A Very British Scandal is the highly anticipated mini series that’s airing tonight on BBC One. Here’s what we thought of the first episode.
While winter television has been a delight, there’s one series that has everyone’s attention and the good news is – it’s airing on BBC One on Boxing Day.
It sounds ludicrous to a modern audience – and that’s part of the current drama’s appeal – but it was her divorce from the Duke of Argyll that saw Margaret become the focus of intense media onslaught. Newspapers sought to vilify, humiliate and dehumanise her, and the new BBC series is most concerned with showcasing the woman behind the headlines.
The first episode transports you straight into the action of it all and we’re introduced to a composed Margaret, sat in the back of a car that is being steadily ambushed by passersby.
“You’re scum”, “hussy”, “you’re disgusting”, “slut” are some of the insults flung her way and then, almost as soon as you realise what people are shouting at her, one woman leans over to spit at the window closest to Margaret, shocking her out of her trance.
This powerful introduction sets the tone for the events to come in this first episode, but most interestingly, the way an ambushed Margaret remains collected in the face of scutiny.
It’s 1963 and the press swirls around Margaret as she enters the Edinburgh Court of Session for the expectedly dramatic divorce proceedings that form the basis of this series’ premise. The first time we hear Margaret speak is when the Duke (WandaVision and Wimbledon actor Paul Bettany) approaches her in a terse exchange.
“I saw the crowds – how was the reception?” The rhetorical question is asked smugly while the Duke saunters down a staircase.
“We’ve both played a spirited game but we both know you don’t have the guts for this.
He continues: “Margaret, I want to give you one last chance because I’m an honourable man. I’ll go in there, talk to my QC and this will all be over. There’ll be no need for you to be confronted with … the evidence. Just nod your head.”
It’s clear, even in this first scene, that the Duke believes that there is a power dynamic at play here. Even by ordering Margaret to obey his command of nodding her head, he believes that he has the upper hand.
“I think you better take your seat,” Margaret states as she walks past him and into the courtroom, ready to give her testimony. While we’re yet to understand what “the evidence” is or what the mood of the courtroom is, one thing’s for certain: Margaret is a woman who is not afraid of standing up for herself and what she believes in, even if it means being hated in the process.
It’s a theme that follows the young, popular socialite throughout the enthralling first episode. As we go back to the past, before their marriage to one another, we see Margaret as a woman in her own right, without the Duke by her side.
She floats around London, goes to parties, catches up with girlfriends and looks classically stylish in the process. She’s the daughter of a new money family and, recently divorced, we see that Margaret was the talk of (positive) newspaper frontals long before her relation to the Duke. She was a style icon, the talk of the town – in the best possible way.
While this is a historical drama based on true events, we do know from that opening scene and prior knowledge, that Margaret’s subsequent reputation was torn apart. Rather than the woman everyone wished to be, she was set up by the media as a sex addict, promiscuous and all the other misogynistic tropes that are reminiscent of tabloid articles.
At the heart of this BBC series, though, is the acknowledgement that Margaret was a woman who enjoyed sex and won’t be made to feel ashamed of it.
After a night of partying and passion with one of the men there, Margaret and her friend Maureen are sat in a stately home getting pedicures by the maids. What should be a relaxed, hungover morning quickly turns to the type of conversation that could lead to a major falling out.
But it’s this scene that underpins what is so endearing about Margaret and her attitudes towards sex – something that is refreshing to see within the historical drama genre and is so precisely executed here through Foy’s stellar delivery.
Maureen speaks about taking her child to the zoo and being fascinated by the monkeys there, particularly the bonobo, a specific type of ape.
“Everything they do is about sex,” she shares. “They meet a new bonobo; they have sex with them. Sticking it in and out dear, ‘hello, how do you do?’.”
Maureen continues laughing: “In and out non-stop, it’s how they make friends. And I thought – that’s Margaret. In and out, in and out – Margaret is a bonobo.”
Again, we’re reminded that Margaret doesn’t shy away from confrontation and prefers brutal honesty. Her plain facial expression throughout Maureen’s tale shows that she doesn’t find the anecdote funny at all and remarks: “It’s not my fault that you don’t like it Maureen and that you’re no good at it.”
“I do like it, I like it very much and I am extremely good at it – but that’s not my fault.”
On top of feeling a major dose of second-hand embarrassment for Maureen, you can’t help but smile at the refreshing honesty that is central to Margaret’s character.
A Very British Scandal captures a time period where attitudes towards sex were still less than progressive. It is also being released at a time, and to a modern audience, where sex-positive thinking is still being striven for.
Misogyny and patriarchal attitudes towards our bodies and sex still continue to exist today but in giving a voice – an unashamed and honest one – to a historically demeaning case such as the Duchess of Argyll’s, the BBC have delivered a captivating series with more relevance than most historical dramas.
A Very British Scandal premieres on 26 December 2021 on BBC One and BBC iPlayer.