TAGGED AS: Amazon Prime Video, BBC, period drama, Prime Video
As the news media becomes more aware of the sins-of-our-parents coverage of racial minorities, women, and other marginalized communities, so too have scripted series attempted to show scandalous news stories from the innocent parties’ point of view.
In America, we’ve had Netflix’s When They See Us about the innocent teens convicted in the Central Park jogger case, HBO’s Confirmation about Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, which seeks to exonerate Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp’s legacies tied to the Bill Clinton’s impeachment scandal.
Across the pond, where the tabloid coverage is legendarily more intense and unfair, there’s the A Very … series. The first, A Very English Scandal, had Hugh Grant portraying the closeted and powerful politico Jeremy Thorpe in 1960s and ’70s England and Ben Whishaw as his long-tormented ex partner, Norman Josiffe — a kind and simple soul whose life trajectory, one could argue, spiraled increasingly downhill after Thorpe refused to re-issue him a National Insurance card when he abruptly ended their relationship.
(Photo by Alan Peebles/Amazon/BBC/Sony Pictures Television)
The second chapter in the series spreads across the United Kingdom — and, given the press coverage of the case it covers, well beyond — for A Very British Scandal. It stars Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in a somewhat fictionalized re-telling of the abusive relationship between Ian Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, and his third wife, heiress and society queen Margaret Sweeney (née Whigham). Having already aired in the U.K., the three-episode series is now streaming Stateside on Prime Video.
The Campbells’ marriage is best remembered for its 1963 divorce proceedings that concentrated on Margaret’s extramarital affairs, which was made evident by Polaroid photos of her in sexual acts with other men and suggested by coded entries in her day planner. While Margaret was no saint during their marriage — their courtship began, and was followed in the press, while he was still married to his second wife, and she also made Ian question the legitimacy of his sons (and heirs) from that relationship — Ian was a demanding and haunting presence whose mood swings and physical and emotional attacks were only heightened by the way he drained his wife’s family money to rebuild his family’s Inveraray Castle and search for what he insisted was buried treasure from sunken ships on his land.
“I don’t think there is a way to see it from Ian’s side,” Bettany tells Rotten Tomatoes of looking at the case in hindsight.
The Duke of Argyle was a POW survivor, who was held by the Nazis during World War II and weighed 70 pounds when he was freed, so Bettany acknowledges that it’s very likely he had some form of PTSD and, Bettany says, he had some “intergenerational torture” in his family. However, the actor adds, “when I discovered all of that stuff, I don’t think it in any way absolves his behavior. I just think it makes the playing of him more interesting.”
The Duke’s case against his wife when he argued for divorce hinged on photographs she’d kept hidden of her performing sex acts with another man (or men) — the suitor’s face isn’t in the images, but she can be seen wearing her trademark three-string pearl necklace. The Duke also obtained, once forcibly if the story is to believed, her past and current day planners that included notations only known to her. He became obsessed with the frequent use of the letter “v,” convinced it was meant to denote a sexual encounter — oftentimes on days they were apart.
(Photo by Alan Peebles/Amazon/BBC/Sony Pictures Television)
The Duchess never revealed who was in the pictures with her and what the letter represented. But why would she keep these mementos? Especially as her husband became more vindictive? Foy says that Margaret, who was reportedly proposed to 15 times before she married her first husband, “had so many mementos of the men that she’d had romances with” and that it’s no different from today “in the same way that people keep text messages from from people like ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends so that you can look back and relive the whole romance.”
“She loved romance,” Foy says of the woman she portrays, who was so notorious that a version of Cole Porter’s song “You’re the Top” mentions her and there’s a scene in the miniseries where she’s adding to a scrapbook of all the news clippings about her. Foy, who has an Emmy for portraying Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown, adds that “she travelled around the world having affairs with men. And, I think, she had a lust and passion for romance and being seen and admired in a man’s eyes. That is how, basically, her father treated her. And I think that she just loved it. She wanted to eat it up. It was her favorite thing in the world.”
Bettany, famed for his work as Vision in the Avengers movies and Disney+ series WandaVision, also played killer Ted Kaczynski in the Discovery Channel miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber and appears in biographical films like A Beautiful Mind and The Young Victoria. But, he says “you’re fictionalizing every character whether they’re fictional or not; you have to make stuff up, and I think that’s what drama does very well.”
(Photo by Christopher Raphael/Amazon/BBC/Sony Pictures Television)
Still, while Margaret and Ian are both deceased, they do have descendants who are well aware of their family history. The show filmed at Inveraray Castle and Foy says they spoke with the current Duke of Argyll. She reminds that “weirdly, this is a show about marriage even though it’s about an incredibly public divorce.”
“There is a humanity to these people, regardless of if their behavior might be terrible,” she says. “He still was a person like everybody else and deserves to be viewed that way.”
89% A Very British Scandal: Miniseries (2021) is now streaming on Prime Video.