Divorce, dukedoms and double standards: the story behind A Very British Scandal and the Duchess of Argyll

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hen 17-year-old Margaret Whigham made her society debut in 1930, resplendent in turquoise in a sea of young women dressed in traditional white, she was an instant sensation. Named London’s “debutante of the year” (one report said she was “a thoroughbred in a field of hacks”) she would be lauded for her beauty and glamour for decades – until, amid the wreckage of her marriage to the Duke of Argyll, fawning press coverage gave way to tabloid notoriety.

One of the longest, most scandalous divorces in British history, the case’s most shocking evidence was a Polaroid photograph, stolen from Margaret’s personal belongings by her husband, showing her performing a sex act on an unidentified man. Now we’d call this revenge porn, but in 1963, Margaret was persona non grata, the first victim of slut-shaming in the British press. The deb of the season became “the dirty Duchess.”

This spectacular (and spectacularly sexist) fall from grace is the subject of A Very British Scandal, the upcoming BBC drama starring Claire Foy and Paul Bettany as the Duke and Duchess. It’s written with trademark wit and acuity by Sarah Phelps, best known for her pitch-black Agatha Christie adaptations, and presented new territory for Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky.

The Duchess (Foy) becomes embroiled in one of Britain’s most notorious divorce cases

/ BBC / Blueprint

“I was like, ‘why are they reaching out to a Norwegian director for a BBC drama?’” she says.  “It’s so foreign to me, both the history and the genre, but I think [the producers] wanted to cross something Nordic into it.”  She’d never heard of the Duchess (and was unfamiliar with the Byzantine intricacies of the British class system) but was drawn in by the “wild” plot details of this “intense, cruel love story,” as well as the chance to “correct history.” Although “Margaret was a woman before her time in many ways,” she didn’t want to force her into an easily palatable, proto-feminist mould. “Political? I don’t think she was. I don’t think she thought in that way… She did a lot of cruel things and it was my ambition to understand [her] rather than making [her] likeable.”

The only child of a synthetic fabrics tycoon, Margaret was, as Sewitsky puts it, “groomed to marry upwards in society.” Indeed, Phelps has noted that from the age of nine, “her mother took her for a permanent wave and to have her eyebrows plucked,” to “improve” her looks. Speech therapist Lionel Logue (of The King’s Speech fame) was recruited to reduce her stammer. Her admirers included Prince Aly Khan (who later married Rita Hayworth) and Max Aitken, son of publisher Lord Beaverbrook, though she eventually married businessman Charles Sweeny at Brompton Oratory in 1933. There was gridlock down to Hyde Park Corner as thousands of onlookers (in addition to 2,000 guests) gathered to see Margaret in her Norman Hartnell gown with a 28-foot train.

She’d later claim it was the “prototype” for the dress worn by then-Princess Elizabeth when she married Philip Mountbatten in 1947 – the same year that the Sweenys divorced, and that Margaret met Ian Campbell on a Golden Arrow train from Paris. The heir to the dukedom of Argyll was already married to Louise, an American heiress (nicknamed ‘Oui-Oui,’ or as Foy’s Margaret disparagingly pronounces it, ‘Wee-Wee’), but that didn’t stop the pair from meeting with increasing frequency, raising manicured eyebrows in society circles.

The Argylls met in 1947, when Ian was still married to his second wife

/ BBC / Blueprint Pictures

Ian inherited his title in 1949, and the following year, six hours after his divorce from Louise, the couple married at Westminster’s Caxton Hall (the smart set’s go-to wedding venue, where Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles and Joan Collins also tied the knot). “She thinks she can manipulate all these men and then she suddenly meets a man she can’t [manipulate] – and she doesn’t understand why,” Foy mused at the show’s launch. “That keeps her interested.”

