Stephen McGinty: The Duchess of Argyll showed that Scots could lead the way when it comes to pornographic pictures making a regular appearance in court

The Duke & Duchess of Argyll arrive at Turnhouse
The Duke & Duchess of Argyll arrive at Turnhouse
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IN THE warm, honey-coloured glow of independence, perhaps it will be different, but today it is surely fair to say that, to most people, Scotland is a nation not best known for the act of love.

While France and Spain revel in their reputations as lovers, the Scots can best be described as “erotically challenged”. Whether it is the long legacy of John Knox and his description of the “monstrous regiment” of women, or the dreich and cold that puts the perpetual dampener on our ardour, one thing is deemed to be certain: if Scotland was a pair of underwear, many would say we would be flannel Long Johns to France’s lacy thong.

Right? Well, I’m not so sure, for to our many celebrated achievements such as the invention of the telephone, television and Tarmac (we do so excel at the letter ‘T’) can be added the celebrity sex tape’.

When Tulisa Contostavlos, the lead singer from N-Dubz, a rap combo (or so I’m told) and judge on The X Factor, this week sent her lawyers to the High Court in London over a sex tape, she was following in the kitten-heeled footsteps of one Ethel Margaret Whigham, who was born in Newton Mearns, outside Glasgow, raised in New York and would become notorious around the world as the Duchess of Argyll, or, with apologies to Vermeer, the nude in the pearl necklace.

Today it has become almost common practice for the noble beaks of the British law courts to adjudicate on the authenticity and potential harm liable from the release of private explicit photographs or film footage, but, to all intents and purposes, it began during 11 days in 1962 when Ian Douglas Campbell, the 11th Duke of Argyll, sought a divorce from his wife, Margaret, who would famously say: “Go to bed early and often” – a generous invitation which Lord Wheatley, the Scots judge sitting in Edinburgh, concluded she had vigorously extended far beyond her husband.

For unlike all previous divorce cases which relied on testimony, witness statements or fake photographs set up by private detectives with both partners collusion, the evidence of Mrs Campbell’s adultery was a series of explicit Polaroid photographs. They had been obtained by Mr Campbell’s daughter, Lady Jeane, who sneaked inside her stepmother’s Mayfair home and stole her diary containing the pictures.

By utilising a cutting edge camera on a tripod and timer, the duchess had photographed herself naked, but for her signature three-strand pearl necklace, as she performed fellatio on a headless man, by which I mean, a man whose head was cropped out of the picture. (Let us not add necrophilia to the indignities she would later endure.)

A second photograph, which was also taken in the bathroom of the duchess’s London home in Upper Grosvenor Street, showed her naked, facing the camera and standing next to a man, who was also nude, but tall enough so that his head was, once again, out of frame. So, who was the headless man? Her husband provided the court with a list of 88 possible suspects, men with whom he believed his wife had been intimate, including two government ministers and three members of the Royal Family.

However, the identity of the headless man was restricted to five possible suspects: Duncan Sandys, then minister of defence and Winston Churchill’s son-in-law; John Cohane, an American businessman; Peter Combe, a press officer for the Savoy Hotel; Sigismund von Braun, diplomat and brother of the Nazi scientist Werner von Braun; and American actor Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.

As one of the Polaroid photographs had writing on the back saying “thinking of you”, an expert in handwriting later concluded that the recipient of the duchess’s lavish attention was Douglas Fairbanks Jnr (who denied his role in the drama until the day he died.) Later, however the duchess appeared to point the finger at Mr Sandys, having claimed that the “only Polaroid camera in the country at the time had been lent to the Ministry of Defence”.

Today, many believe the correct answer to be both, with Fairbanks Jnr in one, and Duncan Sandys in the other. However, the correct identity was immaterial to Lord Wheatley, for the case centre on the only individual whose identity was perfectly clear: Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.

In 1963 he took four and a half hours to read out a 50,000 word judgment granting the duke a divorce and excoriating his wife as “a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men, whose promiscuity had extended to perversion and whose attitude to the sanctity of marriage was what moderns call enlightened but which in plain language was wholly immoral”. The former duchess was not present in court to hear her name dyed black, instead she was at Jacques Griffe’s salon in Paris having a new dress fitted.

So why did she do it? Friends would later claim that her enthusiasm for sexual athletics was the result of taking a tumble down a lift shaft while on route to her chiropodist, the subsequent blow to her head depriving her of taste and smell and rendering her promiscuous. However, clearly she simply enjoyed sex. The desire to photograph herself was, perhaps, an erotic novelty as she and her lover were captivated by the new technology in cameras, which made such a decision possible. Yet what took place in that London bathroom in 1956 and what was revealed in an Edinburgh court- room six years later would become increasingly common.

Marilyn Monroe was alleged to have filmed a sex tape, one which future husband Joe DiMaggio attempted to buy back for $25,000, according to the FBI files. Yet by the 1990s and the advent of the tiny digital cameras and later camera phones, what a celebrity might have done out of desperation for cash was being performed through choice with their partners. Why? A voyeuristic pleasure, a memento of le Petit Mort, extreme narcissism? Who knows, but perhaps it is also tied in with the rise of pornography.

What has happened to Britain in the last 20 years has been a sexual revolution triggered, it could be argued, by New Labour, who despite the party’s long-term disapproval of pornography for its role in demeaning women, quietly decriminalised hardcore pornography in 1997. In 1992 Linzi Drew, the former editor of Mayfair, was sent to prison for producing and distributing hardcore pornography. Five years later Jack Straw, as home secretary, legalised the practice, and today she is a millionaire. In fact, a decade later, the husband of the then home secretary was claiming public expenses to view Raw Meat 4 on satellite television.

In an ironic twist under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown there has been an explosion in lap dancing clubs and erotica stores which have put red neon, once restricted to Soho, across the entire country. The British population, who according to one survey, were ranked the most promiscuous in the western world, appeared to have rebelled against the safety of the marital bed and returned to the hurly-burly of the chaise lounge. Now it is a case of “Sex Please, We’re British”.

Also, people are documenting their lives in a level of detail and visual content unimaginable a few decades ago. We’ve become so immune to the sex lives of celebrities that no-one genuinely expects them to feel embarrassed when the tapes or pictures emerge; in fact, we are convinced of their collusion in the revelations.

After the financial success of Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, (which, at first, she denied making then, aware of its retail value, sued in order to secure a $5 million slice of the profits) a number of budding celebrities have sought to increase their profile by allowing the public to “accidentally” step into their bedrooms by the judicious release of their “intimate moments” captured forever on digital video.

Perhaps this is why, in spite of Contostavlos’ rambling YouTube statement in which she stated that “when you share an intimate moment with someone you love, that you care about and trust, you never imagine that at any point it will be shared with the rest of the UK or people around the world”, people were still tweeting yesterday that it was all a promotion for her new single, Young, the first line of which is: “Forgive me for what I have done.”

Is there anything to forgive? Well, it might not have been too smart to have your spokesperson insist that you would never make such a video and, if you have lied to the court in any statements, then it may come back to haunt you, but as for the content, then no. Frankly, it is none of our business, just as the identity of the headless man was none of the nation’s business 50 years ago, or, for that matter, the identity of his 87 predecessors.

Unfortunately we now live in a society saturated in sex in which the public has become obsessed with what goes on beneath the duvet covers. Perhaps we have always been so.