A brand-new show on the BBC A Very British Scandal will plunge viewers into a violent social divorce fight in the 1960s tabloids when one woman’s reputation was scraped through.
When it comes to the real people at the center of the story, including the infamous “headless man,” historian and biographer Sarah Gristwood examine how this case mirrors the shifting sentiments of society.
Duchess Margaret Campbell of Argyll was a public figure and a source of scandal even before she was a teenager. One of the most famous divorces of all time, her marriage to the Duke of Argyll was dissolved in 1963, and she would be known for it.
Polaroids taken by her husband and used as evidence revealed her engaged in a “gross kind of a sexual connection” with an unnamed guy, which the presiding judge described as “gross.”
Divorce shook the 1960s Britain and revealed a shift in the nation’s mentality. The duchess and the duke may have lost some of their humanity as a result of time and distance.
The Argylls in the upcoming miniseries A Very British Scandal, starring Claire Foy and Paul Bettany, must be hoping to remedy that. When it comes down to it, the truth is stranger than fiction, and this tale proves that.
Margaret and Ian Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll on Top of a Landrover in the Highlands
Margaret Whigham, the daughter of a Scottish self-made millionaire, was brought up in a privileged but emotionally unstable environment in New York City, where she was educated.
Having been engaged to the Prince of Aly Khan, Earl of Warwick, Lord Beaverbrook’s son, and married billionaire sportsmen Glen Kidston by the time she was 19, she was a seasoned pro.
She had also, according to one of her would-be biographers, given birth to a child with a young David Niven and had an abortion illegally.
As a young woman of twenty in 1933, she tied the knot with American-born socialite and businessman Charles Sweeny. Her wedding gown garnered so much attention that traffic in Knightsbridge was shut down for three hours.
‘Mrs. Sweeny would be mentioned in one version of Cole Porter’s classic song ‘You’re the Top’ because of her prominence. They separated in 1947 — an amicable split by modern standards – after 13 years of marriage, two children, one stillbirth, and eight miscarriages.
Paul Bettany and Claire Foy Star in “a Very British Scandal” as the Duke and Duchess of Argyll
Margaret’s marriage to the 11th Duke of Argyll, on the other hand, was doomed from the outset. Among many other honors, Ian Campbell was the head of his clan, a Hereditary Master of the Royal Household in Scotland, and much more. While in Germany as a POW in World War II, he developed an addiction to alcohol, gambling, and prescription pharmaceuticals.
It was reported that his first two wives were subjected to his physical and mental abuse and that he was hell-bent on preserving Inveraray Castle, the seat of his royal lineage. One of the coldest and nastiest individuals I’ve ever encountered, according to novelist Norman Mailer, who married the Duke of Argyll’s second wife.
The Duke and Duchess of Argyll’s Divorce Were for Several Reasons
The Argyll divorce case of 1963 was the end of a five-year legal fight between the couple’s separated spouses. Margaret fabricated evidence to imply that the duke’s children from a previous marriage were illegitimate and accused the duke of adultery with her own stepmother throughout the lengthy judicial procedure that followed.
A court order was issued to restrict her from returning to Inveraray, and her home was searched for her private documents. Then there were the polaroids that were so incriminating.
From the upcoming BBC program A Very British Scandal, a newspaper headline focusing on the Duchess of Argyll.
Photographs of a woman, supposedly Margaret, with a three-strand pearl necklace, were lewd and filthy. As evidence in the divorce case, the public’s attention focused on the identity of the guy whose head could not be seen, and who Margaret would not name.
Did Anyone Ever Find Out What Happened to the “Headless Man”?
Margaret had a slew of well-known suitors, including Winston Churchill’s grandson-in-law Duncan Sandys, German diplomat Sigismund von Braun, two well-to-do Americans, and movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Defence Minister and Winston Churchill’s Grandson-in-law Duncan Sandys
As part of her trial, the judge referred to Margaret as “a highly-sexed lady who had ceased to be pleased with regular relations” — 88 prospective possibilities were mentioned. During the trial, it was also argued that an event two decades earlier created what the day called nymphomania in her.
During a period when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, it might be stated that many of the men she loved companionship with were gay, but she refused to jeopardize them by mentioning it.
A Year of Controversy
In the first few months of 1963, three major scandals were broken, all of which were related to the perceptions of the press and the public. This case included British Embassy official John Vassall, who was photographed in bed with three other nude men and subsequently blackmailed by the KGB after being captured in a “honey trap.”
In England, he continued to leak documents to the KGB until his capture, conviction, and punishment in October 1962, after which he was returned to the Soviet Union.
Even as the issue proceeded to escalate, a Lord of the Admiralty’s resignation and a witch hunt in official circles started by Vassall’s description of a quest for communists rather than homosexual individuals were provoked by it.
The Profumo Affair was brought to light during the same spring of 1963 that the Argylls clashes reached a crescendo. John Profumo met Christine Keeler at the Cliveden swimming pool in the summer of 1961, when he was Secretary of State for War. Eugene Ivanov, the Russian naval attaché and spy, was also in attendance, as was another one of Keeler’s boyfriends.
Funny scenes of Profumo and Keeler meeting at the front entrance as the Russian spy left through the back door occurred during their brief relationship. In the autumn of 1962, two of Keeler’s other boyfriends got into a knife fight, which brought her to the notice of the police and the general public.
She informed the newspapers in January 1963 that if they wanted articles, she could offer them another, better one. That February, two journalists would be imprisoned for refusing to identify their sources over the Vassall Affair, and an angry press was anxious for anything that may bring shame on Harold Macmillan’s government.
At This Time in October 1962, John Profumo
When it came to Argyll, as in all three high-profile cases that made the spring of 1963 an entire season of scandals, other difficult connections also surfaced.
“The case shed light on the connections between Fleet Street and the Establishment, as well as the nexus between sex and politics. When it came to the early 1960s, a new sexual morality was on its way.
It wasn’t until weeks later, after the finalization of the Argyll divorce and after Profumo resigned from both the government and Parliament, that Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls, met with the duchess as well as the men who were thought most likely to be her headless lovers.
Because of her friendship with Duncan Sandys, a well-known member of her social circle, it was assumed that she, too, posed a security concern.
Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, Vanished Without a Trace
When a controversy erupted over her divorce, Margaret’s reputation was never the same again. She died in 1993, two decades after her marriage to the Duke of Argyll ended. The duke would be less demonized, in line with the prevailing sentiments at the time.
He condemned her as “a thoroughly promiscuous lady” in his withering 50,000-word ruling. “Enlightened” was a word he used to describe her attitude toward marriage, which he was known for.
With Her Lapdog, the Duchess of Argyll, Margaret Campbell
However, ladies who had sat in the public gallery and saw the trial submitted letters of support. Moreover, the show’s creator, Sarah Phelps, claims that she has “been penalized for being a woman…for being visible…for refusing to back down, be a nice girl and go peacefully.”
Her private conversations were breached, and she was subjected to humiliation in a home context, according to today’s standards. Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, may become a modern-day heroine thanks to A Very British Scandal, despite the fact that she hasn’t been viewed that way for half a century.