Well NOW it’s Christmas. Sarah Phelps has delivered. Not an Agatha Christie adaptation this time however an authentic drama, A Very British Scandal (BBC One), about the infamous case of Argyll v Argyll – the just one any erstwhile legislation scholar ever remembers (and I converse from expertise). This is due to the indisputable fact that it was a vicious divorce case between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll involving a number of allegations of infidelity, one in all which was attested to by a photograph of the Duchess fellating a person whose face was not seen in the image however who was not her husband. The duke had numerous measurements taken so this could possibly be proved in court docket. The duchess was recognized by her pearl necklace. No, actually.
It’s shocking that nobody has introduced the story to the display screen prior to now. Right here it is a companion piece – or maybe furtherance of what appears set to change into an anthology collection about historic media frenzies, nationwide 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 additionally recognized, due to the picture that shortly grew to become notorious) in fact provoked a media storm. A Very British Scandal opens in 1963 with the Duchess (Claire Foy, most just lately seen on the small display screen as the Queen in The Crown and right here bringing the identical masterful expertise to a different aristocratic however wholly totally different character) dealing with the screaming abuse of a crowd (“Scum!” “Slut!”) as she enters Edinburgh’s court docket of session to open divorce proceedings. Inside, the Duke of Argyll (Paul Bettany) provides her one final probability to finish issues quietly “As a result of I’m an honourable man. You’ve performed a spirited recreation however we each know you haven’t the abdomen for this.” The look on the duchess’s face suggests we should always all buckle as much as get pleasure from the coming trip.
We flash again to 16 years earlier, when dedicated socialite Margaret Sweeny (nee Whigham, the spoilt solely daughter of a fabulously rich industrialist) who is rumoured to have had affairs with everybody from David Niven to Prince Ali Khan and is about to divorce her first husband, meets the dashing Captain Ian Campbell, inheritor to the Argyll title and lands. They discover their pursuits align fairly properly and – as soon as he’s divorced from Louise (his second spouse and mom of his two sons) – get hitched.
At first it appears match, if solely in the sense that they’re as monstrous and self-involved as one another. Campbell’s father dies, they change into the Duke and Duchess, transfer to the household pile in Inverary and he or she pays for all the pieces from the restoration of the fort to the remaining payments for Louise’s fur coats.
Pretty quickly, although, the duke reveals himself to be a violent, vicious drunk. Margaret’s personal important viciousness serves her properly. She stays uncowed by her state of affairs and by the finish of the episode we see her forging letters from Louise claiming that Ian’s sons aren’t his, to safe her place at Inverary which might in any other case cross to them.
A Very British Scandal has been billed – I think as a result of something involving a girl and intercourse in The Previous should – as a feminist retelling of the Argyll marriage divorce, however in actual fact Phelps doesn’t lean too onerous into that. Sure, there are moments when the likes of shit-stirring frenemy Maureen (Julia Davis, concurrently flippantly and deeply malevolent, as is her particular present) tries to disgrace her for her sexual urge for food. And it is clear all alongside that hypocrisy abounded and life in the 60s wasn’t practically as liberated for girls as the males then, or historical past since, would really like us to consider.
However there is, fortunately – as a result of it will do each Margaret and feminism no favours – no try to make us view her by way of a brand new, heroic lens. We’re invited to admire her fortitude with the social odds stacked towards her, which is a special factor. The duchess was by no means a champion of girls – 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, however they don’t seem to be particularly feminist. The very public divorce took place as a result of the equally cussed duke and duchess had their tooth buried in one another’s necks equally firmly and wouldn’t let go. A Very British Scandal, with its lean, imply script and its refusal to reinvent the duchess as an icon of the motion, is the perfect and fairest tribute that could possibly be given her.