TV Review: A Very British Scandal

Claire Foy and Paul Bettany headline some rather alternative festive fare in the BBC’s Christmas special A Very British Scandal

“Canapes and cock, is there anything else?”

A drama about the first major case of slut-shaming in the British media, a warning note about the dangers of dick pics, a harrowing example of how vicious divorce can get, the BBC really do know how to wish us a merry Christmas! A spiritual follow-up to A Very English Scandal, A Very British Scandal was written by Sarah Phelps whose Agatha Christie adaptations briefly threatened to become a welcome festive institution but instead, there was a pivot.

And make no mistake, this is still a high quality 3 hours of a miniseries, blessed with two strong leads in Claire Foy and Paul Bettany and taken from a true story (with the requisite dramatic license) that is eye-wincingly lurid. The 1963 Argyll v Argyll divorce case was groundbreaking in terms of the salaciousness and scandalous detail that it included that was then widely published by the media in a way that had never been done before, not least in revealing the existence of explicit photos showing non-marital relations.

More crucially though, the divorce of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll and Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll (and thus this show) was two unlikeable, dishonest upper-class twits tearing lumps out of each other once the initial lust had died. Both had been previously married which was shocking enough for its time – she fancied his castle, he fancied her family’s fortune, both had a wandering eye…what could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, a hell of a lot. And Phelps’ drama makes no bones of the fact that neither party could easily be termed the injured one with the boldest of lies being wielded at the drop of a hat by both. What she does do though, is point up the inherent hypocrisies of a society that happily turned a blind eye to the behaviour of men whilst blaming the women for not being good enough wives to them. A point hammered home by it being Amanda Drew’s secretary Yvonne being the one to say this to Margaret.

Julia Davis is brilliant as icy frenemy Maureen Guinness, always on hand to let Margaret know what society thinks of her. And Jonathan Aris is chilling as the judge whose ultimate judgement is vehemently moralistic yet revealed to be laughably hollow by a kicker of a caption which reveals what happened just 5 months later. Claire Foy is excellent throughout, letting her chilly facade drop just a little (though the underexplored issue of her fall is a little frustratingly done) and Paul Bettany is appropriately repugnant as he shows what men could, and still do, get away with.

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