Claire Foy and Paul Bettany in A Very British Scandal

A Very British Scandal

Well hello, everyone! Gosh, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’m sorry, really I am–I’ve launched two books in the past 14 months, I’m knee deep in a work-in-progress, and, you know, 2020 and 2021 happened! But I still have time for a good costume drama, and if that drama has Claire Foy and Paul Bettany in it, I’m HERE FOR IT.

Claire Foy and Paul Bettany in A Very British Scandal

Yes, Claire Foy is slipping back into the finger waves and pencil skirts she so recently vacated after finishing her stint in The Crown. But althought she’s resurrecting the super-posh accent, her turn as the sexually liberated Duchess of Argyll is WORLDS away from QEII. And Bettany as the menacing, violent, erratic duke is quite a jarring change from the super-sweet Vision in WandaVision. I do love it when actors I like get to really claw some scenery.

We start off in the early 1960’s as Margaret arrives at the Court of Session in Edinburgh to attend her divorce case. She’s met by a very hostile crowd indeed but nevertheless keeps her chin up as she goes inside. Her husband, Ian, meets her and offers to make this all go away if she just pays him off and signs the papers. But this woman’s a fighter, so they get ready to throw down.

From there, we reel on back to 1947, when the pair meet on a boat train. She’s about to be quite amicably divorced from her husband, Charles Sweeney, while the duke (who hasn’t inherited yet, so he’s still Captain Campbell) has already gone through one wife, is on his second, and is clearly set on making Margaret his third. Margaret seems charmed by his flirtations and agrees to accompany him to Inverary Castle in Scotland, which he’ll eventually inherit.

At Inverary, a lovely baronial-style pile, Margaret wanders about and clearly falls in love with the place, despite the fact it’s pretty run down. Ian proves to be a rather entitled sod and whines for money from the estate. He’s offered £1500, which the handy inflation calculator indicates is equivalent to nearly £65K today. Nothing to sneeze at, but not enough to restore a whole castle and keep this guy in designer tweeds.

While entertaining thoughts of Ian, Margaret finalises her divorce and celebrates at a party given by her frenemy, Maureen. Maureen throws the kind of parties where the entertainment revolves around racing wind-up penises across the table, so there you are. Margaret picks up a guy at the party, takes him home, has a good time of it, and in the morning takes one of his cufflinks and locks it up in her writing desk, along with other momentos of conquests past.

Ian inherits his dukedom from a distant cousin and goes for Margaret hard, showing her the shipwreck of a Spanish Armada treasure ship in Tobermoray Bay that’s supposed to hold millions in gold bullion. But getting to it is going to cost a lot of money. He proposes to Margaret, who accepts even though he’s still married to his second wife, Louisa (who has the absolutely terrible nickname Oui-Oui).

Margaret and Ian go to meet her father, a wealthy businessman. During this visit we learn a few things: her dad’s Scottish, he’s indulgent, and he’s VERY happy that his daughter’s set to marry a Scottish Duke. It’s nearly the pinnacle of social climbing. Margaret’s mother, on the other hand, is a brutally emotionally abusive piece of work and her treatment of her daughter provides a possible reason for Margaret’s stammer, which pops up whenever she’s in particularly stressful social situations.

Louise finally agrees to divorce Ian, so he marries Margaret. But things start to fall apart fast. It becomes abundantly clear that Ian just sees her as a checkbook, even going so far as to make her pay for a mink coat he gave Louise as a gift. Yeesh. He’s a terrible father, abandoning Margaret to entertain his two young sons (one of whom is rather understandably quite hostile) for hours. I’ll give her credit, she tries, and it seems like she makes some inroads with the younger kid, but not so much with the older one.

Margaret pours an incredible amount of money and effort into restoring Inverary Castle, while Ian pours an incredible amount of (her father’s) money into trying to raise that shipwreck. They officially reopen the castle at a big party attended by the bitchy Maureen and Louisa, who smugly wears the fur coat Ian gave her. Damn, lady! Can’t blame her, though, to be honest.

