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The Facts Behind the Ugly Divorce Battle in ‘A Very British Scandal’

Amazon Prime’s three-part series “A Very British Scandal” dramatizes one of the most scandalous divorce cases in British history, between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, in which the Duke (Ian, played by Paul Bettany) accuses Margaret (Claire Foy) of sleeping with more than 88 other men during their marriage.

Judge Lord Wheatley, who presided over the case, blasted her as “a completely promiscuous woman” whose attitude towards marriage was “wholly immoral.”

Writer and creator Sarah Phelps says she was sensitive to the fact she was penning a script about real people who had living relatives that she took into consideration. “There are strict laws about how to represent people and what impact it’s going to have on their living relatives,“ Phelps says. “But you also have a moral responsibility because you don’t want to do anything that is going to cause pain.”

Phelps says the court transcripts from the 1963 divorce hearing were key to her research and the script. She took the transcripts, extrapolating the detail and working backward from there. With that, much of the series stayed true to real-life events.  Phelps highlights some key components in telling the story and what really happened to the Duke and Duchess of Argyll.

Fact: The Duke really did find compromising photos of the duchess (Ep. 2)

The Duke used compromising photos of his wife to help his divorce case.

The two married in 1951. But almost a decade into their marriage, the Duke began to suspect she was cheating and broke into her personal drawer where he discovered explicit photos of the Duchess.

Says Phelps, “The Duke had stolen all of her things, and Margaret had gone to the law lords and asked for the consideration that he would not be able to use evidence against her private property that he’d stolen from her house. However, he was her husband. So, there is no such concept of him burglarizing the house. The law Lord decided in favor of the Duke, that any material markets that he’d taken from her house, taken, not stolen, would be submitted in evidence.”

He used the sexually explicit photos, claiming she had slept with over 88 men. The intimate details of the relationship were scrutinized by both the press and the public. Ultimately, while highlighting the extravagance of the aristocracy, the Duchess was sexually shamed as she became a subject of institutional misogyny.

Fact: The judge spent four hours delivering his judgment  (Ep. 3)

Phelps explains, “The judge was the person who really hung her out to dry because as Margaret’s lawyers say, there were no journalists in court. You have to remember, there was a huge amount of speculation – nonstop chatter and speculation. I think he wanted her to pay a huge amount of money because he had incredibly damaging and incriminating evidence against her.

“He didn’t give a full judgment, He spent four hours with a courtroom full of journalists systematically destroying Margaret’s character, and making clear to them in this disapproving way, exactly what the nature of those photographs were. He put the scarlet letter around her neck.”

Fact: Margaret was the first woman to be publicly shamed by the British Media 

One photo submitted showed a naked man with her dressed in nothing but three strands of pearls in the famous mirrored bathroom. The Polaroid picture was addressed in court as “the man without a head” – Margaret did not name any of the men in the photos. But that didn’t stop the gossip.

Phelps says the judge used the case to set an example to other women. “If we do not shut her down, what will other women do with this sexual license that she feels free to practice. It was saying to other women, ‘Do not even think about it.’”

“One of the other things that is hugely speculative is that Margaret had fallen out with endless people. She’d fallen out with very powerful people — social peers, the aristocracy, the affluent and the wealthy. There was this fear that Margaret was going to ruin them. What she didn’t take into account was what Judge Wheatley was going to do to her. He was a very traditional conservative judge. He was a Jesuit and set in his views about the way women should behave.”

In the series, Margaret isn’t just accused of adultery, she is accused of theft, drugs, and forgery. Again, this is based on the court documents.

The case became front page news, and Margaret became of a long line of women to be shamed by the British media.

Fiction/Fact: Behind Closed Doors

Even behind closed doors, Phelps wanted to stay as close to the real-life events that happened wherever possible. She steered clear of hearsay and drew from what Ian’s wives had said, what Ian had said and what Margaret had said to piece conversations together. “We can see it’s happened because it was in court and it was in the public domain. It was in court, in books and in columns.”

What Happened to the Duke and Duchess Afterwards?

As the postscript says, the Duke remarried five weeks after his divorce was ruled.

“He got married very quickly after the judge’s ruling. His fourth wife was an American divorcee and much younger than him. Margaret was right, he was looking for another rich wife.

“He mainly lived in the South of France, and he didn’t live that much longer. There were another mere 10 years [before he died].

“There’s a lot about Ian and Margaret, which is entirely understood through the prism of two massive world wars, and what those two huge seismic events do to consciousness and behavior and understanding of the world and your place in it, the trauma. He was brought up in a bad way, by a bad man. He was a bad man with his first two wives. He spent the majority of the war in a death camp as a prisoner of war, watching people drop dead every day. Why do you expect this person to come out of this ordeal and expect them to live a normal life?

“He had a long-term addiction to amphetamines which were prescribed. But he was a difficult man. Nothing can fill up that abyss. It was always really interesting to me that Margaret had this terrible accident where she fell into an elevator shaft, and that it’s comparable to the pit that Ian has inside him. No amount of booze,  love, care, happiness, nor money could fill him up. It’s a tragedy because that’s a life spent in unhappiness.

“He won the court case and won the battle, but I wonder who won the war?

“Margaret lived almost too long. She was penniless. She was deaf. She was in a nursing home and got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and she fell and broke her neck. The nursing staff came and found her didn’t realize that her neck was broken and put her back into her bed. She died with her poodle next to her.”

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