The REAL story of A Very British Scandal

The REAL story of A Very British Scandal: Claire Foy plays ‘Dirty Duchess’ of Argyll whose husband revealed picture of her with naked headless man – who has never been identified – during explosive divorce battle

  • Duke and Duchess’ divorce one of most turbulent court cases of 20th century
  • Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s reputation never recovered after husband used explicit Polaroid of her to prove her infidelity – despite his own affairs
  • Explosive 1963 divorce set to be focus of BBC miniseries A Very British Scandal

The embittered divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll was one of the most turbulent court cases of the 20th century, fraught with forgery, bribery, theft and scandal surrounding explicit photographs.

Charismatic Margaret, Duchess of Argyll’s reputation never recovered, after she was branded a nymphomaniac by her husband, Scottish peer Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, who stole an explicit Polaroid picture of her and used it to expose her infidelity – making her one of the first victims of revenge porn, according to her biographer.

She never let on the identity of her male companion in the snap, only pictured from the neck down, and he became known as the ‘Headless Man’ – while she was branded the ‘dirty duchess’. Lyndsy Spence, who penned The Grit in the Pearl: The Scandalous Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, said Margaret was in many ways ‘an early victim of celebrity hacking’, with her private images ‘revealed without her say-so’.

‘She was publicly sl*t-shamed; the same legal system that prevented Margaret from telling her side of the story without the risk of imprisonment, permitting Ian to exhibit the stolen Polaroids,’ she explained.

Now the couple’s explosive 1963 divorce battle which made front page news is to be the focus of a new BBC miniseries entitled A Very British Scandal. It will come from the same team behind A Very English Scandal, which dramatised the Jeremy Thorpe saga that rocked the UK government in the 1970s.

The embittered divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll (pictured), which made front page news in 1963, is to be the focus of a new BBC miniseries en titled A Very British Scandal


Claire Foy is set to star as Margaret opposite Paul Bettany, who will play her second husband, Scottish peer Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll

Charismatic Duchess of Argyll Margaret’s reputation never recovered, after she was branded a nymphomaniac by her husband who stole an explicit Polaroid picture of her and used it to expose her infidelity – making her one of the first victims of revenge porn, according to her biographer. The couple pictured during happier times at their 1951 wedding

Claire Foy is set to star as Margaret opposite Paul Bettany, who will play her second husband, the 11th Duke of Argyll – whose youngest son is Lord Colin Ivar Campbell, former husband of Lady Colin Campbell.

The series will particularly focus on the attitudes towards women at the time, as Margaret was particularly vilified throughout her divorce battle for refusing to go quietly despite being betrayed by friends and publicly shamed by society. 

Born in East Renfreshire in 1912 as Ethel Margaret Whigham, she was the only child of self-made millionaire George and Helen, and spent her childhood between New York, London and Ascot.

But her father’s philandering took their toll on her mother, who suffered extreme mood swings as a result. 

Margaret was taken to a psychiatrist at the age of six, who diagnosed her with lacking a sense of humour. She also developed a stammer, for which she was treated unsuccessfully by Lionel Logue, King George VI’s speech therapist.

She preferred men’s company from a young age, and lost her virginity to actor David Niven when she was 15. She fell pregnant and had a secret termination, arranged by her parents.

Born in East Renfreshire in 1912 as Ethel Margaret Whigham, she was the only child of self-made millionaire George and Helen, and spent her childhood between New York, London and Ascot. Pictured at a dress rehearsal for the Jewels of Empire Ball at Brook House in Park Lane in 1930, when she was named Debutante of the Year

Two years later her social career took off when she was named Debutante of the Year in 1930. She went on to have four failed engagements – first to Prince Aly Khan, whose Muslim faith repelled the Whighams; Glen Kidston, a married millionaire sportsman who died in plane crash; Max Aitken, the son of Lord Beaverbrook; and Fulke Warwick, a penniless earl.

