A Very British Scandal – Polaroid photos and the identity of the ‘headless man’

A photo of a 'headless' man was one of the key pieces of evidence used in the divorce case of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, which is due to be dramatised in the new BBC mini series A Very British Scandal.

The new drama, starring Claire Foy and Paul Bettany as the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, looks at their relationship and high profile divorce, which accused Duchess of Argyll Margaret Campbell of having affairs with over 80 men.

After discovering explicit Polaroid photos, the Duke used these as evidence in the court case, including one that showed the Duchess wearing nothing but a string of pearls, standing next to a naked man whose head had been cut out of the photo.

The Polaroid has since become known as 'the photo of the headless man', and the man's identity has long been the subject of speculation, with many books and programmes debating who he could have been.

In 2000, a Channel 4 documentary sought to discover who the man really was, with two names in particular raised as possible candidates.

One of the men accused of being one of Margaret's lovers, and named on a list that the Duke of Argyll produced in court, was the Hollywood actor Douglas Fairbank Jr.

However, both Douglas and Margaret denied that he was the headless man.

In another revelation, the Channel 4 documentary looked at the rumour that the man was former Minister of Defence Duncan Sandys, who would later go on to be Winston Churchill's Son in Law.

In the documentary, the makers stated that Margaret said at the time that the only Polaroid camera in the country at the time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence – although the claims have never been confirmed.

They also claimed that Duncan Sandys agreed to resign following the scandal, but that his resignation was refused.

While the documentary suggested that both Duncan Sandys and Douglas Fairbank Jr could both possibly be the 'headless man', other sources have also speculated over the man's identity.

Speaking to the Daily Record, author Lyndsy Spence said that she had conducted extensive research into Margaret Campbell's life for her book The Grit in the Pearl: The Scandalous Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, which included speaking to a relative of the businessman Joe Thomas.

Joe Thomas was a New York stockbroker who Margaret was reported to have fallen in love with after the breakdown of her first marriage to Charles Sweeney, and it is claimed that he might be the man in the famous Polaroid photo.

She said: "There have been rumours over the years about who he was.

"In 2013, Margaret’s stepdaughter-in-law Lady Colin Campbell claimed the duchess had told her it was American airline executive Bill Lyons but I think I have stumbled upon the most likely truth.

"When I contacted the son of Joe Thomas, the New York stockbroker she fell in love with after her marriage to Charles Sweeney broke down, he told me about the Polaroids he had found in his dad’s trunk. These matched the ones Ian Campbell held up in court.

"The dates matched too as Margaret was in New York in 1947 and 1948 and Polaroid brought out their first camera in 1948."

While we may never know who the 'headless' man was, A Very British Scandal aims to look at the story behind one of the biggest court cases in history, and the lives of the people involved.

Talking about the series, actress Claire Foy who plays Margaret Campbell said: "The premise is that it is an untold story of something that was a scandal.

"It exploded in a way that now in present day, we seem to have forgotten about."

"That’s interesting in itself as these things that seem so serious at the time, on the front of the newspapers, and no one really remembers it at all," said Claire.

"You get to see behind it and ask the questions such as what may actually had gone on at the time and how it affected the individuals."

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