❉ This really is the story of Christine Keeler, trying to keep control in a world stacked against her.
“If you are unaware of the ins and outs of the scandal which defined the early nineteen-sixties, you can still come to this well-researched serial and enjoy a rollicking good recent history with heaps of insights into an era about to change forever. And it’s all true. As the opening caption states: you can’t make it up.”
Some things never change. The first thing I think about when it comes to the Profumo affair is a clip from the BBC’s Gallery programme where they interview a furious Lord Hailsham (aka Quentin Hogg) as he gave vent to his feelings on the scandal and ended up blaming his BBC interviewer! Christine Keeler herself might have watched the interview as it was transmitted and would probably have been amused had her life not become intolerable.
Keeler’s point of view has now been successfully and impressively dramatised in The Trial of Christine Keeler in six gorgeous hour long episodes by Amanda Coe, and is now out on DVD by Acorn DVD. The production directed by Andrea Harkin is smooth and colourful, both sexy and ugly, shocking and touching; a modern slant on a time when any contemporary BBC production had mild language, no nudity and swearing. Attitudes are displayed correctly and makes for some shocking viewing.
Coe’s script takes great care in presenting how Keeler’s neglected upbringing (she was malnourished as a child, abandoned by her father and lost a baby when she was a young teenager). Her current life in Notting Hill shaped how she reacted to the advances of someone like the millionaire Profumo, a man thirty years her senior and in the surroundings of a secluded country estate like Clivedon. If you are unaware of the ins and outs of the scandal which defined the early nineteen-sixties, you can still come to this well-researched serial and enjoy a rollicking good recent history with heaps of insights into an era about to change forever. And it’s all true. As the opening caption states: you can’t make it up.
Profumo may have been the highest ranking casualty of the business but he did not die nor go to jail. That Keeler was having an affair with Profumo and also had been to bed with a Russian naval attaché who was being monitored by MI5. This was enough to raise more than eyebrows and political antennae since around this time the Cold War was hotting up and came after a couple of embarrassing spy scandals.
The scandal allowed the British public to take a peek into the sex lives of the rich and those we are pleased to call the Establishment – owners of the big houses, who shoot grouse on the moors, have the big jobs in government, glamorous wives, sit in the most exclusive of London Clubs and can count royalty as friends. They were allowed to have affairs, it was almost a given, but the rule was you did not get caught. And if you did get caught, you do not get divorced. That way lies disgrace and becoming ostracised.
The Prime Minister – Harold Macmillan – his own marriage was apparently a sham. His wife had conducted a long term affair with a former MP called Robert Boothby who had himself suffered a financial scandal and would become subject to gossip and innuendo later in the decade. Profumo’s disgrace did not immediately destroy Macmillan’s government, but in retrospect historians of this period see it as pointing towards the changing of the guard. Macmillan eventually resigned due to ill health (as had his predecessor following the Suez Crisis). This lead to a short lived government before Labour won a small majority in 1964.
The events of the scandal are played out from mainly Christine Keeler’s point of view. Played by Sophie Cookson, Keeler comes across as a wilful and strong in the face of prejudice and what we would now call toxic masculinity, but she is still naïve and young rough to become manipulated. She is ‘guided’ by her high society friend Dr Stephen Ward into attending the parties and beds of the high and mighty in order to advance her own life. This ultimately lead to an encounter with a high ranking politician tipped to become a future prime minister – John ‘Jack’ Profumo, played effectively by Ben Miles.
When the fall-out from the affair is investigated by the police, Ward’s friends and patients abandon him and he becomes marked for scapegoating. James Norton’s Ward does not come across as sympathetically as John Hurt’s portrayal in the 1989 film based on Christine Keeler’s first memoir, but the portrayal of his destruction is superb.
But this really is the story of Christine Keeler. From the start she is chased and watched lustfully by men. Those who do not want to sleep with her only wish to profit. She is quite progressive for her time and enjoys a number of inter-racial relationships, and is not afraid to kiss them in public. She is used, but not very good at using, trying to keep control in a world stacked against her. Women are presented as commodities, the possessions of the men who only want the usual and if they don’t get it, there is violence. She is assaulted by an ex-boyfriend who blames her for making him do it. Director Andrea Harkin spares no punches with the treatment Keeler receives.
She is found guilty of being a prostitute in the court of prurient public opinion. This is often the fate of those who have an affair with a politician, and like so many since. their morals are called into question, rather than the powerful minister incapable of preventing their desires (poor things). They then present a united family as wholesome props. Profumo’s wife, the former actress Valerie Hobson, plays a large role in the serial. Played by Emilia Fox, she comes to prominence in the last episode with a number of cutting statements defining how she was feeling about the business. There is time in six hours to explore the other women involved in the story – Keeler’s desire was to better not just herself but her mother, a very flawed and damaged woman herself.
Keeler’s own views of why she acted as she also changed over time, but not about the police. Keeler’s first memoir is quite forthright in how she was handled by the police when they were looking for evidence that Stephen Ward was living off her immoral earnings and those of Mandy Rice-Davies, who went to prison on other charges in order to break her and appear in court against her friend Ward. One of them gets promoted for his work on the Ward case and is shown using prostitutes himself.
All of the major players in this drama are long since dead. Their descendants will probably wince and wait for the inevitable anniversary in a few years’ time. All we can really do is periodically return to the events and see how far we have come. We have come a long way, but for others not nearly far enough.
❉ ”The Trial Of Christine Keeler’ is an Ecosse Films and Great Meadow co-production, commissioned by Charlotte Moore and Piers Wenger for BBC One. ‘The Trial of Christine Keeler’ arrives on DVD and digital from Acorn Media International on 27 January 2020. Cert: 15 Running Time: 360 mins. approx. RRP: £24.99.