Superb. But I can’t see ‘Queen Claire’ as a sex-mad socialite
A Very British Scandal
BBC1, Sunday to Tuesday
The BBC’s flagship offering over the Christmas period was A Very British Scandal, the dramatisation of the vicious, sensational divorce in 1963 between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll involving multiple accusations of infidelity and the infamous photograph of ‘The Headless Man’, which may be the first recorded incident of ‘revenge porn’.
This was not festive. This was not Call The Midwife with an uplifting message. (How was CTM this year? I couldn’t face it. Were some good lessons learned?)
Instead, it was three hours of a toxic marriage and two people being vile to each other over and over.
A shimmering, mesmerising Claire Foy starred as the duchess and Paul Bettany as the Duke of Argyll (above, with Foy)
(Just when you thought there were no more ways to be vile, they would think of a new one. I know, I’ll forge letters from his ex-wife and illegitimise his heirs! I know, I’ll break into her house in the middle of the night, pin her to her bed and steal her diary!)
Yet it was also gripping, with marvellous performances and superb production values and, on a cheerier note, it made you glad you were neither aristocratic nor rich. Even though you wouldn’t mind a castle on a loch. (I wouldn’t mind, to be fair.)
A shimmering, mesmerising Claire Foy starred as the duchess, formerly Margaret Whigham, an It Girl of her day, a one-time Debutante of the Year and such a famed society beauty that she was even mentioned in a Cole Porter song, You’re The Top.
However, this opened with her trapped in the back of a limousine outside court with the public shouting ‘Slut!’ at her. How did we get to this point?
We spool back 16 years to when she first met the Duke of Argyll (Paul Bettany, never better) on a train.
He likes her fortune (her father is a Scottish textile millionaire) and she likes his title and castle. (Inveraray, still owned by the family, and now open to the public. See the room where he tried to strangle her!)
She’s just divorced her first husband. He’s already married but ditches that wife and they get hitched. He carries her over the castle threshold and, just in that single moment, when she protests and he won’t put her down, you understand: these are people who cannot love.
This was not festive. This was not Call The Midwife with an uplifting message. Instead, it was three hours of a toxic marriage and two people being vile to each other over and over
The script by Sarah Phelps, who usually gives us new adaptations of Agatha Christie for Christmas, including The Pale Horse, the one no one understood, was wonderfully subtle.
It did not spell out the misogyny of the time. But you gleaned enough. It did not spell out how damaged these two people were. But you gleaned enough.
Like that one scene between Margaret and her mother which showed you how coldly and callously she’d been brought up and, in fact, Margaret stammered because she was left-handed, for which her mother would hit her. (I learned this through reading up later.)
Parenting. It wasn’t really anyone’s thing. Money and sex. They counted. (Her father was doting but an incorrigible philanderer.)
As alluded to here but not fully explained, Margaret had actually become pregnant at 15 by a teenage David Niven and had an abortion. That must have been a fun day out.
You weren’t asked to sympathise but you did get a sense of how the pair had been shaped.
Most tantalisingly, there were moments of tenderness – when he had pneumonia, when he tried to give up alcohol and amphetamines – but they quickly lapsed back into cruelty.
He was spectacularly cruel. Bleeding her fortune dry, cheating her father, pinning her down in the middle of the night, stealing that photograph – the one of a sexual act where the man can’t be identified but she can by her trademark three-string pearls.
She lied, forged letters, sought to buy a baby as if it were a bag of spuds. This could have been repetitive – which vile route will they take next? – but it was riveting.
Not just for its portrayal of astoundingly selfish, entitled, pointless people – ‘What are you for?’ he asks her – but also for how lonely they were. That was always thrumming in the background. He maintained she had slept with 88 men.
A (fairweather) friend – deliciously played by Julia Davis – had noted that she had the sexual appetite of a ‘bonobo’. But she knew of no other way to connect. Or be useful. It was all fascinatingly disturbing.
The production values were truly superb. The furs, the cars, the houses, the jewellery, the castle, the parties, her hair, her lips, which were always a slash of red. Amazing.
And this was amazingly performed. Foy was spellbinding, even if she did not give off a sexually voracious vibe. (This may just be because she played the Queen in The Crown and I couldn’t marry the two.)
But I’ve awarded four stars rather than five because, while compelling, it was never emotionally involving.
The Duke, in an extremely rare moment of self-knowledge, confides ‘I don’t feel anything’ and I thought, me neither. But, alternatively, perhaps it intended to leave us as empty as they were. Perhaps that was rather its point.
Or ‘rah-thar’, as they would say.
And finally? Happy New Year. Plus, if you’re planning any days out for 2022, you could try Inveraray. See the paintings he cheated her out of! (Also, there’s a caff.)