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In 1951 British commoner Margaret Sweeney wed Captain Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll and jumped way up the social ladder to become the Duchess of Argyll. Their 1963 divorce launched a maelstrom of media and public scrutiny. The Duchess was painted as an adultress fairly or unfairly linked to dozens of men. The Duke’s controlling ways, violent outbursts and assorted bad behaviours became the stuff of tabloids and the court case, a circus.

Claire Foy and Paul Bettany play the warring Argylls in Prime Video’s three-part series A Very British Scandal. They spoke with What She Said’ Anne Brodie about the case that remains a vivid memory to Brits for almost rocking the aristocracy off its pedestal.

Did either of you feel compelled to look into the psychological makeup of this couple that was locked in an intense divorce? Claire Foy – Yes I did a lot of it and quite a short period of time, very brief. It all came together so fast. I read as much as I could because it was COVID I didn’t have access to meet the real people, it was complicated but there were so many different accounts about her and him, they were very public and there are lots of archives. Paul Bettany – I read some of them, the ones they sent. We had an amazing researcher who would send us pertinent stuff. The facts themselves are astonishing and then you try to figure out some explanation about what was going on between the two of them. The Duke gets into these violent rages and fits. How did you get yourself there? PB – I think you have to assume that he’s feeling a massive sense of injustice as to how she’s behaving. That’s warped and twisted but I can feel injustice in my life and tap into a moment when someone has been unjust to me in a way that is unforgivable. You tap into that and when you add that feeling to someone being reprehensible and disgusting, you have a backup. If there was ever a film to make most people feel good about their marriages, by contrast, this is it. CF – Yes, (laughs). Maybe it’s going to save a lot of marriages or maybe a lot of people won’t get divorced. PB – I’m throwing people into sharp relief, and they are not as bad. I’m not sure the Duke is a very high benchmark of behaviour! They did succeed at one thing- he told her they could never bore one another. They lived in a remote castle, their own fiefdom, they make all the rules and servants don’t talk. Given the nascent violence, how did they not kill one another? CF – To your previous point, I don’t want to misrepresent her or them in the reality of their life. They were aristocratic and she married in, they weren’t always at the castle, they were back and forth to London. He was very interior, she liked to go out and associate with people and move in the world. And I think they were also at odds with the circles they moved in. Their behaviour addictions or whatever they may be, what is interesting is people will examine their own lives and keep quiet about secrets in their families. The idea of other people behaving really well is a fallacy and I think they just put it out in the public domain. I don’t think they were debauched or immoral or they are behaving in some completely immoral world. PB – Taking lovers and having affairs is par for the course in the aristocracy and the aberration in that millinery is she allowed the world to see what they were up to. The infamous Polaroid of her with an unidentified man got out. Was that her intention? PB – I doubt that. CF – The judgment in court was that her behaviour was inviting what occurred, as happened to women in the judicial system. She was asking for it. She was entitled to have sex with whoever she wanted, whenever and wherever, like every human being. Now women aren’t given that right but men are. She was seen as inhuman, breaking the laws of being a mother and wife; she should sit at home and keep quiet. The idea she wanted that picture to be taken that she wanted to be found out, exhibitionism or voyeurism is not at all what I was trying to present. A moment of intimacy with a man she attached so much meaning and sentimentality to. And when he takes it, it’s a violation of her and not for public consumption. PB – The way someone today takes a picture and sends it to their husband or boyfriend and the relationship breaks up – that does not mean she expects to be porn-shamed. That’s the truth. Thanks for the series and the wild ride!

A Very British Scandal, Season 2 launches on Prime Video on April 22nd.



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