Notes on a scandal: revisiting the Profumo Affair

New BBC One drama The Trial of Christine Keeler is set to revisit the Profumo scandal, an episode that undermined Harold MacMillan’s government and helped to hasten the end of a culture of deference. On set in Bath, Jonathan Wright meets series producer Rebecca Ferguson…

Mandy Rice-Davies (left) and Christine Keeler

The Profumo Affair, says TV producer Rebecca Ferguson, is a little like Watergate. By this, she means it’s an event that’s entered the collective memory, yet the details of what exactly happened have become blurred with time. In which case, the six-part BBC drama The Trial Of Christine Keeler should help jog a few memories as it looks anew at a sex scandal that rocked the British establishment in the 1960s.

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Without giving away too many spoilers for those who would prefer to be reminded of the details as the story plays out on TV, it was a scandal that centred initially on the brief affair, in 1961, between Conservative cabinet minister John Profumo and showgirl Christine Keeler. In March 1963, Profumo’s denial of any impropriety, a lie that was boldly given in a statement to the House of Commons, became a key moment in a wider political crisis. The whole story was a rich brew involving high society, sexual misdemeanours and national security, all topped off by a sensational court case.

The ‘call girls’ at the centre of the case

It’s a story with multiple voices yet, says Ferguson, screenwriter Amanda Coe thought that two voices were too often missing from the hubbub.

“The one thing that Amanda felt very strongly was that nobody had ever asked what it felt like for two 19-year-olds [Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, who met working at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho] to be at the centre of that story.”

It’s an oversight that perhaps explains in part how the reputations of both young women came to be so permanently stained by the scandal. Even Keeler’s obituaries, notes Ferguson, called her “a prostitute” and “a call girl”. In truth, she was a survivor of sexual abuse and someone who was “very damaged”. In contrast, the obituaries of Profumo made much of his charitable work in the East End.

Nobody had ever asked what it felt like for two 19-year-olds to be at the centre of that story

Yet we shouldn’t, says Ferguson, deny Keeler agency by seeing her just as a victim.

“One thing I absolutely love about her is that she didn’t shut up,” says Ferguson. And in speaking out, Keeler helped to sweep away a fusty culture of deference. This makes the story about much more than sex, which was used to sell the 1989 movie on the affair and its fallout, Scandal. “It’s about much more interesting things, it’s about what people do to hold onto their power,” says Ferguson.

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler in a crowd of photographers
Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler found themselves at the centre of a media storm. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

However you look at what happened, Keeler paid a heavy price for her involvement in the scandal. As did Stephen Ward, the socialite osteopath – and louche voyeur – who found himself first dropped by his rich and famous friends, and then facing trial for living off the ‘immoral earnings’ of Keeler and Rice-Davies.

“He wasn’t a complete innocent, but he certainly shouldn’t have been charged and subsequently prosecuted for living off immoral earnings,” says Ferguson. “It was just a lie, it was not true.”

Ferguson adds that she hopes the series may lead people to look anew at the case and help to correct a miscarriage of justice that’s carried down the decades – a miscarriage perhaps prolonged by then prime minister John Major’s decision to keep secret files relating to the scandal that might otherwise have been made public. (In which context, she offers no opinion on possible royal connections to the Profumo scandal, something suggested in Netflix drama The Crown.)

Ellie Bamber as Mandy Rice-Davies in 'The Trial of Christine Keeler'.
Ellie Bamber as Mandy Rice-Davies in ‘The Trial of Christine Keeler’. (Image by Ecosse Films/Ben Blackall)

The perilousness of the trio’s situation comes home vividly when, during a set visit at Bath’s Guildhall, we’re taken to see the panelled room that’s acting as a stand-in for the Old Bailey, a visual reputation of the weight of the establishment and public opinion bearing down.

This was something Sophie Cookson, who plays Keeler in the series, felt strongly as she filmed court scenes. “The intensity of having every single pair of eyes on you in the room and the intensity of having to give your account, it’s horrendous,” she says, “You do begin to doubt yourself – or your lines!”

For more history behind the drama, including a longer interview with Sophie Cookson, visit our Profumo Affair page

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