The two teenagers who found themselves caught up in the 1960s Profumo scandal made very different lives for themselves after the furore died down. Sophie Cookson and Ellie Bamber, who respectively play Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, reflect on what united two women with very different characters – and what set them apart from each other…
Jonathan Wright: Can you tell us about the research you did?
Sophie Cookson: For me, it was all about looking at [screenwriter] Amanda Coe’s script and finding out who the true Christine Keeler really was. She wrote several books, so they were incredibly useful in getting a more rounded picture of who she was rather than this fated woman that was just surrounded by scandal.
The real history behind The trial of Christine Keeler
Want to know even more about the real events from history that inspired the drama? Read more…
- Sex, lies and spies: the real history of the Profumo Affair
- “Somewhere in between exploitation and empowerment”: James Norton on playing society osteopath Stephen Ward
- Notes on a scandal: revisiting the Profumo Affair
JW: Do you think the series might set the record straight and re-establish the characters in people’s mind in a different way?
SC: I would love that to be the case. I think it’s grossly unfair the way these girls have been treated. Particularly Christine, I think. Mandy very much used the press for her own good.
Ellie Bamber: Yeah, which is quite incredible really, because she didn’t allow this event to affect the rest of her life. She was a young woman who didn’t allow men and all of these people calling her terrible names to get to her.
JW: How were they different as characters?
EB: Playing Mandy has been a hoot and a half for me, because I’ve had so much fun. Mandy just has this amazing, gregarious, front-footed energy, she is go-get-’em all the time. Her idea of everything is she doesn’t care overly what people think of her and she goes into [things thinking], “Just keep my head high and it’ll be fine”. And I think the interesting thing with Mandy is that she’s very intelligent, but she also has this way with men that I find very interesting, which is that she knows how to manipulate them. She treats men like children that she has to placate.
They’re different in lots of ways, but they’re also quite similar deep down because, at the end of the day, they are two very young girls who haven’t had strong parental figures in their lives at all.
SC: Christine grew up in a converted railway carriage with no electricity or running water, with a stepfather who abused her, and several other people [did] as well. She induced her own abortion – that was before she’s even moved to London and when she’s still a teenager. If someone has been through that, there is no way they can be that vivacious, always-life-and-soul-of-the-party because she’s already on the back foot, she’s wary about people’s behaviour.
JW: Why was Christine Keeler so attacked?
SC: She was the epitome of what a person shouldn’t be in [some people’s] eyes and she was a disgrace. They were outraged by her presence. I think nowadays it’s quite hard to imagine the word ‘prostitute’ coming with such weight. We throw it about in everyday parlance, but it was a horrific thing to be called a prostitute and people were disgusted by both of them.
JW: What was at the root of their friendship?
SC: I think there was a real sisterhood between them.
EB: The story of how they met is really amazing. They were in [Soho club] Murray’s together and apparently, they didn’t like each other to begin with. They were a bit, “Hmm, there’s Christine, I’m not going to talk to her.” And Christine did something like take one of Mandy’s eyeliners, and Mandy got very cross about that. She grabbed a handful of talcum powder – she knew there was a fan spinning in Christine’s room, and she’d just put fresh cream and makeup on her face – so she ran into the dressing room and threw talcum powder at the fan. Christine was covered in the powder and they apparently then burst into laughter, and that’s how they became friends.
JW: What do you make of Stephen Ward? He’s an ambiguous figure.
SC: I think Stephen is ambiguous and I think Christine would have said the same. In [a] Sue Lawley interview [for chat show Wogan in 1989], she says: “If Stephen were still alive today, we would be living together, we would be with each other but not in the conventional sense people understand, that a woman and a man have to be in a sexual relationship,” which they were not. And she clearly loved him deeply, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an aspect of his character that she wasn’t quite sure of, and she did feel at moments like he was being a bit oppressive or wanted to escape but didn’t quite know how. I have no doubt that there was nothing but love for him there.
For more history behind the drama, visit our page on the Profumo Affair.