At 20, she eventually married Charles Sweeny, an Irish-American stockbroker and amateur golfer, whose family’s millions came from coal-mining, oil, and smelting. Their wedding day was a glamorous affair, stopping traffic for three hours as 2,000 guests attended the Brompton Oratory while another 2,000 onlookers gathered to see her Norman Hartnell wedding gown’s 28ft train.

The couple remained married for 15 years, during which Margaret suffered eight miscarriages and a stillbirth before welcoming a daughter, Frances, and son Brian.

But their relationship broke down, with Margaret blaming it on Charlie’s philandering during the war, claiming all he wanted in a spouse was a ‘pretty brainless doll’.

At 20, Margaret married Charles Sweeny (pictured), an Irish-American stockbroker and amateur golfer, whose family’s millions came from coal-mining, oil, and smelting

He, however, claimed she ‘changed totally’ after falling 40ft down a lift shaft in 1943 while visiting a chiropodist on Bond Street – an accident her next husband also used to claim she’d suffered brain damage so he could divorce her on the grounds of insanity.

It was also rumoured that the fall had caused nymphomania, as well as damage to her olfactory nerve, which affects one’s sense of smell.

Before she met and married the Duke in 1951 – four years after her divorce from Charles Sweeney in 1947 – Margaret enjoyed a romance with New York stockbroker Joe Thomas.

In January 2019, Ms Spence claimed he is the Headless Man from the Polaroid; it was previously rumoured to have been Douglas Fairbanks Jr, former Nazi Sigismund von Braun, and Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law.

Margaret and Joe met in Berlin and reportedly took explicit photographs using a Polaroid camera, keeping one each as a memento. They allegedly showed Margaret wearing only her signature triple-string of pearls while fellating an unidentified man.

However, despite proposing to Margaret, Joe was already betrothed to socialite Poppi de Salis. He travelled to St Moritz to end it with his first fiancee, but ended up marrying her, breaking Margaret’s heart.

Before she met and married the Duke in 1951 – four years after her divorce from Charles Sweeney in 1947 – Margaret (pictured in 1961) enjoyed a romance with New York stockbroker Joe Thomas, believed to be the Headless Man in the Polaroids

Ms Spence interviewed Joe’s son Michael, who found his father’s copies of the Polaroids while looking through an old trunk, adding they were ‘full frontal’ and ‘left nothing to the imagination’. 

Margaret stored her copy behind a bookcase in her house in London, but their hiding place was eventually rumbled by her embittered second husband who used them to fuel his claims about her promiscuity. 

Margaret met Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll, on a train at Gare du Nord in 1949. He pursued her relentlessly, knowing she was wealthy – while his own estate was worthless.

She took pity on him, after he told her of his five years spent as a prisoner of war and his marital problems with his second wife Louise, an American heiress, and convinced her father to give him £100,000 to restore his family seat in western Scotland, Inveraray Castle.

The Duke then forged a Deed of Gift and promised to marry her when his divorce had come through. They wed in 1951, but Ian soon showed his true colours; Ms Spence claimed he had an addiction to gambling, alcohol and prescription drugs, and an unpredictable temper.

Margaret met Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll, pictured together in 1952, on a train at Gare du Nord in 1949. He pursued her relentlessly, knowing she was wealthy – while his own estate was worthless

The couple’s divorce was granted on the grounds of adultery, and Campbell died in 1973, with Margaret following 20 years later (pictured during their marriage)

He grew to resent his wife when she began refusing to pay off any more of his debts after three years of marriage. The couple agreed to have an open marriage and live separately.

Furious that Margaret was no longer funding his wayward lifestyle, the Duke set about trying to divorce Margaret and hired private detectives to follow her. 

He gathered evidence to prove she was unfaithful, including stealing her letters and diaries which contained the names of her alleged lovers – many of whom Ms Spence insists were gay – while she was abroad. It was then that he came across the Polaroids. 

