Who was the Duchess of Argyll? The true story of the woman behind 'A Very British Scandal'

·4 min read
Photo credit: BBC - Getty Images
Photo credit: BBC - Getty Images

A new drama starring The Crown's Claire Foy, A Very British Scandal, focusses on one of the most controversial (and - in our opinion - unfairly criticised) women in upper class society in the 1960s: Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Sadly, she is now best known for a leaked photo scandal which saw her naked images (including one in which she's pictured wearing nothing but a pearl necklace) used as evidence against her during an incredibly toxic divorce case.

Ahead of the BBC's adaption, which airs on Boxing Day, we took a look back at Margaret's life to ask: Who was the Duchess of Argyll? The true story of the woman behind A Very British Scandal.

Who was Margaret the Duchess of Argyll?

Margaret Campbell, born in 1912 to a Scottish millionaire, was a British socialite who frequented the 'best dressed' pages of many a magazine and was known for her vibrant, confident personality (which attracted many suitors) and her progressive attitude towards sex.

She married the 11th Duke of Argyll in 1951, but it wasn't until the early '60s that their relationship garnered the attention of the media, thrusting Margaret into the spotlight and condemning her for the very vibrance that had once been her greatest asset.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

What were the leaked photos of the Duchess of Argyll?

Suspecting Margaret of infidelity (despite rumours that he too had stepped out on their marriage) the Duke enlisted a locksmith to break into a cupboard in their shared Mayfair home while his wife was away. Inside the cupboard he found a set of Polaroid photos of the Duchess, who was naked except for her signature three-string pearl necklace, in the company of another man.

The photos resulted in the Duke filing for divorce from Margaret in 1963, and were used as evidence against her to support his claims that she had been unfaithful. During the divorce proceedings, the Polaroids of Margaret and the unnamed man were shared with the court and leaked to the media, including one in which she could be seen performing oral sex on him.

At the time, the photos earned Margaret a reputation – although now, this would undoubtedly be classed as slut-shaming. "It was scandalous because women weren’t expected to behave like that," Lyndsy Spence, the author of a biography of the Duchess, told the Guardian.

Photo credit: Topical Press Agency - Getty Images
Photo credit: Topical Press Agency - Getty Images

How true to life is A Very British Scandal?

Foy, who plays the Duchess in the upcoming BBC adaption, is keen to offer up a sympathetic portrayal of Margaret, who was branded "the dirty duchess" during her divorce. Speaking in a recent interview, the actor rightfully points out that her character was the perhaps the very first victim of revenge porn.

"Fundamentally, when the chips are down and she’s being treated in the way that she’s being treated, she was belittled and shamed and put down," Foy continued.

"She was bold and spicy and brash in her sexuality. And she did get punished for it," A Very British Scandal scriptwriter Sarah Phelps adds, with executive producer Delyth Scudamore also highlighting how the drama aims to change the narrative around the Duchess.

"We were very aware of how the Duchess has been portrayed in the past, so we really did try to do something a little bit different," explained Scudamore. As for how the series achieved that, the women behind the drama stripped everything back to the facts. "There was a lot of research. There’s lots of gossip. There’s lots of things that, when you drill down... lots of it didn’t stand up," the producer added.

"So much of it, there’s a bit of gossip and then that’s rumour, and it’s completely unsubstantiated," Phelps continued. "What we did in the end was follow court transcripts and everything that was presented legally, and what was written in the papers afterwards, then go backwards to get to where we start."

Photo credit: Evening Standard - Getty Images
Photo credit: Evening Standard - Getty Images

"I think the whole mythology of the 'dirty duchess' is a woman who's trying to defend her character to a whole society," concludes Scudamore. "But I spoke to her son, who unfortunately passed away last month. I spoke to him on two occasions and he said, 'What people don’t realise is that my mother was hilarious and really good fun'. I think we see that in this show. She kind of grabbed at life. I love her. I think she’s amazing."

A Very British Scandal begins on BBC1 on Boxing Day at 9pm.

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