As The Crown's Queen Elizabeth II, Claire Foy captured the monarch's steely resolve at maintaining social standards. But in her latest role as the real-life disgraced Duchess of Argyll in Amazon's A Very British Scandal, the two-time Emmy winner embodies a woman who thumbed her nose at those same conventions, only to pay the price via a humiliating divorce trial.
The follow-up to 2018's award-winning A Very English Scandal — think Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw in an affair-turned-assassination attempt — finds Foy and Paul Bettany as Margaret and Ian Campbell, whose sordid 1963 split saw the duke take his well-heeled wife to court over illicit photos of herself and an unidentified lover. Though the three-episode series takes some artistic liberties, the shaming that the duchess — once regarded as London's most desirable debutante — was subjected to over her sexuality is very real. As the show notes, the judge who granted the Campbells their divorce spent more than three hours lambasting Margaret, accused by her husband of having as many as 88 lovers, as a "wholly immoral" and "completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men."
Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment, Foy says that she was "really struck with the injustice" of Margaret's story. The show doesn't gloss over the duchess's flaws — among them, self-absorption and a willingness to deceive — but her vilification as a promiscuous pariah by her husband and the media was egregious.
"You can't believe someone was allowed to be treated like that," the British actress says. "Regardless of how much privilege they have, regardless of their behavior and any choices they make in their life, that doesn't justify the treatment that she received."
Writer Sarah Phelps has said in interviews that she had the media's blistering treatment of another duchess — Meghan Markle — top of mind when she worked on the script. Foy personally didn't make that royal connection, but she does recognize a general appetite for seeing public figures fall from grace.
"I think that there's real delight in bringing people down," Foy says, "and enjoying people who are supposed to be behaving incredibly well, behaving terribly, or the judgment of other people and deciding to write someone off as a human being when you've never met them. I think that's just part of our culture — at the moment, especially; the fact that there can be an overwhelming surge of people in judgment of someone. I think it must be overwhelming if you're on the end of it."
While Margaret, who died virtually penniless in 1993, was pilloried in the press, the ensuing years have drummed up more sympathy for the woman who refused to back down in the face of her estranged husband's allegations. Rather than bow to Campbell's demands and settle the matter privately, she defiantly fought her case. At the same time, she never named the "headless man" pictured with her in those provocative Polaroids, nor did she reveal that many of the lovers she was accused of having were in fact gay men, whose public outing would have brought them legal trouble given that taking part in homosexual sexual acts was a criminal offense at the time.
"We're lucky that Margaret kept going with the divorce case because otherwise, the story wouldn't be being told," says Foy, who notes that the duchess had a "conviction" that the court would see through the injustice of the divorce case. "I really believe that basically the whole time she just knew that someone would turn around and go, 'Oh my God, we've realized that we're vilifying the wrong person. He's a terrible man and she's the wronged woman.'"
Leading man Bettany is a formidable foil as the Duke of Argyll, a profligate who veers from charming to cold to downright cruel. In real life, however, Foy calls her acting partner "so full of life and humor."
"He's so generous and was so kind, and we really supported each other the whole time," she says of her co-star.
When it comes to their characters, however, there's little love lost. While the duchess maintained for decades that she had truly loved Ian Campbell, nobody came out of that marriage completely blame-less. For Foy, it was crucial to bring Margaret's sharp edges to life for the sake of nuanced storytelling. After all, two things can be true at the same time: A person can sometimes be wrong, and still be wronged.
"She was quite vain and selfish and entitled," she says of Margaret. "And so I think that if [the divorce trial] had gone her way, you never would've heard the end of it. Basically, she would've reveled in that because that's who she was.
"I never wanted to try and shy away from the reality of this woman and give her different attributes so that people went along with the story," she adds. "I thought it was really important for people to really see her as who she was — or at least aspects of her character — and to really test the audience to still be able to sympathize with her, this deeply questionable person."
A Very British Scandal premieres on Friday, April 22 on Amazon Prime.