Sarah Phelps on A Very British Scandal: 'Duchess was clickbait, but there was a real human being'
Phelps spoke to RadioTimes.com about "feminist icon" Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.
Warning: this interview contains references to adult content.
When BBC drama A Very English Scandal, which charts the extraordinary story of former MP Jeremy Thorpe and his ex-lover Norman Scott premiered in 2018, it was met with high praise from both critics and viewers, courtesy of Russell T Davies' storytelling prowess and dazzling performances from Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. At the time, there was no hint it would spawn an anthology, but its hit status proved irresistible and prompted the broadcaster to do just that. A Very British Scandal was commissioned, with Davies making way for Sarah Phelps, whose most recent work includes The Dublin Murders and several Agatha Christie adaptations.
When Phelps met with one of the executive producers to discuss who the subject of the unconnected follow-up could be, the name Cynthia Payne was floated. Madame Cyn, as she was known, ran a brothel in Streatham, south London, which was closed down in the 1980s. But Phelps had someone else in mind: Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.
"I hadn't even thought about it," she told RadioTimes.com. "It just came out of my mouth."
Phelps first learned of Margaret when she was working in telesales advertising ("I was s**t at it," she admitted). One morning, herself and a colleague were flipping through the papers, looking for leads, when he was caught off-guard: "Oh, she's dead!"
"Who's dead?" Phelps replied.
"The dirty Duchess, poor old girl. She's died."
Phelps was still none the wiser: "Who?! Who is she?!"
"Oh, come on Sarah! You know!" he sighed. "Everyone's heard about the blowjob Duchess."
Prior to her marriage to Ian Campbell, Duke of Argyll, Margaret Sweeny, as she was then known, was first and foremost a wealthy British 'It girl' who could be found on every guest list at every party, gallery opening, gala (you name it) in town. Anytime the who's who of the London social scene – or wherever she happened to find herself – descended, there Margaret would be, right in the thick of it, often surrounded entirely by men, who flocked to her like moths to a flame. She had a vivacious spirit that was irresistible to those in her orbit, including Ian, although his true intentions are queried in the series.
"There was a real Burton and Taylor aspect to them," said Phelps. "They were superstars of their world. Everybody talked about them. They were scandalous."
But beneath the seductive surface glamour, their love affair had a dark heart.
"They were both devastating to whoever they were having relationships with," added Phelps. "They were both fractured and profoundly troubled people."
Margaret had endured numerous emotional setbacks during her life, including several miscarriages and a stillbirth, and her relationship with her mother was perennially strained. She also fell 40-foot down a lift shaft and was swept away by a riptide – neither of which brought her life to a sudden and tragic end.
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The Duke spent a traumatic five years as a prisoner of war in Germany and later developed a thirst for alcohol and prescription pills, which were said to have fuelled his near-constant callousness and myriad violent outbursts. It's unclear whether Ian ever truly loved Margaret, or was merely drawn to her father's deep pockets, which he had access to through his wife. Phelps' drama depicts a Duke who whenever he was refused money, would fly into a white-hot rage.
The fabric of the Duchess and Duke's romance was also steeped in mistruths. Margaret, especially, was said to be prone to fabrication, with one of her stunts, which involved Ian's children and their mother, further deepening the growing gulf between them. There were accusations of infidelity from both parties. But despite his commanding role in their turbulence, Ian's reputation barely suffered a scratch. The same, however, cannot be said for Margaret.
She came to be defined by her marriage to the Duke, which was an unmitigated catastrophe and resulted in a brutal divorce which played out on the public stage. It also left Margaret saddled with the aforementioned monikers after photographs which Ian stole from her were used to bolster his case in court.
Even in death, she is still unable to shake them off. Ian, unsurprisingly, received no such nicknames.
Unlike so much of the discussion surrounding Margaret and Ian, Phelps was only ever captivated by the former.
"All of the conversation was about who the man had been," she said. "And I thought, I don't care about him. Who are you [Margaret] after this huge scandal? Who are you?
"She's one of those kinds of characters, and you just put them behind your ear and wait."
The Crown's Claire Foy and WandaVision's Paul Bettany were drafted in to play the Duchess and Duke, but Phelps didn't write her leads with them – or anyone – in mind, an approach she never deviates from.
