Review at a glance
“We have to promise we will never, ever bore one another.” Such is the one condition upon which Claire Foy’s Margaret accepts a proposal from the Duke of Argyll (played by Paul Bettany) midway through the first episode of BBC One’s A Very British Scandal. Though they will go on to break almost all of their marriage vows over the course of the two and a half hours that follow, both parties do stay true to that initial promise in spectacular style. The Duke and Duchess may torture each other, enrage each other and find wildly original ways to publicly humiliate each other, yet they certainly never bore one another.
The story of the Argylls’ 1963 divorce, still one of the longest, messiest and most expensive splits in British history, is by turns bonkers and brutal, encompassing everything from forged letters to an attempt to buy a baby boy from Poland to the theft and distribution of a comprising Polaroid photograph which – as Sarah Phelps’ characteristically sharp script hints, without grabbing us by the shoulders and yelling “see, contemporary parallels!” – looks, from a 21st century vantage point, a lot like revenge porn. The case makes brilliant source material for this sequel of sorts to 2018’s A Very English Scandal, which starred Hugh Grant as the Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe, and Phelps, whose avowedly anti-nostalgic Agatha Christie adaptations have punctured the cosiness of the BBC’s Christmas scheduling in previous years, gets to have plenty of fun with all the stranger-than-fiction details.
The newly divorced Margaret, a famed society beauty who keeps gushing press clippings about herself in a series of meticulously curated scrapbooks, meets the married Ian Campbell (who is yet to inherit his title) on a train from Paris; he immediately recalls seeing her descending some stairs years before, and telling his first wife “that’s the woman I’m going to marry” (which speaks volumes about the sort of husband he makes). Soon Ian becomes a Duke, and Margaret his Duchess, with her father’s money helping to make over and modernise his family seat, Inveraray Castle, and to fund his grand schemes of dredging a Spanish galleon from the water surrounding Tobermory.
Soon Ian becomes at best cold and distant, at worst drunk, abusive and erratic thanks to a fondness for amphetamines, mocking his wife’s stammer and leaving her wondering “which Ian I am going to wake up to”; she fights back by concocting an elaborate paternity scam, hitting the town with a string of men, and encouraging her debt-ridden aristo husband to make some money of his own by posing for some jaw-clenchingly awful adverts for Argyll socks (Bettany drips with venom when he later spits out the phrase “mass-produced socks”).
The tone here is perhaps a few shades darker than that of its predecessor; neither Phelps nor director Anne Sewitsky shies away from the cruelty and pettiness of both Bettany and Foy’s characters, whose clashes quickly devolve into all-out psychological warfare (though as Margaret’s friend Maureen Guinness, the reliably scene-stealing Julia Davis brings some comic relief with her unusual taste in cocktail party games and anecdotes about the sex drives of bonobos – until episode three, when she becomes a Greek chorus for the hypocrisy of the upper classes).
Perhaps most unsettling of all is the glee with which Ian sets about taking his wife down in public, first in front of their friends, then in the law courts. The final episode, centring around that courtroom battle, is a definite standout; the hearings play out like an extended exercise in slut-shaming, with the sexual double standard writ large. When Ian’s lawyer uses the aforementioned explicit Polaroid photo as evidence of Margaret’s adultery, she fires back by claiming that the ‘headless’ man pictured is in fact her husband – meaning that he has to be examined by a pubic hair expert (it’s “as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint,” said specialist blithely explains). A small humiliation in the grand scheme of things, but a humiliation nonetheless.
Phelps’ Margaret is certainly a victim of prurient, patriarchal attitudes, but that is far from her defining characteristic: Foy makes her funny, vain, brittle, odd, naive and vindictive. Another writer might have tried to sand off her edges, turning her into a more palatable heroine for a contemporary audience, but Phelps revels in all her messy idiosyncrasies. In A Very British Scandal, she and the cast are operating at the top of their game, and the end result is a savage delight – I only wish it was twice as long.
A Very British Scandal continues on BBC One at 9pm on December 27 and 28 and is available to stream on iPlayer