“Somewhere in between exploitation and empowerment”: James Norton on society osteopath Stephen Ward

Stephen Ward was one of the key figures in the 1960s Profumo Affair, and his complex role in the scandal is still cause for discussion. Actor James Norton tells Jonathan Wright how he approached playing the society osteopath – and voyeur – in new BBC One drama The Trial Of Christine Keeler...

Programme Name: The Trial of Christine Keeler - TX: n/a - Episode: Ep 2 (No. 2) - Picture Shows:  Stephen Ward (JAMES NORTON) - (C) Ecosse Films - Photographer: Joss Barratt

The story of Stephen Ward – an osteopath to the great and the good who, in his private life, was a sexual voyeur – is a cautionary tale. A man who valued influential friends, Ward was ultimately dropped by these people following scandal and can be seen as a scapegoat for the wider Profumo Affair. Actor James Norton tells Jonathan Wright about a character he found “peculiar and unique”…

Jonathan Wright: How did you go about researching this part? Did you dig into Stephen Ward’s life or just go from the script?

James Norton: Every actor has a different approach. Mine is that you do, in the time you have, as much academic research as you can, and you have a responsibility to find as many facts and figures [as you can]. But there is a certain point at which you have to throw all that away and forget it, because you run the risk of trying to play all the facts.

The story of Stephen Ward – an osteopath to the great and the good who, in his private life, was a sexual voyeur – is a cautionary tale. A man who valued influential friends, Ward was ultimately dropped by these people following scandal and can be seen as a scapegoat for the wider Profumo Affair. Actor James Norton tells Jonathan Wright about a character he found “peculiar and unique”…

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Jonathan Wright: How did you go about researching this part? Did you dig into Stephen Ward’s life or just go from the script?

James Norton: Every actor has a different approach. Mine is that you do, in the time you have, as much academic research as you can, and you have a responsibility to find as many facts and figures [as you can]. But there is a certain point at which you have to throw all that away and forget it, because you run the risk of trying to play all the facts.

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…

Ultimately, the main resource has to be the script. Luckily, Amanda [Coe, screenwriter] is so thorough and she’s such a perfectionist that you know that what you are given isn’t going to be cutting any corners, so you can trust her and her work. Along with the script, there was an incredibly thorough research pack.

One thing that was incredibly useful was that many, many photos of Stephen show this incredibly playful, mischievous little grin – and it’s a kind of pursed lip. There’s a real twinkle. And just to have those images in my head before scenes gives him that little louche air, which has been really useful.

Society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward, a leading figure in the Profumo affair.
Society osteopath Dr Stephen Ward, a leading figure in the Profumo affair. (Photo by George Freston/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

JW: Did you reach a conclusion in your own mind as to whether he was harshly dealt with by the establishment?

JN: One of the interesting discussions that has been running concurrent with the filming for me is the way the press and society [have viewed] the hand Stephen was dealt, since the court case. Most people, not everyone, but most people have come to the conclusion there was a significant miscarriage of justice at play, and he was an innocent man, ultimately, of the crimes he was accused of in the court case. He wasn’t a pimp and he didn’t make money off prostitution.

But then because of that, most people have forgotten that he was at fault. He did groom young women. He did drive his car around London and he would find prostitutes, and he would pay for their services, and then he would play this Pygmalion role. And I don’t know whether that’s inherently sinister or not.

Dr Stephen Ward pictured with three women, including Christine Keeler
Dr Stephen Ward pictured with three women, including Christine Keeler (right). (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

JW: It’s morally dubious…

JN: It is morally dubious, particularly in light of the past two years of #MeToo. But what’s been really interesting is mining that and trying to work out that very grey area. It’s somewhere in between exploitation and empowerment. He was finding these women and he loved them, and he was fascinated by them. Andrea [Harkin, director] started off the research and rehearsal with me by saying: “Something about this character, Stephen, is he was deeply fascinated by femininity and female power.” And that was a great starting point for us.

There was a level of exploitation. He used these women as his ticket into the old boys’ clubs, and the politicians, the Profumos of this world, would turn up at [Ward’s home on] Wimpole Mews because they knew Stephen had this collection of young women. It was his ticket in, and therefore there was a level of exploitation. Having said that, women like Christine [Keeler] and Mandy [Rice-Davies] found incredible empowerment through Stephen and they loved him. He wasn’t like a father figure; he was a friend, a man who saw them as more than just a dancer on the stage at Murray’s [nightclub], so it’s a very complicated relationship he had with them. He had a lot to answer for, but equally he was, especially in the court case, painted in an unfair light.

For more history behind the drama, visit our page on the Profumo Affair

Jonathan Wright writes the TV and radio previews for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

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The Trial of Christine Keeler begins on BBC One on Sunday 29 December