Is the government still hiding the truth about Britain’s ‘Dirty Duchess’ 60 years later? | Television

Celebrated television writer Sarah Phelps, the woman behind the recent hit Agatha Christie adaptations, has revealed that research for her latest Christmas drama has convinced her that a 60-year-old mystery at the heart of the British establishment has yet to be solved.

Phelps, the author of A very British scandal, starring Claire Foy, told the Observer she suspects successive governments acted to hide from the public the full lewd details of a sensational 1960s divorce case.

Her new three-part drama, which begins Boxing Day on BBC One, tells the true story of a 1960s sex scandal that tarnished the gilded image of key members of the aristocracy. Phelps hopes her new screen version of the lawsuit between the 11th Duke of Argyll and his supposedly unstable “Dirty Duchess” will do something to restore the reputation of his wife, played by Foy. But the writer also believes that crucial facts about the Duchess’s adventurous sex life are still considered too sensitive to reveal.

Tory Minister Duncan Sandys and Diana Churchill
Tory minister Duncan Sandys – pictured at his 1935 wedding to Diana Churchill – was a ‘headless man’ candidate. Photo: JA Hampton/Getty Images

“The sin that Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, actually committed was the breaking of secrecy, the… Silence which protected the upper echelon of the upper classes,” Phelps said. Instead, sordid myths about the Duchess, myths that would later inspire Thomas Adès’ acclaimed opera Powder her face, have masked an episode of government lies and money laundering, argues Phelps.

The Argyll couple’s bitter divorce case dominated the front pages and columns of society in March 1963, centering on the riddle of a shocking series of erotic photos her husband had stolen from her desk. Commentators were particularly intrigued by the hidden identity of a man visible only from his neck in a naked Polaroid photograph taken in the 1950s and put forward by the Duke as evidence of his wife’s voracious sexual appetites and alleged 88 infidelity. The so-called “headless man” is depicted in a sexual act with the Duchess, and there is speculation as to who he might be.

Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks on his wedding day to Joan Crawford
Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr was another nominee for the “headless man.” Here he is pictured marrying the actress Joan Crawford in 1929. Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann archive

At one time, the movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr was a candidate, as were members of the royal family, the Pakistani prince, Aly Khan, Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook’s heir, several wealthy Americans and, perhaps most damagingly, the then secretary of state for the Commonwealth, Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, Duncan Sandys.

And the speculation didn’t stop long after the Duchess’ reputation was shattered and she suffered heavy financial losses.

In 2000, a Channel 4 documentary claimed it had an answer. Newly released government papers pointed to the involvement of two well-known men, rather than just one: Fairbanks and Sandys. Further classified evidence would lie in documents originally compiled in the 1960s by Lord Denning, the judge who was Master of the Rolls from 1962 to 1982, and then destined for destruction, as the law lord had assured his illustrious interviewees that names would be never be made public. But the file was instead sealed for 30 years.

It was finally shown to the then Prime Minister, John Major, in 1993, but he in turn ruled that the documents would not be released for another 70 years. They remain in the National Archives in Kew.

The Conservative government would have assumed this would end the matter. But other contemporary Westminster papers released under the same 30-year rule showed Sandys had considered resigning from Harold Macmillan’s government over the gossip surrounding the scandal.

On June 20, 1963, the Cabinet minutes record a discussion of setting up what soon became the Denning Inquiry: “The Commonwealth Secretary” [Sandys] said he himself was the subject of some of the rumors to which the prime minister had referred.

“In one sense, the allegations got him in trouble. For the rest, he denied them completely.”

Sandys died in 1987, but Lord Denning, who was still alive at the time, decided to speak out. He told the Independent newspaper he had irrefutable evidence that Sandys was not involved. He had later learned, Denning said, about physical features that made it impossible for the depicted torso to belong to the late Commonwealth Secretary. But Fairbanks, the movie star, remained in the picture.

Since then, the name of William Lyons, a married Pan-American airline, has been brought up as the Duchess’ lover by Lady Colin Campbell, a relative by marriage. And it was indeed known that Argyll was having a loving affair with a man she called Bill.

A recent biography of the Duchess also mentions the name of a Texas millionaire, Joe Thomas.

But Phelps isn’t convinced. After her lengthy investigation into the Duchess’s brutal legal battle and admittedly scandalous life, she believes a series of names have been released to cover up the truth.

“Why would John Major have extended the ban on releasing the trial documents for another 70 years?” she asked. “Was it really just someone like Bill Lyons in that photo? Would that be enough for the long-term ban, just to protect a prominent businessman?”

Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, died at the age of 80 in a nursing home in Pimlico, London, just days before the Major Government decided to keep all Lord Denning’s testimonies secret, including her own.

So the last official word on her is the damning verdict of the divorce judge, who described her as “a very sexed woman who was no longer satisfied with normal relationships and had begun to indulge in disgusting sexual activities”.

Phelps sees it differently: “Margaret’s image has been purposely destroyed in the case. In my opinion, the aristocracy is no worse than the rest of us. But they have a lot more time for debauchery and a lot more at stake.”

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