Duchess of Argyle & A Very British Scandal: Whatever happened to the good old sex scandal?

SEXUAL intercourse, as Philip Larkin observed in his poem Annus Mirabilis, began in 1963, “Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”.

Like rock and roll, or DH Lawrence’s literary reputation, it had a pretty good run, but clearly no longer has the popularity it once did. All the same, it’s still fodder for a certain kind of nostalgia – as in this year’s big Christmas TV offering, A Very British Scandal.

In that respect, it’s a bit like popular opinion of the Royal Family; to be enjoyed only through the lens of irony and artfully distorted history. The programme has, in fact, capitalised on the similarity by casting the wonderful Clare Foy in the lead role, just as The Crown did. A Very British Scandal is set in 1963, the year in which the country was gripped by the (then) astonishingly graphic revelations of the divorce case of Argyll v Argyll. The unrestrained joy with which the newspapers fell upon the details of the case is easy to understand, at least in the context of the times.

It featured amazingly callous behaviour on both sides, plenty of debt, money and conspicuous consumption, forgery, allegations of promiscuity involving dozens of well-known figures, and photographs of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll “performing” – as the tabloids always used to put it – sexual acts with men whose identity was unknown.

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The last of these allowed plenty of scope for speculating about possible candidates drawn from Parliament and Hollywood. As it turned out, this was a perfect warm-up for coverage of the Profumo Affair, which followed later that year, helped to bring down the Macmillan government, and inspired books, films, TV programmes and even a musical.

The Argyll case was sufficiently gripping, and the Duchess fascinating, that it’s surprising it’s not quite as well-known, though it was the subject of an opera by Thomas Adès and Philip Hensher in 1995, and stories about the former Margaret Sweeney were still a fairly regular item when I began working on diary columns a few years earlier (she died in 1993). I remember writing several myself, mainly about her getting evicted from the Park Lane hotel that had been her home, and moving to Pimlico, where I lived at the time.

So far (I’ve only seen the first episode), the TV series is doing the job of adapting this as prime-time entertainment tremendously well, but the publicity build-up for the programme tended to focus on aspects of the case that reflect current concerns, rather than the cheerful glee, beneath a veneer of moral humbug, with which reporters and readers greeted the revelations back then.

What, understandably, interests the reviewers and commentators now is how this story, with very contemporary themes of revenge porn and “slut-shaming”, gets told in the post-Yewtree and #MeToo era. Actually, I think the show is walking this tightrope pretty well, as did the previous hit from the same stable dealing with the Thorpe case, even though that case had not just sex, power and the establishment, but attempted murder, in the mix.

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It has not neglected the dramatic, titillating or comic elements in favour of po-faced sermonising that paints the Duchess as a victim, or turned the whole thing into a lecture on female empowerment and patriarchal oppression. Instead, it’s embraced the fact that everybody involved is utterly shallow and behaves extremely badly, while the performances are so good that the audience can feel some sympathy while marvelling at how awful they are.

But the fact that it’s not just out-and-out mockery played for laughs (which is what elevates the quality of the programme) also distinguishes it from the numerous sex scandals of what we might call the Larkin era. The long-standing existence of the species, after all, shows that Larkin meant prevailing attitudes to sexual behaviour, rather than the thing itself.

Just as George Orwell’s essay on the Decline of the English Murder (1946) looked back on the way the press had previously covered homicide, the appeal of a certain kind of case, and the kind of fiction (Golden Age detective stories) they inspired, what we might call the News of the World approach to sexual scandals is now as cancelled as that newspaper itself, and for similar reasons of shifts in public opinion.

Many of the tabloid splashes of old would now, rather than providing hypocritical tut-tutting from the net-curtain twitchers who actually loved reading all the salacious details, spark hand-wringing comment pieces. That’s mostly a good thing: the double standards, exploitation and frequent criminal abuse, sexual assault and rape involved in the Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein cases, or the pernicious omnipresence of internet pornography, were too often downplayed or ignored by the press in the past.

Stories such as that of Cynthia Payne, the suburban brothel-keeper who took luncheon vouchers and catered to a range of outwardly respectable establishment men, would nowadays at least have to question the degree of exploitation for the women involved, rather than simply playing up the “tarts and vicars” absurdity of the set-up.

But there’s not much call for straightforward affairs of marital infidelity or ludicrous, but not criminal, sexual preferences either. Cases such as those of the cabinet minister David Mellor, with their probably confected details of toe-sucking and dressing up in football strips, or of the F1 boss Max Mosley and his outré tastes, are not now much in fashion. (Mosley is arguably getting posthumously “cancelled”, but for his family’s connections with fascism, not his fondness for S&M.)

Things that would have ended careers 30 years ago hardly raise an eyebrow. When it comes to the Prime Minister’s extra-marital history, or Chris Bryant, the former priest and MP for the Rhondda, posing in his underpants on Gaydar, the public simply isn’t that censorious; indeed, newspaper accounts seemed, at the time, to increase the popular standing of both.

The recent exposure of Matt Hancock’s affair with his aide was mostly focused on the hypocrisy of Covid rule-breaking and the fact that she was a government employee. If there’s public money, abuse of power or – and even this, only to a much lesser extent than in the past – drug use involved, some interest may be drummed up. But otherwise the traditional front-page red-top sex scandal splash seems to be a thing of the past.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

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