At the party, Ian completes his turn to full villain by mocking Margaret’s stammer and telling her that Inverary will eventually go to his son and when that happens, Margaret will be out on her ear. This seems like something she would know already, since it’s pretty much how titles and estates have always been inherited in Britain, but nevertheless she seems shocked. She’s also not happy to hear that she’ll probably have to make nice with Louise, since she has a bit influence on her boys.

Instead, Margaret goes to great lengths to forge a letter from Louise, claiming her sons are not Ian’s. She has it sent to Ian anonymously and pretends to laugh it off, but Ian is clearly rather distressed. So much so he goes all the way to Biarritz to ask Louise personally if this is true. Seems like he could have just phoned, but I guess any excuse to go to the south of France… Louise, of course, denies this.

Ian very quickly becomes THE WORST. He mocks his wife, neglects her, is incredibly erratic in his moods and drinks so much that even Margaret’s father is like, ‘Honey, your husband drinks too much. Waaaaaay too much.’

On the upside, Margaret’s horrible mother finally dies. On the downside, her father almost immediately remarries a woman younger than Margaret. Ian and Margaret try to play nice with daddy and her new stepmother, Jane, but after their visit Ian makes such gross comments about Jane that Margaret smacks him in the back of the head and he reacts by violently throwing her on the bed and strangling her. She’s likely only saved by the intervention of an extremely ballsy servant, who busts into the room and makes Ian come to his senses. Props to that lady!

Not knowing what to do, Margaret kind of goes off the deep end. First she decides she wants to have a baby, but her doctor vetoes that. She has some lasting issues due to having fallen down an elevator shaft (seriously!) in the 1940s, and even before that she had trouble conceiving and carrying pregnancies to term. He warns her that a child could kill her.

Well, if you can’t have one, buy one, right? Margaret summons one of her friends and, I kid you not, asks this woman to somehow, magically, procure her a baby boy that she can pass off as her own. Her friend is, naturally, horrified and tells Margaret she needs to take a giant step back and also, maybe, a long holiday to get her head on straight.

Ian, meanwhile, finds out that this shipwreck upon which he’s hung his whole future is just not going to be raised. In dispair, he wanders out into the bay and gets pneumonia as a result.

Margaret returns to Inverary to nurse him, and Ian sends for his own doctor, who promptly fills him up with amphetimines. You know, the usual treatment for pneumonia! Margaret figures this may be the reason behind her husband’s crazy mood swings, and she tracks the doctor down in a grotty bar in London (turns out he’s less ‘doctor’ and more ‘drug dealer’) and threatens to turn him over to the police if he doesn’t stay away from her husband.

Ian’s been cheating, pretty blatantly, and because it’s becoming abundantly clear that this marriage is over, Margaret cheats too. One man she hooks up with has a (very early) Polaroid camera, and the two of them use it to take a photo of Margaret giving the guy a beej. Yes, this is important. As are the facts that Margaret is wearing her very distinctive triple-strand pearl necklace in the photo, and the man’s face can’t be seen. The man, whomever he is, sends Margaret the photos and she smiles and locks them up in her keepsake drawer. Seems to me like a poor idea to keep evidence of your adultery, but hindsight is 20/20, right?

The Argylls eventually separate, but they reconcile just long enough for Margaret to help Ian go through a serious bout of withdrawl from both the drugs and alcohol. But that’s not enough to save this miserable marriage.

Ian breaks into Margaret’s desk and helps himself to a batch of love letters, her social diary, and those photos. He takes them all to his solicitor, whose head nearly catches on fire at the sight of this. Alas, this isn’t enough to prove adultery, even in the 1950s, because they can’t prove that these photos and love letters and things don’t predate the marriage. He tells Ian to get his hands on her current social diary.

Ian enlists the help of his 18-year-old daughter to help him break into Margaret’s house in the middle of the night to steal the diary. While he holds his terrified estranged wife down on the bed, his daughter (I repeat: his daughter) finds the diary and they flee. Yikes! Have I mentioned that this man is an absolutely terrible father? WHO DOES THAT? Margaret, please change the locks! (I’m guessing reporting this to the police would have been useless, as the two are still technically married and this would have been considered a marital home. Shudder.)