The newlyweds headed to Ian’s ancestral seat, Inveraray Castle in west Scotland, where the groom nearly dropped his bride while carrying her over the threshold. It set the tone for what was to come. To say that the marriage was not a happy one is an understatement. Margaret and her father funnelled money into the castle, and into Ian’s wild plan to dredge up a Spanish Armada galleon, sunk off Tobermory, yet they couldn’t keep up with his debts; he was also a heavy drinker who would take “purple hearts” (amphetamines), and could be violent.

The real Margaret and Ian Campbell at Inveraray Castle

/ Popperfoto/Getty Images

The pair, as Sewitsky puts it, “spent all their time trying to destroy each other.” Margaret hated Inveraray, preferring to go drinking and dancing with male admirers in London. She did however, like the cachet of being a Duchess – keen to cling to the title, she concocted a bizarre scheme to convince Ian that his two sons with Louise were illegitimate, using forged letters. She then attempted to fake a pregnancy, asking her friend to find a baby boy in Poland. The friend refused, but the plot against Oui-Oui resulted in a costly libel battle. Think that’s bonkers? Some of the more outlandish gossip about ‘Marg Arg’ couldn’t make it into Phelps’ scripts because it was too difficult to substantiate (instead, she focused on court transcripts).

Ian suspected his wife was unfaithful (he was hardly a saint, either) and broke into Margaret’s locked belongings, finding the explicit photographs and her personal diaries to use as proof in his divorce suit. When his wife headed to New York, he hired her a car – an old hearse fitted with bugging equipment, driven by a private detective.

The Duke compiled a list of 88 of his wife’s alleged ‘lovers’ and used stolen Polaroids as evidence

/ BBC / Blueprint Pictures

Their divorce became “one of the most spoken of cases at that time – the international press reported on it, the US press reported on it,” Sewitsky explains. “It exploded… everyone got to know all the gritty details. It was the beginning of mass scandal media, in many ways.” Ian compiled a list of 88 of Margaret’s alleged lovers (including the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr); she claimed he’d had an affair with her step-mother. The Duke was given permission to use the Polaroids as evidence, despite his wife’s best efforts to block him.

The headlines, which you can see in the show’s opening credits, were full of sexist vitriol (it was never mentioned that these intimate photos had been stolen and shared without Margaret’s consent). Media speculation also focused on the identity of the ‘headless man’ in the Polaroids (to rule himself out, Ian was, as biographer Charles Castle puts it, “measured by a doctor” to prove his “lesser dimensions”). The judge took more than three hours to deliver his moralising verdict, describing Margaret as “a highly sexed woman who had ceased to be satisfied with normal relations” and indulged in “disgusting sexual activities.” An obvious double standard was at play.

“She says she dined with men, she met with them, she probably did some of the things that her husband did [with other women] – there’s nothing that we can really go on and say, ‘oh, she was a sex maniac,’” Sewitsky says. “What I’ve tried to do is show that she enjoyed sex, that it was her kind of private way of having something of her own. I remember Claire said that she found in her research that [Margaret] was very romantic… that she fell in love with people. I think that’s maybe more true, but we don’t know.”

The divorce was a cause célèbre

/ BBC / Blueprint

The judge, Phelps has noted, “rinsed her and hung her out to dry… making it almost impossible for her to appear in public.” He “really was destroying her reputation forever,” Sewitsky agrees. Her high society pals melted away; mentioning her name in polite company was a huge faux pas. “Being unfaithful, having affairs was normal [in the aristocracy] – you just [didn’t] speak about it,” the director adds. Margaret was shunned for piercing their “facade” of superiority.

Still, she hosted lavish parties at her Grosvenor Street home until debts forced a change in circumstances; she campaigned for animal rights, and, in the Eighties, planned to appear in a soapy TV series about her life (when it was shelved, she waltzed into the production company office, demanding a cheque for £10,000). She was undaunted , and died in 1993, having never revealed the man’s identity. “She didn’t stand down,” Sewitsky says. “She did lose everything, but she didn’t stand down.”

A Very British Scandal begins on BBC One, December 26 at 9pm