Claire Foy's A Very British Scandal: Who was the infamous 'Dirty Duchess'?

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Photo credit: BBC One
Photo credit: BBC One

Claire Foy is resplendent in pearl necklaces, pillbox hats, fur shawls and satin evening gloves as she reenters the unforgiving world of aristocracy to play the Duchess of Argyll for BBC One's A Very British Scandal.

The Crown star will take on Margaret Campbell, the duchess, opposite Paul Bettany's Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll, in Sarah Phelps' feminist retelling of the couple's divorce, which became one of the most notorious, prurient and brutal legal cases of the 20th century.

Admired for her charisma, beauty, and style, the duchess was later defamed and branded the "Dirty Duchess" by the press as her divorce exposed accusations of forgery, theft, violence, bribery, and explicit Polaroid pictures that left her reputation in ruins.

Possibly one of the earliest examples of revenge porn, slut-shaming and celebrity hacking, the duke - suspecting the duchess of cheating - seized her private diary and personal Polaroids which revealed her being intimate with a man, and used them to denounce her as an adulterer and a sexual deviant during their highly-publicised divorce case in 1963.

The duchess was a victim of the sexual double standards that still exist today, in which women are judged more harshly for engaging in the same sexual behaviours that men are celebrated for; back in the '60s it was commonplace for men to engage in extra-marital activities or take a lover, but if a woman did the same thing she'd be shunned as a sexual outlaw.

Foy acknowledges the risk in bringing the affair to fresh light but feels that a reassessment of what happened is long overdue: "The story can’t do what was done to her the first time around. If the audience judges her in the same way as before, we have defeated the purpose of what this is trying to do."

A Very British Scandal aims to turn "the scandal inside out in order to explore the social and political climate of post-war Britain, looking at attitudes towards women, and asking whether institutional misogyny was widespread at the time", the BBC says.

"As her contemporaries, the press, and the judiciary sought to vilify her, Margaret kept her head held high with bravery and resilience, refusing to go quietly as she was betrayed by her friends and publicly shamed by a society that revelled in her fall from grace."

Photo credit: BBC One
Photo credit: BBC One

Who was the Duchess of Argyll?

Margaret was born in December 1912 as the only child of Helen Mann Hannay and self-made Scottish millionaire George Hay Whigham.

Following a turbulent childhood (she became pregnant at 15 by her then 18-year-old boyfriend David Niven and was sent away for a private abortion), Margaret became engaged to Charles Guy Fulke Greville, 7th Earl of Warwick, after making her successful society debut at an extravagant London ball.

Photo credit: Sydney O'Meara - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sydney O'Meara - Getty Images

When their relationship began to unravel, Margaret went on to become engaged to American businessman Charles Francis Sweeny, whom she married in Knightsbridge in 1933. Her gown was designed by the royal family's favoured fashion designer Norman Hartnell, which ascended her to the upper echelons of elite circles and certified her status as one of the most fashionable socialites in the city.

Hartnell famously designed the Queen's wedding dress and Her Majesty's iconic 1953 Coronation gown. Last year, Princess Beatrice married Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi in a vintage Norman Hartnell gown, which had previously belonged to her grandmother, the Queen.

Margaret and Sweeny went on to have three children together (tragically Margaret's first daughter was still born), before ending their marriage in 1947.

In March 1951, Margaret became the third wife of Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll - but after just a few years, their union began to crumble and the duke began to suspect the duchess of infidelity.

What happened during the Duke and Duchess of Argyll's divorce?

Distrusting the duchess, Campbell seized her private Polaroid photos from a locked cupboard in their Mayfair home. One of the images featured his wife naked but for a string of pearls, performing oral sex on a man whose face was obscured. In a second photo, another man could be seen gratifying himself. The men were dubbed 'the headless men', and speculation over their identities increased as information from their divorce leaked to the public.

These images were central to the couple's divorce case and, during the trial, it was also claimed that the duchess had acquired 88 lovers during her marriage and had kept a private diary detailing her sexual exploits, complete with star ratings for each partner. The legal system prevented the duchess from giving her side of the story without risking imprisonment.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

The court proceedings coincided with the start of the Profumo affair - during which politician John Profumo lied to the Commons about his relationship with the-then teenager Christine Keeler - and so the nation's appetite for salacious scandals was skyrocketing.

While the duchess never disclosed the identities of the two men, it was later revealed that one of 'the headless men' was in fact Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys (who later became the son-in-law of Winston Churchill). His offer of resignation from the cabinet was declined by his superiors. The second man was Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks, whose reputation also remained intact. Sadly, yet predictably, Margaret's reputation would never recover.

Judge Lord Wheatley granted the divorce, and denounced the duchess "a highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal relations and had started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite" (via The Times).

The duchess died in a Pimlico nursing home in July 1993.

The BBC series

The three-part mini series will cover the circumstances surrounding the couple's highly publicised divorce, as well as the 'headless men' scandal.

Photo credit: BBC One
Photo credit: BBC One

A Very British Scandal writer Sarah Phelps said in a statement: "Writing the story of Margaret’s life and the events leading up to and including her divorce from the duke has been a passion project of mine since 1993 when I first heard her name and started learning about her.

"I felt very strongly that she'd been punished for being a woman, for being visible, for refusing to back down, be a good girl and go quietly. This drama is my tribute to her."

Foy added: "I'm so excited to work with Anne, Sarah [Phelps] and Paul [Bettany] on this extraordinary project, and to explore through this story, how often shame, judgement and controversy surrounds a woman's sexuality.

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