An extremely British Scandal  


Claire Foy, the forlornly imperious Duchess, is first seen in this role. Claire Foy is a captive inside her limousine, surrounded and hated by a hostile public.

Foy portrays her later in life in A Very British Scandal, which is both sordid and glamorous.

This richly detailed, three-part costume drama which continues tonight portrays her second marriage to the Duke of Argyll – and the notorious divorce battle that ended it.

It’s a pity the drama does not have time to explain the years of fame that came before her disgrace, and which shaped her. 

The first time we glimpse Claire Foy as the forlornly imperious Duchess of Argyll, she is a prisoner in the back of her own limousine, surrounded by a public that hates her

Claire Foy, the forlornly imperious Duchess, is first seen as a prisoner behind her own limousine. Her surroundings are filled with hateful people.

As a 17-year old debutante, Margaret Whigham entered London society in 1930. She was considered the most beautiful woman of England. 

Dozens of cuttings in the Daily Mail archives describe her appearance at every ball – her dresses, her jewellery, the young men jostling around her. Each report includes her photo.

American-raised Margaret, an American-raised Heiress was 14 when her father drove her from Ascot home to Eton in order to gather good-looking boys for Margaret’s tennis parties. 

The young truants who were the sons of viscounts and earls used to crawl under his Rolls-Royce’s back until school was over.

Mr and Mrs Whigham believed relentless socialising was the best way to cure Margaret’s stammer, which they feared might turn her into a recluse. You might be surprised to learn that as an adult, her only method of expressing affection was via sex.

After she married American golfer Charles Sweeny, Cole Porter counted her among the world’s greatest glories. His number You’re The Top namechecked the Colosseum, the feet of Fred Astaire… and Mrs Sweeny.

After a tragic stillbirth, eight months later, her marriage was over, and the nation waited with bated breath. 

What few knew then was that she had been pregnant before, aged just 15 – the result of a love affair with a teenage David Niven. To convey all that is an impossible task but Foy manages to hint at so much – not the detail, but the substance.

When we meet Sweeny, in the late 1940s she was divorcing from Sweeny. She is clearly a vulgar celebrity who loves male predatory attention, but has no instinct to self-preservation. This is the type we are all familiar with today.

The danger is obvious to all viewers when Captain Ian Campbell (Paul Bettany), a war-scarred hero of the civil rights movement, comes up to her aboard a train. It is all she can see, however, how sensual that danger appears.

She is wearing a triple string of pearls around her neck – a piece of jewellery that will acquire extra significance later.

Although he is still married to Margaret, he doesn’t hesitate about asking Richard McCabe for his hand…and a loan. Campbell is on the rise and Margaret does not see this, even though she’s writing checks to creditors.

Bettany portrays the Duke with a complete lack of sympathy. He’s a Second World War Veteran, but he lacks any charm or redeeming grace. When we witness him collecting butterflies, he is summarised when we look at the board and see his pin through the thorax.

However, it is quite shocking to learn the full extent of his cruelty. However, he has no plans to abandon his second American wife Louise (Sophia Myles). 

Everyone knows her as Oui Oui, because she agrees to everything – though Margaret childishly calls her Wee Wee. Campbell hopes his duchess will help him pay for restorations of the castle, to the advantage of his Oui-Oui sons. 

‘Here’s a thought, Margaret,’ he tells her, mocking her stammer with drunken nastiness. ‘Pay the b-b-bills – it’s what you’re for.’

That attack wounds her, because it exposes Margaret’s deepest fears about herself. It even gives shape to the viewers’ unconscious thoughts. Was she meant for this?

In 1930, as 17-year-old debutante Margaret Whigham entering London society, she was regarded as the most beautiful woman in England

As a 17-year old debutante, Margaret Whigham entered London society in 1930. She was considered the most beautiful woman of England.

Her 20-year-old debutante years were twenty years before her, and they belong in an earlier world. While her pleasures may be vapid, those of her friendship are more sarcastic. 

She is compared to a sexually addicted chimpanzee. Even her mother (Phoebe Nicholls) has nothing but contempt for her: ‘My daughter, an adulteress, a round-heel – the squalor of it.’

That word ‘round-heel’ sums up the pious hypocrisy of the era. The 1920s term for a woman who resents any touch she makes to her head is round-heel. 

After her divorce from Prince Charles, she was the most disgraced British woman, and was denounced by the courts as well as from every pulpit for being an adulteress. According to her husband, she was accused of having had dozens of affairs: He put the figure at 88.

This drama captures that sense of national outrage in those opening shots, as the duchess’s car is besieged on a London street by onlookers who hurl abuse and spit at the windows.

Foy is Margaret’s defiant, pitiful sidekick. She looked lonely many times in her first hour. This was despite trying to entertain her step-children and engaging in one-night stands after parties. However, she wasn’t more lonely when the public turned against her.

We are used to watching Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. This role is something that Claire Foy excels at. This Queen is a perfect example of what a traditional ruler class should be like.

But strip away the sense of duty and decency, and what you are left with is the Duchess of Argyll – riches without real value, privilege without a raison d’etre.

She is only good at sex. These scenes are shot tastefully or with minimal emphasis on exploitation. 

Foy has said how uncomfortable they made her feel: ‘It’s grim, the grimmest thing you can do. When you’re a woman, you feel exploited and are forced to do fake sex. You feel exposed.’

You can feel the shame and discomfort she radiates until you experience it yourself. The humiliation was also not faked by the Duchess Argyll. 

BBC1 will continue to air A Very British Scandal tomorrow night at 9pm.