BBC drama A Very British Scandal – the follow-up to A Very English Scandal – tackles another, very different sex scandal from Britain's history.


The three-part BBC One drama, based on a true story, focuses on the divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll in the 1960s, described by the broadcaster as "one of the most notorious, extraordinary and brutal legal cases of the 20th century".⁣

Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (played by The Crown's Claire Foy in A Very British Scandal), made headlines when she became a victim of revenge porn, and was subsequently lampooned by the British press and the judge presiding over her divorce case.

In a statement, writer Sarah Phelps (The Pale Horse) said: “Writing the story of Margaret’s life and the events leading up to and including her divorce from the Duke has been a passion project of mine since 1993 when I first heard her name and started learning about her.

"I felt very strongly that she’d been punished for being a woman, for being visible, for refusing to back down, be a good girl and go quietly. This drama is my tribute to her."

Read on for the real-life story behind BBC One drama A Very British Scandal.

Who was Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll?

A Very British Scandal

Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll (born Margaret Whigham) was a socialite and heiress, the only child of a Scottish millionaire who made his fortune in synthetic fabrics.

In 1930, Margaret was named "debutante of the year" when she debuted in London society at the age of 17, before marrying American businessman Charles Sweeny three years later (she would later claim that her wedding dress, which featured a 28-foot train, was the inspiration behind Princess Elizabeth's own wedding dress). The couple had three children.

The Sweenys divorced in 1947, and several years later Margaret married Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, on 22nd March 1951, becoming his third wife.

However, the marriage proved an unhappy one, with alleged infidelities on both sides. When the Duchess visited New York, he reportedly hired a private detective to masquerade as her chauffeur. Additionally, he hired a locksmith to break into a locked cupboard at their Mayfair house, and the cupboard's contents would become the subject of the divorce case.

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Speaking at a press event attended by, Claire Foy said: "I think what’s interesting about the end of their relationship is it plays out in the public domain. The end of their relationship is not those two in a room being able to look each other in the eye and go, ‘At one point we loved each other. What happened?’

"It was just messy and so underhand and cruel, and the only way she could reach him was via the newspapers, and that’s how they basically communicated, it felt like."

What happened during the divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll?

A Very British Scandal starring Claire Foy
BBC / Blueprint Pictures

In 1963, the divorce between the 11th Duke and Duchess of Argyll made headlines across the globe after Ian Douglas Campbell accused his wife Margaret of having affairs with 88 different men.

The key evidence provided at the March 1963 trial was a set of Polaroid photographs - obtained without Margaret's consent - which showed her naked (except for, famously, a pearl necklace) and performing fellatio on an unidentifiable man whose head was cut off by the camera: the "headless man", as the press dubbed him.

(In order to prove that he was not in fact the headless man himself, the Duke apparently visited a doctor to prove his "lesser dimensions" than the man in the photograph.)

In the press, Margaret was slut-shamed, and became known variously as the "Dirty Duchess", the "Fellatio Duchess", and "The Blowjob Duchess".

In addition to the photographs, the Duke provided a list of the 88 men who the Duchess had allegedly been unfaithful with. She refused to challenge the list (some of the men apparently listed were gay, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, and Margaret refused to out her friends and endanger them).

The judge who presided over the divorce trial concluded that Margaret was a “completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men", and that her "attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns would call ‘enlightened’ but which in plain language was wholly immoral".

Who was the "headless man"?

A Very British Scandal

Margaret never identified "the headless man" pictured in the cache of Polaroids, but his true identity was a source of endless speculation in the press.

On 20th June 1963, Duncan Sandys - the then-Minister of Defence and son-in-law of Winston Churchill - admitted during a cabinet meeting that he was rumoured to be the "headless man".

He offered to hand in his resignation, but was persuaded not to. The cache of photographs later became the subject of a government investigation.

Decades later, Channel 4 documentary Secret History: The Duchess and the Headless Man claimed that the "headless man" from the four photographs was in fact two separate men: Sandys, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr, the Hollywood actor.

A Very British Scandal will premiere at 9pm on Boxing Day on BBC One, with all three episodes available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer from that time. The series also continues across the following two nights on BBC One.

While you wait, take a look at our other Drama coverage, or find out what else to watch with our TV Guide.


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