‘A Very British Scandal’: There Are Parallels Between Meghan Markle and The Duchess of Argyll, Show’s Writer Says

In A Very British Scandal (streaming now on Prime Video), The Crown’s Claire Foy plays a duchess whose private life became tabloid fodder during her high-profile 1963 divorce. It’s based on the true story of the split between Margaret Campbell, the Duchess of Argyll, and her husband, Ian Campbell, the Duke of Argyll. But the show’s writer was also thinking about a far more recent media frenzy over a woman who shook up the British aristocracy: Meghan Markle. 

Claire Foy and Paul Bettany go to war in ‘A Very British Scandal’ 

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A Very British Scandal focuses on Ian and Margaret’s troubled marriage, which ended with a high-profile court case.  The duke didn’t just accuse his wife of infidelity. He produced evidence of her affairs in the form of scandalous Polaroids. One notorious snapshot showed Margaret, wearing nothing but her trademark pearls, performing a sex act on an unidentified man. 

The photo earned Margaret a new nickname: the Dirty Duchess. She was publicly shamed in the media, and the judge in the case described her as “a highly sexed woman who … has started to indulge in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite” (via Vanity Fair). 

Not much has changed for women in the intervening half-century, Foy said in a 2021 interview with the BBC ahead of the show’s U.K. premiere. 

“The way she was treated is how some women are treated today,” she said. “It was so apparent that who she was, her sexuality, her as a woman, the way she behaved, her choices in life were used against her and to judge her character.”

Sarah Phelps thought of Meghan Markle when writing ‘A Very British Scandal’ 

Black and white photo of the Duchess of Argyll next to color image of Meghan Markle at 2022 Invictus Games
[L-R] Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll; Meghan Markle | Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Patrick van Katwijk/Getty Images

A Very British Scandal screenwriter Sarah Phelps also noted the way women are judged by the media. She drew a comparison between the Duchess of Argyll and Meghan Markle. 

“I think a lot about Meghan Markle and about how much the press hate her, how much they absolutely go for her all the time compared with Kate Middleton,” Phelps said, according to Radio Times. “And there’s a kind of prevailing idea that if you’re in the public eye, you’re fair game, you’re meat. If you put yourself out there, you’re meat, and if you get bruised, so what? That’s your job. Your job is to be ripped apart by us. And that’s who I thought a lot about when I was writing this.”

Margaret Campbell had ‘a scarlet letter around her neck’ 

Claire Foy as Margaret Campbell, holding a champagne coupe, in 'A Very British Scandal'
Claire Foy as Margaret Campbell in ‘A Very British Scandal’ | Alan Peebles/ SCANDAL PRODUCTIONS LIMITED & BLUEPRINT TELEVISION LIMITED & CPT Holdings, Inc.

As A Very British Scandal shows, Margaret was a complicated woman. She didn’t hesitate to make some underhanded efforts to get what she wanted. But for Phelps, she’s also a person to be admired.

 “She’s sort of brilliant and tragic in a way, but also triumphant,” she told Vanity Fair. “Because imagine the guts after that judgment is published in the paper … to get up in the morning, put your poodle on its leash, put on your lipstick, put on your pearls, and take your poodle to the park? Imagine the courage that takes.”

The duchess “was on trial for being a sexual woman,” Phelps said. The judge “took Margaret, hung a scarlet letter around her neck, and hung her out for the crowds to pick at her. If Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, gets away with this, what will all women do?”

A Very British Scandal is streaming now on Prime Video. 

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