"If I'm thinking about the actor, I'm not thinking about the character," she explained. "The characters that I'm writing don't know that they're being scrutinised by executive producers. And they don't know that they're about to be played by an actor – so I have to think about them."
Foy and Bettany are magnificent, with the pair showcasing some of their finest work to date. Not only have they captured what Phelps wrote on the page, they also supplied their own subtle details, which she couldn't possibly have accounted for, but which further enhanced the end product.
"When Paul smiles, his top lip pulls back from his teeth in a very, very particular way that it is impossible to write," she said. "If I wrote a stage direction that said: 'His top lip pulls back from his teeth in a particular way and you are reminded that he is an apex predator', people would go, 'Sarah, have you lost your f**king mind?' But the actor brings that.
"There's a moment where he smiles at Claire on the train. He is pure charm. And there's something about the way he smiles, which is simultaneously 'Yes, you would' and 'No, you absolutely mustn't'. It's the intensity of those performances that you can hope for in your writing."
The three-part series opens with the couple's divorce proceedings – the final chapter in their joint story – with Margaret set to take the stand for questioning. The narrative then jumps back to the moment the pair first met, when the cruelty and deception that came to define their relationship had not yet taken them in its vice-like grip.
"The chemistry of the two of them together created scorched earth," said Phelps. "It's like when you're thinking about performance and you're thinking about the chemistry between two particular actors, that's what you want to create, that absolutely you believe that these two people separately are dangerous enough. But together, they're a f**king bomb. And everybody should really stand back. It's going to be brutal, it's going to be ugly and actually, right from the first moment they meet, it can only ever end one way, which is pretty much mutually assured destruction.
"Nobody wins. There's no winner that comes out."
But if we were to compare their respective statuses following the final judgement, it was undoubtedly Margaret who fared worse, because she was the woman, and she not only enjoyed her dalliances with her male admirers, she also claimed that it was a particular talent of hers – "I like sex and am extremely good at it," she says in the drama. And it really is as simple as that.
Our conversation naturally turned to other "complex" women in the public eye who have been "caught up in the gaze but haven't survived it".
"You can remember those photos of [Amy Winehouse] reeling around Camden in a pair of men's pants clutching a giant bottle of Amaretto, with people pointing and laughing instead of saying, 'Doctors need to be called and we need to get this girl to a safe place'," remembered Phelps.
"Paula Yates was hounded. Diana was hounded. We all remember the look in Britney's eyes as she turned to face the paparazzi before she shaved her head. We haven’t learned. There was this huge outcry when Diana died in that tunnel. No one's f**king learned a thing. No one's learned a thing."
During the press Q&A, Phelps revealed that she had "thought a lot about" Meghan Markle and the vitriol she's been subjected to by the press and public when writing the series.
"I find it rebarbative," she added.
While A Very British Scandal is designed to entertain, which it certainly does, it's also evident from both watching the drama and listening to the passion with which Phelps talks about Margaret that this is television with a greater purpose.
“I suppose what I'd like for it to do is for people to consider the person behind the headline, the person behind the clickbait, because Margaret was clickbait in an age before clickbait. She was clickbait, but there was a real human being.
"What is the purpose of diminishing somebody through prurient ridicule and humiliation? What does it mean to do that to a person? The clicks, the headlines, they're a lash to beat somebody with."
The drama does not paint Margaret as an innocent, and both Phelps and Foy have spoken at length about the many missteps that she made, but they have also emphasised that her behaviours were not born out of a vacuum.
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"I told as much as possible all the really significant aspects of her life that I thought were part of her – why she was in this relationship and why she couldn't back away, and why she did the things that she did," said Phelps. "These things don't happen out of nowhere. There's always a cultural and personal intimate context, an emotional landscape where people make the decisions that they make. It's about trying to see the whole person."
It's also painfully transparent that the hammer blow Margaret suffered from the court of law and public opinion was not remotely concerned with what it means to be good person, but with publicly shaming a woman who refused to go quietly.
"If you called her a feminist icon to her face, she'd throw you out of her apartment," said Phelps. "She’d throw a shoe at your head. But I think she’s an icon. I admire her very much."
A Very British Scandal is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer. The series is also airing on consecutive nights across BBC One. Find out what’s on tonight with our TV Guide. Visit our Drama hub for all the latest news.
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