The Profumo affair … seen, at last, through the female gaze
The great political scandal of the 60s, the Profumo affair, with its heady whiff of spies, sex and society cover-ups, is usually told through the stories of the men involved.
There was John Profumo, the rising political star who fell from grace only to find redemption in charity work; Harold Macmillan, the prime minister whose government was so damaged by the scandal that he resigned on grounds of ill-health only months after the story broke; Yevgeny Ivanov, the KGB officer rejected by his nation who turned to drink for solace; and Stephen Ward, the celebrity osteopath who killed himself after being convicted of living off immoral earnings.
The women caught up in the story – Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies – are rarely given the same space or sympathy. Dismissed at the time as “call girls” and “harlots”, they are reduced to memorable images and infamous phrases: Keeler straddling an Arne Jacobsen chair in the famous photograph by Lewis Morley, enigmatic and unknowable. The irrepressible Rice-Davies silencing a courtroom with the simple but telling phrase: “Well he would [say that], wouldn’t he?”
A six-part BBC drama aims to address that discrepancy. The Trial of Christine Keeler – which is written, produced and directed by women – places Keeler centre stage. It paints a picture of a complex 19-year-old who was capable of behaving badly but who was also out of her depth, crushed by the weight of the British establishment.
“Here is a story with two young women at its centre that we’ve never seen told from the point of view of those women because they’re just treated as transactional objects,” says the series writer, Amanda Coe. “Yet once you start researching the story, the thing that really strikes you is what it must have felt like to be Christine Keeler. To be that young and to come from such a difficult, embattled background and then go through the things she went through – moving to London, having a new life and then finding herself in the public eye to this extraordinary and unprecedented degree.
“She and Mandy became famous for being famous, and then added to this was the political espionage scandal and the fact that she was absolutely vilified as this slut who had brought down the government. There was a very real ambivalence about her and also a fascination with her sexuality as it was portrayed in the media, and the very big gap between that and her genuine emotional life. It was chaotic to be Christine and I wanted the series to show both how that might feel and why it might be.”
By contrast, Rice-Davies was “the Becky Sharp of the piece” says Coe. Younger than Keeler but also more streetwise, she turned potentially life-destroying accusations to her own advantage. “I think Mandy is really ballsy,” says Ellie Bamber, who plays her. “She had horrible accusations made against her but she rode the wave, pushed any vulnerability deep down and turned the publicity to her own advantage.”
To understand the impact of the Profumo affair on British society at the time, it’s essential to realise how repressed the country still was in 1963 when the news broke that Profumo, the secretary of state for war in Harold Macmillan’s government, had had an affair with Keeler.
The spice in the story came from reports that Keeler had also been sleeping with Soviet naval attaché – and spy – Ivanov, whom she had met through osteopath Ward. Ward had introduced her and Rice-Davies to well-connected men, and before long rumours were swirling of other establishment figures who may have known the girls. Further fuelling the already rabid press excitement was the fact that Keeler’s primary romantic relationships were with young black men. “She felt they would go after her for her boyfriends so she offered Ivanov up to take the pressure off,” says Coe. “She protected the genuine relationships at the expense of the transactional flings.”
Yet instead of tamping down the interest, her statement fanned the flames, and an affair that had been over within months in 1961 eventually brought down a government.
“The thing that really struck me reading the reports from the time is how much the press constructed the story they wanted to tell,” says Andrea Harkin, who directed four of the six episodes of the series. “The accepted narrative was that Christine was a call girl, a prostitute, a siren, a femme fatale. Yet the reality is that she was none of those things. Nor was she a helpless victim. She was complex and vulnerable and tough and damaged and brilliant.”
Sophie Cookson, who plays Keeler in the series, does a fine job of capturing those contradictions. Her Keeler is both a lost teenager seeking solace and a father figure in Ward, and the sort of girl who can pick a fight in a nightclub to hold her boyfriend’s attention.
“Christine had no voice whatsoever, yet at the same time she didn’t want to be defined by anyone else. She really did march to the beat of her own drum, and that caused her a lot of trouble,” says Cookson, adding that she “fell in love” with Keeler’s “energy, charisma and determination”.
“I do think her story will resonate because even now women can feel that they should behave in this way or that way. Christine’s behaviour is driven by a desire to be completely free. I think that still strikes a chord.”
At the story’s heart lies the complicated relationship between Keeler and Ward (played by James Norton with a curdled charisma that both attracts and repels). To the end of her life, she would stress that she loved him, yet the age gap and power imbalance between the two raise uncomfortable questions about grooming and manipulation.
“We did have to make sure that we weren’t letting him off too lightly,” says Harkin. “There is an ambiguity, a sense that while their relationship is honest and real on some level, his intentions are pretty dubious. He takes advantage of her feelings for his own gain.”
For Coe, that ambiguity permeates the Profumo scandal. “This is a story filled with grey, and Stephen Ward in particular is a deeply ambivalent character,” she says. “I do think [viewers’] opinions of him will change as the story goes along, as it will of Christine, because part of the message of the drama is that nobody is one thing. We live in such a binary time where people are seen simply as heroes or villains but things are generally more complicated.”
Similarly, Profumo’s wife, Valerie (played by Emilia Fox), and the ebullient Rice-Davies are both given extended moments in which the images we have of them – the dutiful wife, the carefree good-time girl – are upended. “Valerie stood by her man, and that’s often seen as a strategic act of loyalty but I think it’s clear that she loved Profumo and remained attracted to him,” says Fox.
“What I loved about the story is that it seems to be a perfect storm of a public scandal with all the right ingredients – sex, race, politics – but at the heart it’s a story of human frailty. The series really digs into the difference between how women are treated and regarded. How there was one story for men and another for women.”
It is also an attempt to explain why, after all these years, the Profumo affair continues to fascinate us. “It’s almost like a national myth – even if you don’t know the details, you have a vague sense of what happened,” says Coe.
“People talk about it being about sex and espionage but to me a huge part of the story is class. Christine and Stephen are both outsiders. It’s that which leads to their downfall in the end.”
The Trial of Christine Keeler starts on Sunday 29 December at 9pm on BBC One
The Profumo affair on stage, page and screen
Michael Caton-Jones’s well-reviewed film starred Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler, Bridget Fonda as Mandy Rice-Davies, Ian McKellen as John Profumo and John Hurt as Stephen Ward.
A Letter of Resignation (1997)
Hugh Whitemore’s play follows Harold Macmillan’s reaction to Profumo’s resignation and the fallout from the affair.
Stephen Ward (2013)
Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical directed by Richard Eyre received mixed reviews and ran for just three months before closing.
William Nicholson’s novel, which is partially about the Profumo affair, was praised for its addictive storytelling although some found his re-creation of the Ward set unconvincing.
The Crown (2016-)
The glossy Netflix drama has had two tilts at the scandal. In series two it suggested that Prince Philip may have been involved, and in series three it implied that Anthony Blunt helped him by purchasing drawings made by Ward of the prince.