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Over 50 years on, the sexism and double standards in A Very British Scandal are still with us

The BBC’s three-part dramatisation of the notorious case of Argyll v Argyll is a scandalous tale of egoism and hypocrisy.

Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (Claire Foy). Photo: Chris Raphael/BBC/PA.

I was born three weeks late. An unsuspecting hairdresser who was cutting my very heavily pregnant mother’s hair asked when she was due. “Oh, about three weeks ago now.” Never has a stylist finished a hairdo and hurried a customer out of their shop so quickly.

The pattern has stuck, which explains why I discovered Russell T Davies’ A Very English Scandal, the three-part dramatisation of Jeremy Thorpe’s trial for conspiracy to commit the murder of his troubled boyfriend Norman Scott, three years after it aired.

Making up for lost time, I devoured it in one evening. True to form, I then did the exact same thing with its companion piece from Sarah Phelps, A Very British Scandal.

Phelps’ three-part drama depicts the infamous divorce of Ian and Margaret Campbell, the Duke and Duchess of Argyll (played by Paul Bettany and Claire Foy), on the grounds of the Duchess’ accused multiple infidelities. Thanks to a certain Polaroid picture of a man whose face is not visible and the Duchess, the case was also christened the ‘Headless Man affair’. The identity of the man in the image remains unknown to this day, but certain measurements were acquired for the court to prove it was not her husband. The Duchess, in turn, was identified by her string of pearls.

We first meet the pair as Margaret, daughter of Scottish millionaire George Whigham and Helen Whigham, is called to the stand. Her soon-to-be ex-husband meets her at the court staircase to offer her a final chance to end things quietly, a decision that would be out of character for his wife. Margaret enters the courtroom and so begins the wild ride into the life of the ‘dirty Duchess’.

Both as conceited as each other, it was a marriage that seemed perfectly suited. But, once his wife’s millions ran out so did the marital bliss, if there was any to begin with at all. The takedown of the Duchess began as she was portrayed as a sex-crazed harlot across the front pages. But, it was never truly about the sex however, it was about power and money. “Perhaps” mulled the Duke when this was put to him by a perceptive Margaret, “but to the public, this will always be about your innumerable flagrant infidelities”.

The Duchess was not the first woman to have had war waged on her and be demonised for her sexuality by the press and she was certainly not the last. Skip forward just shy of 60 years and the Queen of Pop has been hit with the same slander.

Madonna has been told to ‘act her age’ after posting a racy series of photos to her Instagram account, showing off her figure in nothing but lingerie and Louboutins. At 63 years old, the music icon should apparently be hanging up her cone bra and swapping it in for some more conservative attire. The world, and media, may have sexualised her all her life, but for her to control this perception was evidently out of the question.

Then, of course, there is another Duchess who hasn’t escaped battles with the press. Whether you love her, loathe her or find yourself feeling quite indifferent to it, the double standards Meghan Markle faced in the British press are hard to dispute. In The Sun, Markle was called “baby bump Barbie” while pregnant with Archie for placing her hands over her belly. When Kate Middleton did the same while expecting Prince Louis, she was “glowing”. Where Markle broke Royal protocol by daring to wear wedged shoes in the summer, Kate was simply being relatable and versatile as written in two separate InStyle headlines a year apart.

If Piers Morgan has anything to do with it, the bombardment is far from finished. Just this week he vowed his media return would bring with it a “very unwelcome surprise” for her. If only there were other scandals in contemporary Britain to be focussing on…

Earlier this week, we had the latest episode of Boris Johnson’s ‘do as I say, not do as I do’. If nothing else, it answers critics’ questions as to why it has taken so long for a dramatisation of the Argyll divorce to appear on screens. It seems there is enough scandal in Britain already without delving into the archives.

In May last year, the public were limited to meeting one person outside and were encouraged by the prime minister to report those breaking such regulations. Meanwhile, Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary was pinging emails to 100 staffers inviting them to a BYOB party in the Downing Street garden. Shameful behaviour, greed and self-interest… writers need not look back through history for inspiration for their latest script dramatising scandal, they need only to look to the top.

The Duchess is now no longer with us, but the double standards she faced are. Nonetheless, in bringing her back to life on screens, Phelps resisted the need to modernise her, leaving her untouched and rightly so. Any attempts to portray her in a somewhat modern feminist light would have fallen short. After all, Margaret Campbell did not put women first, she put Margaret Campbell first and when the men she surrounded herself with often did exactly the same, who could blame her?

She lived unapologetically and vibrantly, if a little outrageously. Incidentally, she also loved sex. Quite the scandal but clearly such is life in Britain.

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