Let’s start by understanding one thing- if ‘A Very English Scandal’ was about a person being gay and ‘A Very British Scandal’ is about a bad marriage. The three-episode series depicts the 12-year marriage and subsequent divorce of Margaret Campbell and Ian Campbell. Based on real-life, the show is a dramatization of a very controversial part of the life of a very controversial woman- Margaret Campbell.
‘A Very British Scandal’ Synopsis
To put it briefly, the story starts with the whirlwind romance of Margaret, where we see her ignoring multiple red flags till she gets what she wants, which is marriage to Ian Campbell and the title of the ‘Duchess of Argyll.’ Though we don’t hear her say it right away, it is conveyed that she did marry for love. Ian Campbell’s intentions, however, are much more complicated. This much-publicized marriage of an illustrious Duke with a glamorous figure of society starts showing signs of trouble right at the threshold.
Investments in a fruitless treasure hunt, an extravagant lifestyle without an income to support it which is funded by the Duchess, a drinking problem of the husband and a wife whose selfishness prompts her into devious plots which don’t stop at harming the innocent, the marriage was a recipe for disaster from the get-go. It is pretty evident that Ian Campbell does not respect Margaret in this marriage and only looks at her as a cash cow. And it is when the money starts drying up, we see a glimpse of a rather violent side of the Duke, which is when we can’t help asking a question on behalf of the Duchess, the same question as that of her husband, what is all this for?
However, after the passing of some time, they both decide to give their marriage another chance, even though Ian Campbell still has his suspicions about Margaret, which he keeps to himself. Upon a bit of investigation, he finds enough proof of some of his wife’s secrets and proceeds to use them ruthlessly to divorce her while still satisfying his entitlement.
The Characters & Their Conflict
The show being only three episodes long means that we don’t come to know the characters on a personal level, but there is still a sense of familiarity with them all, especially if you are a woman.
Let’s start with Ian Campbell, the very charming but nasty husband. Women recognize this man. We have heard of him, seen him in our families, seen him with our friends, and regretfully, seen him with ourselves many times over. He starts by sweeping Margaret off her feet, and his confidence and courtship explain to us how she started being attracted to him. Of course, there were multiple red flags, the biggest of the being that he was still married throughout that period, but it never mattered to Margaret, who had fallen in love and was selfish about it. This is where we see the trap that she lays for herself. Women are heavily conditioned to behave a certain way, a way that Margaret clearly does not care for, but that has never stopped her from getting exactly what she wants while simultaneously being the envy of others. And that’s what makes her believe that she has cracked the code, that she is different from the rest and even better and that she will definitely win. Sadly, that is her mistake because courage and perspective were never enough for a woman to win.
Ian is one of his drunken fits, which makes it clear that he thinks she has no intelligence to speak of, and he only cares for the money she brings into his life, and when he is sober, his actions repeat his sentiments. Despite all this, Margaret chooses to stay in the marriage, but she does seek happiness outside of it. She tends to her husband but does not ignore herself. She makes mistakes, of course, and we do not mean her affairs by that, but the steps she takes to alienate Ian from his children cannot be condoned in any shape or form, but it is impossible to say her motivations were corrupt.
It was evident that her husband intended to use her money to restore his property and leave none of it to her in the event of his death. Margaret needed to secure her future, not to be left destitute, and if she had come up with a scheme to do it that did not involve children, she would have had our full support for her actions. Currently, she has our silence. But the surprising thing is, through it all, the Duchess of Argyll does not have our sympathy. She doesn’t have it when she is literally swindled out of her money, and she doesn’t have it when she is brutally held at trial in the court of public opinion. It’s hard to feel sorry for a woman who can take care of herself, and do it with style. But the few instances which do end up tugging at our heartstrings are when we see how she is judged by other women.
The reason is that she is not judged for her selfishness or her obviously ‘out-of-line just taking what I want attitude. She’s judged when she demands better treatment from her husband and when she does not let the marriage shackle her pursuit of excitement and happiness. It is the women around her that disappoint us when they fail to see everything she does and judge her for the things she doesn’t do ‘as a woman and a wife.’ This kind of hits home because, again, as a woman, some of our greatest friends and shoulders to cry on are our female friends, but the harshest criticism can also come from them. But throughout the whole thing, we feel a certain hatred for Ian Campbell, admirably played by Paul Bettany. Sarah Phelps, the writer of the show, obviously recognized the man and made sure that we recognized him too.
‘A Very British Scandal’ Ending Explained
The ending of A Very British Scandal, to be completely honest, was as we expected. And that’s not because it is a well-documented chapter of history but because we know. It is a lesson taught to women over and over that there really is no winning. Like Margaret Campbell says towards the end, ‘The law or the world does not like a woman who is not sorry.’ She did have a win, though. By refusing to divorce the husband on his terms, she did find a shred of victory in her shame. It is a disappointment, though, that in real life, Ian Campbell remarried another wealthy woman about five weeks after the divorce, which means that he suffered absolutely no consequences for his actions, which, again, is pretty close to the real-life of many.
How does the show make you feel? Everything and nothing. Stories of a bad marriage hold a different depth for women. While you will facepalm at the actions of the Duchess and feel burning anger towards the Duke, you will feel your chest tighten at the memory of instances of the men around you exhibiting their inner Ian Campbell and the instances when you have lost a fight as a woman simply because of the iron clad double standards you deal with every day. It was a predictable ending, but that’s what sharpens its impact. It’s hard to recommend this show to others, simply because it leaves you drained by its relatability. But it does capture what it set out to, with precision. We doubt the show had a message; it was certainly in the tone of narration of history, but the perspective is sadly relevant to this day.
It is undeniable that the story needed to be retold in today’s age, so go ahead and watch A Very British Scandal and then reconsider the opinions you have had about every single woman ever, because you should. Let there be some fitting lessons, at least, that we learn from a woman who though entitled and arrogant, could not escape the claws of patriarchy and sexism.
A Very British Scandal is a 2021 Docu-Drama Television Series directed by Anne Sewitsky and written by Sarah Phelps. It stars Claire Foy and Paul Bettany in the lead roles.