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A Duchess Brought Low by ‘A Very British Scandal’

During the trial, the duke submitted a list of 88 men he said the duchess had slept with during their marriage, as well as Polaroids he had stolen from her that showed the duchess performing oral sex on an unknown man whose head was not in the frame.

Ruling in the duke’s favor to grant the divorce in 1963, the judge said the duchess was a “completely promiscuous woman” who had indulged “in disgusting sexual activities to gratify a debased sexual appetite.” The details of the “headless man” photos were gleefully written up in British newspapers, which raked over the case for months. Margaret the glittering socialite became Margaret “the dirty duchess.”

Over the rest of her life, she frittered away the fortune she inherited from her father on a series of unsuccessful law suits and dubious investments. Her personal relations didn’t fare much better: She fell out with a daughter from her first marriage, and many of her friends. The duchess died in penury, at 80, in a London retirement home. The first hymn at her funeral, in 1993, began, “Dear Lord and father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways.”

Sarah Phelps, who wrote the script for “A Very British Scandal,” said that the duchess’s case and the media furor around it represented “the end of an era.” It was “the birth of a different kind of journalism, and a way of writing about sex and scandal in a very, very prurient way,” she said. And it paved the way for later media depictions of Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse and Meghan Markle — “that viciousness and anger that is directed at women in the public eye,” she said.

When the initial outrage faded, the duchess remained the subject of snickering innuendos for decades. Grinning men would pose for photos beside the boarding sign for a Scottish boat that shared her name: “Queue here for the Duchess of Argyll.”

Today’s TV audiences will have more sympathy for the duchess, who now looks like a victim of “slut-shaming,” and the nonconsensual sharing of her photos like “revenge porn.” It’s unlikely many viewers will judge her for a sex act that some women’s magazines now offer tips on performing. Yet they might still find it hard to warm to the duchess, who Foy plays as an arrogant, scheming snob.

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