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A Very British Scandal: The true story behind BBC One’s big Boxing Day drama

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  • Paul Bettany
    Paul Bettany
    British actor

In 1963, the Duchess of Argyll was accused by her husband of cheating on him with 88 different men.

The accusation came in a divorce case that transfixed Britain. It is at the centre of BBC One’s new drama, A Very British Scandal, which stars Paul Bettany and Claire Foy. The series serves as a study of entrenched misogyny in the 1960s British press and judicial system.

Notoriously, as evidence for his claims, the duke produced a series of photographs showing the duchess performing fellatio on an unidentified man. He had stolen the Polaroid from her desk, and the media became obsessed with figuring out the identity of the man she was with, who was only visible from the neck down. He became known as the “headless man”.

There was speculation it could be either the film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr; a member of the royal family; the Pakistani prince, Aly Khan; Lord Beaverbrook’s heir, Max Aitken; or the then-secretary of state for the Commonwealth, Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys.

Many of the other men that Ian Douglas Campbell had accused his wife Margaret of cheating on him with were gay, and had never been involved with the duchess, but she chose not to challenge the accusations to protect her friends, as homosexuality was yet to be decriminalised.

The judge on the case, Lord Wheatley, concluded that the duchess was a “completely promiscuous woman” and said she had engaged in “disgusting sexual activities”. He added: “Her attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call ‘enlightened’ but which in plain language was wholly immoral.”

The Argyll’s bitter divorce case – which also featured accusations of forgery, theft, violence, drug-taking, secret recording and bribery – dominated the front pages and society columns in 1963.

The duchess has since been described as the first woman to be slut-shamed in the British press. She is also thought of as the first victim of revenge porn.

The Duchess of Argyll and Claire Foy, who is portraying her (Shutterstock, BBC)
The Duchess of Argyll and Claire Foy, who is portraying her (Shutterstock, BBC)

Before she met the duke, the duchess had been a debutante and was regarded as an “it girl”. However, after the divorce, her reputation was left in tatters. Yet she remained defiant, hosting lavish parties at her Grosvenor Street home until debts forced her out and she turned her attentions to animal rights campaigning.

Sarah Phelps, the screenwriter of the BBC’s new series, said: “This is a story about a woman who refused to be slut shamed, who refused to go quietly and refused to do as she was told. She set fire to the expectation of her class, gender and her sex.

She put the private lives of the wealthy, the landed and the titled all over the front pages, not the untouchable great and good but bare forked animals.”

The duchess died aged 80 in 1993, having never revealed the identity of the “headless man”.

A Very British Scandal airs tonight (26 December) on BBC One at 9.00pm.

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