“People told such dreadful things and said such dreadful things about her in court and such awful names. She had such a conviction in her choices and behaviour and understanding what happened in their marriage that she just absolutely was not going to take any of that on herself ever.”
Such is the venom in the exchanges between the Duke and Duchess, it almost echoes Edward Albee’s 1962 play (and Mike Nichols 1966 film) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, about the disintegration of a marriage over the course of an evening. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Foy reveals that Albee’s play was a creative touchstone.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a real kind of thing for us in the dynamic of their relationship and how we could, not try and emulate it at all, but try and make interesting choices like they did in the play,” Foy says. “Maybe with different actors [you would have to take it more seriously], but, unfortunately, Paul and I are completely ridiculous people. We both love laughing, and we also want to enjoy our work.
“There was a limited time to shoot the whole thing, there’s never enough time, never enough money, those sorts of classics, but we really just enjoyed each other’s company. I’m just so grateful that we could have fun and a friendship while we were making it because it just meant that it was always interesting to come to work.”
The Duchess of Argyll was by no means the first celebrity, though when the list of her alleged affairs was read in court, she might have been one of the first women “doxxed”, that is, exposed as a target via the malicious release of private information.
The very specific context of the Duchess’s experience, Foy says, is that she did not regret her actions. “The affairs being exposed, and her love letters being exposed, and the photographs being exposed. For her, there was no shame in that action,” Foy says. “The idea that she might have thought she’d done wrong, that’s not what her response was.
“Her response, instead, was ‘how can this be allowed?’ Her innermost thoughts and the things she held dearest in her heart are these romantic relationships; it’s her self-esteem, who she is, what she identifies as [about] being desired and admired. That is a large portion of her character and who she is. To have that exposed, [she asked] ‘how can that be allowed?’ It was heartbreaking to her. And to watch someone that [she] loved go to any means, that there is no line of dignity, or nothing is sacred, [was] just mortifying.
“And then to have people like a prosecuting divorce lawyer speak words that a lover has spoken to you. It’s wrong,” Foy adds. “It’s not that she was ashamed by what was being said … she was ashamed this was happening, that this was allowed to happen and that her husband was allowed to break into her house and steal her property, and then it was permissible in court.”
Because A Very British Scandal and The Crown pass through the realm of Britain’s upper class in the 1960s, comparisons are inevitable, although the two women are tangibly a universe apart. As much as Elizabeth II was stitched up service, reserve and omniscient power, the Duchess of Argyll is a study in messy temperament. In many ways she is not the story’s villain. But equally, at times it is difficult to see the essential heroism – or anything redeeming – in her character.
“It was really amazing to play someone who behaved, basically, like a child,” Foy says, laughing. “Everything was everyone else’s fault. She was emotional, very able to scream, and shout and cry. In her book, she cries at a drop of a hat. She’s saying she’s crying all the time. I don’t think she was. I think she was able to live her life without tears the majority of the time, but pretty emotionally on the edge, but then also not emotionally eloquent.”
Equally, Foy says, it’s “delicious, really because you get to watch someone make awful choices, awful life choices. I love acting, and I hope I play lots of varied, different characters, but [she] was painful to play sometimes; someone that can’t help themselves. They can’t stop themselves.”
A Very British Scandal is streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Friday, April 22.
Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.