Profumo: a scandal that keeps giving, even after 50 years

You might not think, more than 50 years after it all happened, that there would be much more to say about the Profumo scandal of 1963. But you would be wrong, as a fresh generation has been learning this week. And, believe it or not, there is a lot more still to come.

The latest episode of The Trial of Christine Keeler, BBC One’s dramatisation of the scandal, airs on Sunday. The central achievement of the series is to place three confident but exploited women – Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies and John Profumo’s wife, Valerie Hobson – at the heart of the story. The performances of Sophie Cookson, Ellie Bamber and Emilia Fox are the reason why even those of us who lived through the events now have something new to learn.

That’s because, as the historian Peter Hennessy says, the Profumo affair remains “a story that has everything”. The fall of Profumo, the war minister, and the inquiries and trials that followed, are a tale both of high politics and of changing social attitudes, all spiced with the cold war paranoia of the times. As Hennessy also says, it remains “a locus classicus [classic example] not just for political historians but for social and cultural historians too”.

John Profumo and a police officer
John Profumo, the then minister of war, returns home on 18 June 1963 after admitting an affair with Christine Keeler. Photograph: Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo

This runs the risk of putting it too primly. For most of Britain at the time – and certainly for this 13-year-old and his schoolfriends growing up in 1960s Leeds – the Profumo affair overwhelmingly meant the thrilling opportunity of talking publicly about sex for the first time.

In his poem Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin wrote that sexual intercourse “began in nineteen sixty-three”. Larkin placed this moment “somewhere between” the lifting of the ban on DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in November 1960 and the issuing of the Beatles’ first album Please Please Me in March 1963. It was indeed in March 1963 that the Profumo affair first became public.

But the start of sexual intercourse can be dated more precisely, to the afternoon of Saturday 8 July 1961. “It did not quite seem it at the time,” says the historian David Kynaston, but the date was “one for the history books”. The Labour politician and diarist Richard Crossman, who would play a role in the Profumo affair, was in Workington (“a wholly working-class, dreary little place” he called it, little knowing what would happen to his party there in 2019). Meanwhile, in the grounds of Cliveden House, a semi-naked Keeler emerged from a swimming pool and met Profumo for the first time, again little knowing where this would lead.

Thanks to Kynaston’s researches, I can remember exactly where I was that afternoon myself. I was watching as Freddie Trueman, my total boyhood hero, bowling from the Kirkstall Lane end, destroyed the Australian batting in the third Ashes test at Headingley. Life felt as if it could not get any better. And on the same afternoon perhaps Profumo thought something like that too.

It is often said that if the Profumo scandal had simply been about sex it would not have had such a overwhelming impact. Harold Macmillan, the prime minister, thought this at the outset. “I was forced to spend a great deal of today over a silly scrape (women this time, thank God, not boys),” he wrote in his diary for 15 March 1963.

What made the “scrape” more serious, Macmillan believed, was that the Soviet naval attache was involved with Keeler too. This was the connection on which Labour, Crossman included, would seize when the issue finally reached parliament a few days later. But what brought Profumo down was that he lied to his party and to the House of Commons.

According to Iain Macleod, the leader of the Commons, he asked Profumo: “Look Jack, the basic question is ‘Did you fuck her?’” Profumo gave his word he had not. The Tory high command accepted this. Perhaps, as Macleod’s biographer Robert Shepherd argues, they believed him because so many ministers of that era were “members of the generation of Conservatives who had served as officers in the war”. A chap’s word was enough.

Except that it wasn’t. Profumo finally admitted his lie in June and resigned. But this was not the end of the Profumo scandal. Macmillan called in the judge Lord Denning to write a report into the affair; published three months later, it became a bestseller. Rumours abounded – about other ministers, duchesses, film stars, royals – during a heady summer of titillation. Macmillan’s authority was already on the slide (the prime minister would resign in the autumn).

“He was in a terrible state,” Macleod recalled. “Going on about a rumour of there having been eight high court judges involved in some orgy. ‘One’, he said, ‘perhaps two, conceivably. But eight – I just can’t believe it.’ I said if you don’t believe it, why bother with an inquiry? But he replied ‘No. Terrible things are being said. It must be cleared up.”

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler are surrounded by press photographers as they leave the Old Bailey
Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler are surrounded by press photographers as they leave the Old Bailey on 22 July 1963 during the trial of Dr Stephen Ward, a major figure in the Profumo affair. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

As Denning delved, Rice-Davies and Keeler became national figures, the latter enduringly so because of “that photograph” in which she posed naked (or possibly not) for Lewis Morley astride an Arne Jacobsen-designed chair. Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who had brought the principals in the Profumo story together, was put on trial and killed himself.

Many of us who were alive in 1963 have always remembered where we were when the most famous death of that year, President John F Kennedy’s, took place. I can also remember where I was when Ward died. I was on a camping holiday in western France with my parents when I caught sight of a copy of France-Soir with the headline Le Docteur Ward est Mort. The French had been as obsessed with the story as the British. The president, Charles de Gaulle, who read the British papers avidly throughout, is said to have told an aide: “That’ll teach the English for trying to behave like Frenchmen.”

But we still do not know the full story. The transcripts of Denning’s interviews have never been published. But they still exist. Denning himself once admitted that they contained details of “all sorts of indiscretions”. They are due to become public on 1 January 2048. “I shall have to step up my exercise regime,” says Hennessy, who will be 100 when that day comes.

The Profumo scandal remains the gift that keeps on giving, and it will do so for years still to come.