First look at A Very British Scandal

What would the Queen say! Claire Foy reprises the cut glass accent she perfected in The Crown as the VERY promiscuous Duchess of Argyll in first trailer for A Very British Scandal

  • Claire Foy stars as the Duchess of Argyll in BBC’s A Very British Scandal 
  • The Duchess was branded a nymphomaniac by her husband in 1963 divorce 
  • He claimed she had taken an amazing 88 lovers, including Hollywood stars 
  • First trailer hints at the sex, addiction and explicit photos that made the case 

Claire Foy reprises the cut glass accent she perfected to play a young Queen Elizabeth in The Crown in the new trailer for upcoming period drama A Very British Scandal.  

Claire plays the flamboyantly promiscuous Margaret, Duchess of Argyll who was branded a nymphomaniac by her husband the 11th Duke of Argyll (played by Paul Bettany) in their toxic 1963 divorce hearing, which became the longest and most costly of the 20th century. 

He claimed she had taken on an amazing 88 lovers, including cabinet ministers, Hollywood stars and royals, during their marriage. 

The trailer for the series, which stars on Boxing Day on BBC1, hints at the sensational mix of sex, theft, forgery, bribery, addiction and explicit photos that garnered so many column inches at the time. 

A drama with plenty of promise! Claire Foy plays the flamboyantly promiscuous Margaret, Duchess of Argyll who was branded a nymphomaniac by her husband the 11th Duke of Argyll (played by Paul Bettany), pictured together, in their toxic 1963 divorce hearing

Tantalising: The trailer (pictured) hints at the sensational mix of sex, theft, forgery, bribery, addiction and explicit photos that meant the divorce garnered so many column inches

Tempestuous: Claire Foy and Paul Bettany share a kiss as the Duke and Duchess of Argyll

Society darling: Margaret wed Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, after meeting him on a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord station in 1949. Pictured: The couple in 1952

‘I meet men. I dine with men. It doesn’t follow that I have affairs with every man I meet,’ Foy says. ‘There’s only so many hours in the day.’

She adds of sex: ‘I like it very much and I’m extremely good at it.’  

Born in 1912, the only child of a self-made Scottish millionaire, Margaret was described by her biographer Lyndsy Spence as ‘a daddy’s girl with an absent father, living with a jealous mother who sought to remind Margaret of her every shortcoming’. 

As such, Margaret developed a stammer for which she was treated unsuccessfully by Lionel Logue, King George VI’s speech therapist.

She was just 15 when the future movie star David Niven, two years her senior, got her pregnant while holidaying on the Isle of Wight, after which her father sent her to a London nursing home for a secret termination. 

As a young woman, her beauty was renowned in society and she was courted by princes and millionaires, welcoming playwright Noel Coward, actor Cary Grant and oil tycoon J Paul Getty, among others, to her Mayfair home. She went on to have four failed engagements before a failed marriage to Charles Sweeny, an Irish-American stockbroker.

Slow demise: The couple had agreed to have an open marriage and live separately.But angry that the duchess was no longer funding his excessive lifestyle, the duke hired private detectives to follow his wife. He filed for divorce. Pictured, Foy and Bettany as the Argylls

Caught on camera: The duchess admitted to seeing men, but said they weren’t all affairs

Scandal: The duke claimed she had taken on an amazing 88 lovers, including cabinet ministers, Hollywood stars and royals, during their marriage. It sparked a media frenzy

Standing up for herself: Margaret (played by Foy) was vilified throughout the divorce battle for refusing to go quietly, despite being betrayed by friends and publicly shamed by society

Their wedding day in 1933 was a glamorous affair, stopping traffic for three hours as 2,000 guests attended the Brompton Oratory in west London while another 2,000 onlookers gathered to see the stunning 28ft train to her Norman Hartnell wedding gown. 

Despite having a daughter, Frances, and a son, Brian, together, the couple’s relationship broke down after 14 years, with Margaret claiming all Charlie wanted in a spouse was a ‘pretty brainless doll’ and they divorced in 1947.

So who was the headless man? 

The ‘Headless Man’ in the salacious pictures of the duchess disclosed in the divorce case has never been definitively identified. Society ached to know his identity, and the duke was even required to pose naked to prove the torso wasn’t his.

Margaret (pictured) carried the secret of the ‘headless man’ identity to her grave

The suspects included Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr and German diplomat Sigismund von Braun, but chief among them was Duncan Sandys, the Minister of Defence and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law. 

A Channel 4 documentary in 2000 claimed that the ‘Headless Man’ was in fact two different men – Sandys and Fairbanks Jr – but it seems this may be one secret Margaret carried with her to her grave.

In 1951 she wed Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, after meeting him on a train at Paris’s Gare du Nord station in 1949. He’d pursued her relentlessly, knowing she was rich while his own estate was worth nothing. 

She took pity on him and convinced her father to give him £100,000 to restore his family seat in Scotland, Inveraray Castle. The duke then signed a Deed of Gift offering various items as security for the money, and vowed to marry her when his own divorce had come through.

After tying the knot the couple lived in luxury, skiing in St Moritz, sailing in the Bahamas and holidaying in St Tropez. Fashion designers and socialites clamoured around the duchess.

But the duke soon showed his true colours, with rumours of gambling and drug and alcohol addiction, as well as a vile temper.

This is hinted at in the trailer, with Bettany appearing at one point to raise a hand to Foy, and his wife saying that each morning she wakes up ‘wondering which Ian’ will be lying next to her.  

The couple had agreed to have an open marriage and live separately. ‘How many men do you have?,’ Bettany asks. ‘How many women do you have?,’ Foy replies.

But angry that the duchess was no longer funding his excessive lifestyle, the duke hired private detectives to follow his wife. He filed for divorce. 

Central to the case was a set of blurry Polaroid snaps taken via the bathroom mirror of the duchess’s Mayfair apartment of her wearing nothing but her signature triple string of pearls. In some, she was entertaining an unidentified lover whose head had been cropped out of the picture and who came to be known as the ‘Headless Man’.

The pictures had been discovered by her husband, who allegedly hired a locksmith to gain access to his wife’s private papers. 

And yet the technicalities of the prehistoric legal system at that time (and the fact that many of her ‘lovers’ were gay) prevented the duchess from giving her side of the story without risking imprisonment.

A Very British Scandal focuses especially on the attitudes towards women at the time, as Margaret was vilified throughout the divorce battle for refusing to go quietly, despite being betrayed by friends and publicly shamed by society. 

Signature pearls: Margaret’s necklace, above, appeared in nude photos found by her husband

It took four years after he filed for divorce for a verdict to be reached, which granted it to the duke on the grounds of Margaret’s adultery. 

She was ordered to pay most of the £50,000 legal bill. Meanwhile nothing was said about his own affairs or his subsequent remarriage to Mathilda Mortimer, a rich American, just six weeks later. 

After the case Margaret fell out with her daughter Frances, who had not wanted her to oppose the divorce, and thanks to her extravagant lifestyle and some bad investments her fortune diminished. She lost her home and, although eventually reconciled with Frances, her children put her in a nursing home in London, where she died penniless in 1993.   

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

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