A Very British Scandal’s script can’t live up to Claire Foy’s performance

The Duchess of Argyll (Claire Foy) sat on a wooden bench in court. She's wearing a grey/silver coat with a big collar, a matching hat, and a three strand pearl necklace. Her eyes are a piercing blue. Behind her sits an out-of-focus lawyer, wearing a powdered wig.

A Very British Scandal charts the burgeoning relationship and eventual deeply hostile divorce between Ian (Paul Bettany) and Margaret Campbell (Claire Foy), the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. The divorce itself was one of the most heavily publicised of the 20th century, attracting fervent media attention because of both its novelty and its salaciousness: the Duke accused his wife of adultery and insisted that the Duchess had had relations with as many as 88 other men.

As evidence – and the chief reason why Argyll v Argyll lodged so firmly in the public imagination, notorious then and remembered now – the Duke presented intimate polaroids of the Duchess with another man, stolen from her Mayfair home. (In real-life, Campbell hired a locksmith to acquire the photos, though in writer Sarah Phelps’ account he breaks in himself.) Crucially, the other man couldn’t be identified from the photo, prompting waves of speculation as to who he might be; potential candidates included movie stars and prominent politicians, which served only to heighten the level of popular interest in the Argyll divorce.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise the already acrimonious Argyll divorce presented itself as a potential follow up to 2018’s A Very English Scandal. Comparisons between the two often largely aren’t particularly useful – though nominally an anthology, it’s clearly a very loose one, and the two dramas share little in terms of style and tone. Where the earlier series was irreverent, this one is austere, leaving Sarah Phelps’ sequel to Russell T Davies’ series feeling very distinctly its own piece. Both however are about shame and sexuality, and those shared themes tie the two together.

I wasn’t particularly impressed by A Very British Scandal – perhaps in part because it was so obviously weaker than its predecessor, perhaps because of deep-seated flaws when taken on its own terms. In any case, I was never quite convinced that the Argyll divorce was a story worth dramatising, as I explain above.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.

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