When a judge finally granted the divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll in 1963, he famously delivered a blistering three-hour and seven-minute rebuke of Duchess Margaret Campbell, disguised as a judgment, where he branded her a “completely promiscuous woman.” The divorce case was filled with accusations by her husband, Ian Campbell, the Duke, of flagrant adultery, titillating rumors about sexual liaisons coded in her diaries, and much discussion about a scandalous Polaroid photograph of Margaret in an intimate act with someone other than her husband. The case left Margaret vilified by the press in a pre-sexual revolution Britain and branded the “Dirty Duchess,” while her former husband, who was also accused of adultery, escaped similar criticism. She also lost friends and status in the upper class circles she frequented. And it’s this period of time that’s documented in the Prime Video three-part drama “A Very British Scandal” starring Emmy winner Claire Foy, and created and written by Sarah Phelps (“Dublin Murders”).
“It’s not the first example of, but it was one of [them] — it was a sort of sense that this is when the kind of scrutiny of women’s behavior just had such a huge reach,” Phelps told TheWrap. “And, in a way, the divorce kind of burst the tabloid interest. They came hand in hand. And the shaming of her, the destruction of her, was pretty much global. There was a real global appetite for this member of the aristocracy, this woman that everybody had watched be the ‘best dressed’ … the most stylish, the most wealthy. They followed her life from the minute she was a young woman to watch her absolutely be brought down.”
“A Very British Scandal” offers the opportunity to reexamine the scandal created by the divorce case from a modern perspective, in a time where culture has finally made room to call out shaming women for their sexual histories, ambitions and power — especially since the 1963 case was all rebuke of Margaret (even if she ducked out for the actual reading of the decision).
“The truth of that was that Margaret was in Paris when the judgment was given and she was with a new boyfriend having a drink in a cafe,” Foy, who plays Margaret, told TheWrap “So he may have done a three-hour judgment but she sure as hell wasn’t listening to it. Unfortunately, the British press were and they loved it. And no one questioned that that was an elaborate and completely unnecessary bringing down [of Margaret].
“It was a divorce case. It wasn’t a criminal trial,” Foy continued. “She wasn’t being accused of doing anything criminal, but he still decided to make an example of this woman.”
“A Very British Scandal,” streaming now on Prime Video, looks at Margaret’s life leading up to the headline-making divorce with the Duke (Paul Bettany), opening with her first marital split from American businessman Charles Sweeney. It quickly dives into her turbulent marriage to Ian, and the passion she aimed (and so much of her money) at restoring Inveraray Castle, where the production did some of its filming.
Even before her marriage, Margaret was a worldly woman, and in research for the role, Foy listened to tapes of the Duchess. On some of them, the actress heard Margaret, years later, still unable to make sense of the dissolution of her union with the Duke.
“I had access to the tapes of her speaking about her book that was ghostwritten, so I got hours and hours of being able to listen to her actually speaking about how she felt about certain things. But she never really addressed any of the things that actually happened,” Foy recounted. “When she spoke about Ian … she would mention words like I was heartbroken; I was devastated; I cried for hours. I couldn’t believe he’d done it. I don’t understand why he did that. Like there still was a mystery to her as to how he could behave so cruelly.”
The three-part series isn’t flattering in its portraits of Ian or Margaret during their rocky marriage, including Margaret forging a letter about the paternity of Ian’s children, and him breaking into her private diaries, and stealing them and the photographs that eventually were used against her in court.
Among the things Phelps hopes the piece does, though, is to shine a light on Margaret’s story.
“I hope people are really kind of entertained and held, because it is an incredible story. … What I want it to be is just a kind of like, ‘Christ! I can’t believe that happened,’ and it happened really so very recently, how unfair it is,” Phelps said
“I hope what comes out of it is just unpicking a little bit [of] the dynamics that inform those particular kinds of judgments. What are the dynamics underneath at all? … because let’s face it, both Margaret and Ian were pretty terrible to each other,” Phelps continued. “Margaret did terrible things, Ian did terrible things. … I’d have needed, you know, an ‘American Crime Story’ 10 hours to do the full justice to the absolute hell they put each other through.”
Phelps also hopes that viewers will reflect on the impact of people’s private lives being made public, and the cost of a public engaged with those stories, noting “there are real people at the end of it.”
“And so, perhaps when we’re snickering at something in a tabloid paper, we just take a moment. Just take a moment,” Phelps added.
“We’re sort of saying, OK, what drives us to look and to get really excited about something private like that? But also, what the hell damage does it do to them and to us? What does it do to us to feast on those private details?” she said.
“A Very British Scandal” is streaming now on Prime Video.