The Crown star Claire Foy swaps Queen for ‘Dirty Duchess’ with new film role


First she was the Queen, now Claire Foy is preparing to play a duchess… although this particular role will be far more revealing.

The star of The Crown plays one of Britain’s most scandalous aristocrats – Margaret Campbell, the so-called “Dirty Duchess”.

Her lovers reportedly included comedy giant Bob Hope, French singer Maurice Chevalier and British actor David Niven.

Claire, 36, will star opposite Paul Bettany as her husband in A Very British Scandal.

The film, being made later this year, will focus on the notorious 1963 divorce case between the warring pair – one that left the duchess ostracised and penniless.

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The duke submitted pornographic pictures of his wife as proof, he claimed, of infidelity.

In one, Duchess of Argyll Margaret – naked but for a string of pearls – was performing a sex act on a man whose head was not visible.

Dozens more Polaroid snaps were put before a judge. But there were claims some pictures were doctored and that others were taken before the duke and duchess married.

And screenwriter Sarah Phelps has hinted she will paint the duchess in a more sympathetic light – looking at attitudes towards women at the time and questioning whether institutional misogyny was widespread.

Biographer Lyndsy Spence says the reality was that the duchess was simply ahead of her time and, she claims, lived in an open marriage by the time of her divorce.

Lyndsy, author of The Grit in the Pearl: The Scandalous Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, says: “She was a victim of circumstance, of her time, but she wouldn’t want to be seen as one because she was a strong woman who never apologised for who she was.”

The duke told a court his wife’s insatiable sexual appetite could not be met and claimed she had 88 affairs. Lovers reportedly included Hollywood stars, royals, and Cabinet ministers.

The divorce case led to her cruel nickname – while the identity of the headless man caused much hysteria.

Lyndsy says: “She never disclosed who the man was, which I think says a lot about her integrity.

“There was nothing of the modern kiss-and-tell girl about her. But there was a real injustice here – that people felt she was a sad character.

“She became the Dirty Duchess. Pictures of the Duchess of Argyll boat were published with the caption ‘queue here’.

She was made a mockery of. But after court, women in the gallery would approach her and tell her how courageous they thought she was, and that she had been wrongly treated.

“Women just didn’t have a voice. Today, ordinary people would have had far more sympathy. The reality was they were living separate lives.

“The duke had been divorced by a former wife for domestic violence and was determined he’d be the one doing the divorcing this time.

“He was unfaithful but it was Margaret who became the villain.”

Lyndsy also calls into question some images supplied to the judge.

She says: “The Duke had a huge collection of pornographic French postcards and Margaret maintained some pictures given to the judge were doctored. I believe her because she never denied anything else but she always insisted on that – and they were very out of focus.”

Even the origins of the Polaroids have been doubted. Lyndsy adds: “They appear to have been taken in the 1940s before Margaret was even married. But the duke needed to prove adultery and had it there in black and white.

She always insisted she was the first to have a Polaroid camera. That was around 1947, a time she was engaged to Texan stockbroker Joe Thomas.

“I met his son who told me he found the same pictures of his father with Margaret, but he had not realised who the woman was until the divorce case made headlines across the world.”

The duchess was born Margaret Whigham in 1912, only child of a Scottish millionaire.

Her Hollywood-inspired beauty was renowned and she was high society’s debutante of the year in 1930.

She courted millionaires and a prince.

She was just 15 when future film star David Niven, two years her senior, got her pregnant while holidaying on the Isle of Wight.

Her furious father sent her to London for a secret termination.

Margaret married US golfer and gambler Charles Sweeny in 1933. They had three children, though one was stillborn. They divorced in 1947.

Lyndsy says: “She was very faithful to her first husband – a good mother who loved the upper-class life of charities and luncheon parties.

“But when she hit 30 she realised how much she’d missed out on. She was divorced after her husband cheated and after that she was more open with her relationships. She was very modern in that sense.”

In 1951 she married Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, the third of his four marriages.

They lived a life of luxury, flitting between Inveraray Castle in western Scotland and a house in London’s Mayfair.

But by 1954 he accused her of a string of affairs – with showbiz stars Hope and Chevalier among the alleged lovers.

The duke got an injunction barring her from the castle – renovated with £100,000 of her money.

He referred to his wife as “S” for Satan, while she said his drinking made life intolerable. From her diary, the duke unravelled days of illicit encounters. He found letters and racy snaps.

After years of wrangling, the 11-day divorce case was heard in 1962.

The duke was granted legal separation on the grounds of her adultery with Peter Combe – the possible “headless man”.

Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, the Tory minister Duncan Sandys, was another name bandied about. By now hard-up, Margaret opened her 13-bedroom house on London’s Upper Grosvenor Street to tourists.

She died penniless in 1993, aged 80. Lyndsy says: “She died in a nursing home with bars on the window and a shared bathroom which would have been awful for a woman who once mixed in high society.

“She used to sit in the lobby and as people walked past she thought she was on the Queen Mary. It was thought she had dementia.

“But she would want to be remembered as a strong woman who always took accountability for who she was.”

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