Margaret countersues for divorce, claiming Ian had an affair with her stepmother. She has no real proof of this, but apparently just the mention if it is enough for her father to send Jane packing. He moves into Margaret’s house with her and manages to stay alive just long enough to provide her with paperwork entitling her to quite a lot of the heirlooms from Inverary Castle. Seems Ian used them as collateral for a loan (or, more likely, loans) from his father-in-law and daddy had them signed over to Margaret.

A gleeful Margaret heads up to Scotland and is given from dawn till dusk on a single day to grab her stuff. Ian had previously banned her from the castle, so she’s almost giddy as she goes from room to room with her lawyer, indicating all the things that will be hers now. She also enjoys a liesurely lunch on the lawn, and then retires to one of the rooms to just sit quietly and come to terms with the fact this is the last time she’ll be allowed in this place she loves.

Unfortunately, her fun is cut short when one of the estate trustees shows up to tell her that the heirlooms were already used as collaterol for a previous loan, and so Ian had no right to use them as surety for the loan from Margaret’s father. What a dick. Couldn’t they sue for the value of the loan? This is most surely not my area of expertise, but surely there must be some kind of repurcussions for this sort of fraud?

So, Margaret does not get her heirlooms. And her father dies, which really pulls the rug out from under her. At the funeral, Maureen yells at her for creating this scandal (all the papers are salivating over this divorce case). Geez, Maureen, not an appropriate time! It’s a pretty heavy-handed bit of dialogue, not the best here, if I’m being honest.

One of Margaret’s male friends (it’s implied that he’s gay, so most likely just a really good friend and not a lover) takes her out on the town to cheer her up. They go back to her house after closing down the bar and hang out until dawn. As he leaves, they hug and someone in a car across the street snaps a photo.

Margaret’s lawyers sit down with her to discuss all the evidence in the case. She tells them that the headless man in the photos are her husband. In order to disprove this claim, Ian needs to be examined by, no joke, a doctor who appears to be a pube expert. How do you even find someone like this?

Ian makes one last-ditch efford to extort Margaret in order to make the whole divorce case go away. But she’s not willing to go quietly and let him move on to his next heiress (and yes, he did already have another one lined up. You’d think that woman would have been more wary.)

To court, then! Margaret is forced to drop her own case against Ian, because she can’t prove he slept with her stepmother. But Ian’s case against her is scandalous enough. Pube Doc says that, in his professional opinion, the man in the photos couldn’t have been Ian. Margaret’s friend takes the stand to explain the photo of the two of them embracing. He just shrugs that sometimes friends hug. Apparently it was even more difficult for people to accept that a man and a woman could be platonic friends back in the 60s than it is today, and it’s still pretty hard for a lot of people.

Both Margaret and Ian give evidence, and Ian is definitely given preferential treatment by the judge. Margaret claims that the photo is of her but won’t say that it was taken during her marriage. She also says that the love letters are old ones, and she keeps them for comfort, as many women do. Seems reasonable; she’s right, a lot of people hold onto old love letters. It’s nice to look back on things like that in later years, you know?

The judge does not know. He spends more than three hours basically calling Margaret the most perverse Whory McSlut who ever walked this earth. Seriously, what we do hear of his judgment makes me want to track down this man’s grave just so I can let my dog pee on it. It’s gross, but of course she’d take the brunt of the blame. Woman, you know.

Margaret Campbell went down in history as the Dirty Duchess, reviled in the press which still delights in tearing women down. Ian received no such censure and went on to marry some other woman before dying in 1973. Margaret outlived him by 20 years and never revealed the identity of the man in the photographs. Her life was clouded by this scandal, because the world still hates a sexually adventurous woman.

Bit of a downer, that, but as always Claire Foy gave an excellent performance. And so did Bettany, who proved he can really be a monster when he needs to be. Drop your thoughts in the comments, folks, and have a lovely new year!

Photo credit: BBC / Blueprint Pictures



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