for dear life, for it was later found that all my finger nails had been torn off. I apparently fell on to my knees and cracked the back of my head against the wall”.
It’s sometimes said that pride comes before a fall. Not in Margaret’s case after she and Sweeney divorced in 1947.
It wasn’t long before she was back on her feet and swaying men off theirs. She dismissed critics with the argument: A man who makes love to many women is called a Casanova. A woman who makes love to many men is called a slut.
And, in 1951, Margaret, pictured right, became the third wife of Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll and briefly settled into married life in Inveraray.
She was certainly uninterested in the idea of modesty and later wrote in her memoirs: “I had wealth and I had good looks. As a young woman, I had been constantly photographed, flirted with, written about and mentioned by Cole Porter in the words of his hit song You’re the Top.
“The top was what I was supposed to be. I had become a duchess and the mistress of a historic castle. Life was apparently roses all the way.”
According to Lyndsy Spence, a biographer of the Duchess, the Duke of Argyll forged a deed of sale before their marriage in exchange for her money which he used to restore his family home at Inveraray.
The Duchess, in response, forged several letters positing the theory that sons from her husband’s second marriage were not legitimate and attempted to acquire a baby whom she could claim to be her husband’s heir. This was not what most people would describe as a love match.
Within a few years, the marriage was falling apart. The Duke suspected his wife of infidelity and, while she was in New York, engaged a locksmith to break open a cupboard at their Mayfair home.
His discoveries resulted in the infamous divorce case, in which he accused his wife of serial infidelity and produced the Polaroid shots and other photographs of the Duchess performing a sex act on a naked man whose face was not shown.
A list of as many as 88 men with whom the Duke believed his wife had consorted was produced in court and it featured two government ministers and three members of the British royal family. This was explosive stuff even at the start of what soon became the Swinging Sixties.
Although she never admitted to being an angel, Margaret never asked anybody to jump into bed with her either. Not that they needed an invitation.
She told The New York Times in the 1980s: “I don’t think anybody has real style or class any more. Everyone’s gotten old and fat.”
But she described herself as “always vain, always spoilt”. And another quote from that exclusive interview offered an insight into her eccentric needs in old age: “Always a poodle, only a poodle! That and three strands of pearls. They are absolutely the essential things in life.”
Claire Foy from The Crown plays the oft-derided “dirty duchess” in the new drama and it’s obvious Sarah Phelps is aiming to create more than just a one-dimensional version of her main character.
She said: “[Margaret was] a little girl who’d been brought up highly isolated, to live entirely within the male gaze of her father’s approval”
“She had to give birth to a stillborn child. On its own, that is absolutely heartbreaking. And after that, she had miscarriage after miscarriage after miscarriage – having her own two children nearly damn killed her.
“It’s to the point where it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got. It doesn’t matter whether or not that mink stole you threw so casually round your shoulders was the most photographed mink stole that day.”
- The first part of A Very British Scandal was on BBC One at 9pm on Boxing Day and is now screening in three episodes on BBC i Player. WARNING: Parental guidance required.