“I like sex, I like it very much and am extremely good at it”
The three-part serial A Very British Scandal is the best of the 2021 Christmas dramas and has enough temperature to break through the cold on a frosty winter’s night. However, don’t expect any festive cheer here as seasoned screenwriter Sarah Phelps puts a hard lens to 1950’s sexuality and gender politics resulting in three high tension episodes that have enough explosive moments and emotional twists to rival any other romance drama that has hit our screens in recent years.
The miniseries is a dramatization of the highly prolific 1963 Argyll vs. Argyll case that judged the divorce between the beautiful and charismatic Duchess Margaret Campbell (played delectably by Claire Foy) and her then manipulative husband Duke Ian Campbell ( an unpredictable Paul Bettany). It starts with the initial romance as Ian is attracted to Margaret’s expression of freedoms but as his masculinity was threatened the two entered one of the 20th century’s most notorious divorces and brutal legal proceedings where an onslaught of doctored evidence, including exploitative polaroids and stolen diary entries, were exercised against his third wife. The trial concluded with Margaret being reduced to the nickname ‘the Dirty Duchess’.
From one of the first scenes, when Margaret enters the courtroom, the vivid script begins to establish Margaret’s defiance of gender norms. After a short but demeaning conversation with her husband Ian, where he suggests he will stop the proceedings if she submits to him, the Duchess, instead of becoming upset, simply probes that he “better take his seat”. While short in length, these fighting words caught my attention as they were in a segment that felt different to other representations of rocky romances where the husband and wife are either enemies or smooch buddies and not somewhere in between. As the series continued to establish the main parts, I began to feel like I was watching something akin to one of my favourite films about conformity and rebellious lovers, Revolutionary Road (2008).
I was immediately invested in what else Margaret had to say and she didn’t disappoint. There is one scene in particular that I won’t forget in a hurry as it framed a particular response I felt potent towards today’s politics. It starts with a conversation between Margaret and the snarky Maureen Guinness (Julia Davis) as they discuss apes at the zoo. Maureen observes that everything they do is about sex and that Margaret acts in the same way as those ‘Bonobos’. It was infuriating to me that she would judge an acquaintance’s sexuality so openly until Margaret, much to the dismay of the socialite, boldly returned “I like sex, I like it very much and am extremely good at it”. This line spoke to women like me who don’t subscribe to the sexual ideals of having one partner forever (because we aren’t penguins) or striving to get married before hitting 40 out of fear of being deemed a spinster. I enjoy being single, at least for now, but also enjoy the company of the opposite sex. Why should I or Margaret feel ashamed of it?
It is Sarah Phelps quickfire dialogue that makes the story feel contemporary and relatable.
Then there are the performances, including those who play the side characters, who are excellent with Foy and Bettany proving the perfect match for each other. In Margaret, Foy has created a multi-faceted character who at once is charming and enigmatic, strong and forward-thinking, manipulative and stern. Foy understands the duplexity at the heart of the Dutchess and plays her with courage and conviction. In fact, in the last minutes of the penultimate episode, Foy demonstrates the nuance of her role as she portrays a woman who is happy to be a caring, loving wife while unafraid of her own independence. In the scene, she holds her husband close and while telling him she wants their marriage to work also tells him that his addictions and the terrible things they do to each other must stop. It’s the most tender moment between the two and shows that there is something that resembles a connection between them. However, it’s also in this moment that I realised that despite her faults and questionable decisions I wanted her to escape the physical and emotional abuse she was enduring and find the happiness she longed for.
Paul Bettany is perfect as the Duchess’s confident, cruel, and villainous Duke of Argyll as the two have an undeniable chemistry even in the more volatile moments. Initially attracted to Margaret for a sexual prowess he felt matched his own, Ian also felt that she questioned and threatened his masculinity with her self-determination Bettany plays the misogynistic rogue persona of Ian, who uses words like hammer fists and his hands like a hangman’s noose, with an uncanny ease while also providing an air of vulnerability to a character that is so easy to hate.
Another standout performance to me was Timothy Renouf’s Peter Combe who added sensitivity and acceptance to the storyline through his relentless support of Margaret. Renouf depicted Combe as a man who embraced his friend despite her flaws and the difficult situations he was sometimes placed in because of her. It made me want a Combe all of my own. It would also be remiss not to mention Julia Davis as Maureen Guinness who, in stark contrast, appears to be having all the fun in the world as the crass debutante who indulges in criticising Margaret’s every move.
The most significant moment of the show is Margaret’s final rallying cry for her individuality in a court that unashamedly slut shamed her for enjoying the company of men. Phelps ties her likeable characters, memorable dialogue, and original ideas together in a tight bow and shows that while she told a tale of its time she also magnified issues of gender and sexual conformity that we still argue today.
The saddest element about the real story is that while Duchess Margaret Campbell was sentenced as “a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetites could only be satisfied with a number of men” the elusive ‘V’ which featured so prominently in her condemnation became the scarlet letter that unfairly followed her around until her death in 1993.
A Very British Scandal is available on BBC iPlayer