Ian filed a divorce petition with the Court of Session in Edinburgh, which took four years to reach a verdict. Lord Wheatley, renowned for his harsh sentences, oversaw the case and ruled Margaret was a ‘highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities’.

The Duke was granted a divorce on the grounds of Margaret’s adultery and she was ordered to pay seven-eighths of the £50,000 legal bill. Meanwhile nothing was said about Ian’s own affairs or his subsequent remarriage to Mathilda Mortimer, a rich American, just six weeks later.

Ian filed a divorce petition with the Court of Session in Edinburgh, which took four years to reach a verdict. Lord Wheatley, renowned for his harsh sentences, oversaw the case and ruled Margaret (pictured outside court on the second day of her case) was a ‘highly sexed woman who has ceased to be satisfied with normal sexual activities’

The scandal wrought irreparable damage on Margaret’s reputation and her relationship with her daughter Frances – who married the Duke of Rutland and is now the Dowager Duchess and grandmother to Lady Violet, Lady Alice and Lady Eliza Manners.

Frances came to see her mother as a ‘nightmare of embarrassment’, a friend told Vanity Fair in 1968. The pair did reconcile before Margaret’s death in 1993, by which point she was living at St George’s Nursing Home in Pimlico. Ian died in 1973.

A Very British Scandal will be penned by Sarah Phelps, who previously penned The Pale Horse, Dublin Murders and the 2012 miniseries version of Great Expectations.

She said: ‘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.’

The scandal wrought irreparable damage on Margaret’s (pictured in 1989) reputation and her relationship with her daughter Frances – who married the Duke of Rutland and is now the Dowager Duchess and grandmother to Lady Violet, Lady Alice and Lady Eliza Manners

Claire Foy, who starred as Queen Elizabeth II in the first two series of The Crown, said: ‘I’m so excited to work with Anne, Sarah and Paul on this extraordinary project, and to explore through this story, how often shame, judgement and controversy surrounds a woman’s sexuality.’

Her co-star Paul Bettany, who most recently starred in Wandavision and Solo: A Star Wars Story added: ‘I’m delighted to be working with the remarkable Claire Foy to tell the fascinating and scandalous story of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll and their very complicated lives.

‘I’m also extremely happy to get the chance to once again be working with the wonderful teams at the BBC and Amazon Studios.’

Pete Czernin, co-founder of Blueprint Pictures, said: ‘We’re thrilled to be able to bring together the uniquely brilliant voices of Sarah Phelps and Anne Sewitsky with the class of Claire Foy and Paul Bettany.

‘Uniting their outstanding talents, A Very British Scandal will shine a new light on the scandalous divorce of Margaret Argyll for a 21st century audience.’ 

Frances came to see her mother as a ‘nightmare of embarrassment’, a friend told Vanity Fair in 1968. The pair did reconcile before Margaret’s death in 1993, by which point she was living at St George’s Nursing Home in Pimlico. Ian died in 1973. Pictured in 1989

Piers Wenger, Director of BBC Drama, said: ‘Argyll v Argyll was one of the defining scandals of the 1960s. In the face of vilification in the press, Margaret fought valiantly but often in vain to control the narrative around her.

‘With the help of our incredible writer Sarah Phelps, director Anne Sewitsky, the perfect casting of Claire Foy and Paul Bettany and the team at Blueprint, we are delighted to be able to shine a new light on these events and re-frame the life of this infamous character.’

The three-part series will premiere on BBC One and BBC iPlayer in the UK and be available on Amazon Prime Video in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Filming for A Very British Scandal takes place across the UK later this year, with further casting to be announced in the coming months.

It comes following the success of A Very English Scandal, which depicted MP Jeremy Thorpe’s homosexual relationship with Norman Josiffe, and the fallout which sparked the end of his political career.

The series was penned by It’s A Sin’s Russell T Davies, and earned critical acclaim for stars Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw.

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