Check out Stella’s Magazine full interview with our girl as part of The Trial of Christine Keeler’s promotion.
As she takes on the role of Mandy Rice-Davies – the model at the centre of the Profumo affair that rocked 1960s London – actor Ellie Bamber tells Caroline Leaper why it’s so important that the women’s side of the story is finally heard.
Ellie Bamber is still wearing the lilac eyeshadow from her Stella shoot when we meet an hour later for tea. With her aquamarine eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, she looks ethereal, despite having spent the past four hours gamely posing in a Notting Hill mews in the freezing cold, wearing a Chanel miniskirt and throwing a puffer coat on between shots. It couldn’t be a more appropriate location, given that her major new television role is set in a very similar London mews in the early 1960s. Ellie plays Mandy Rice-Davies in The Trial of Christine Keeler, a new BBC TV series about the unravelling of the Profumo affair in 1963, starring James Norton, Emilia Fox and Sophie Cookson, and written by Amanda Coe, whose previous hits include the thriller, Apple Tree Yard.
Best known for playing Cosette in last year’s BBC adaptation of Les Misérables and India Hastings in Tom Ford’s 2016 film Nocturnal Animals, this is Ellie’s biggest role to date.
‘I was so excited to play Mandy,’ she says. ‘I knew quite a bit about her already, as my grandmother’s parents ran a pub in east London, and my grandmother was a hairdresser, so she had heard rumblings of the story when she was growing up. I had read Mandy’s autobiography and it was interesting to speak to my grandmother about it, as she only knew what she had essentially been fed by the press at the time. Mandy was phenomenal. I think she was so misunderstood and is actually one of the heroes of this story.’
An icon of the swinging ’60s, the Welsh model and showgirl was at the centre of the scandal that threatened to bring down Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s government in 1963. Her life changed for ever when news broke that John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War, was sharing a mistress, her flatmate, 19-year-old Christine Keeler, with a Soviet naval attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov. Profumo resigned soon afterwards, and months later Macmillan stood down on health grounds. The reputation of the Conservative Party was irreparably damaged by the scandal, and the following year they were defeated by the Labour Party in the general election.
Mandy had met Christine (played by Kingsman actress Sophie Cookson), when the pair worked as dancers at Murray’s Cabaret Club in London’s Soho. They became involved in a series of relationships with high-profile men, with many of the introductions facilitated by society osteopath Stephen Ward at his Wimpole Mews home.
Ward would later go on trial, charged with living off of the ‘immoral earnings’ of Mandy and Christine, who were alleged to have been among a group of call girls run by Ward. Testifying in court, Mandy delivered a riposte that would become headline news: a witness, Lord Astor, denied having had an affair with her or even meeting her, to which she replied, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?’
‘I thought a lot about how to do that famous line,’ Ellie says of the challenge to pull off a phrase that has made its way into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations – even today, the initials MRDA, standing for ‘Mandy Rice-Davies applies’, are used to suggest scepticism of any claim. ‘Everyone was asking me, “What are you going to do with the line?” In some court transcripts it says that she giggled as she said it, and I experimented but didn’t use it in the end. In her book she wrote that although it came across as a cheeky comment, she was just being honest and saying, “How could you expect this man not to lie about something like that?”’
At 22, Ellie is not much older than Christine and Mandy were when they were put on ‘trial’ by the national press. With sex and spying at the centre of the political scandal, and two beautiful young women to splash pictures of, the papers exploded with the story and both women struggled to move on from it afterwards.
What appealed to Ellie about this new telling of the tale, she says, was that it is the first time anyone has viewed it from the perspective of the women, rather than the sexist gaze of the press and male politicians. ‘The girls didn’t really have a voice, because as much as people wanted to hear their side of the story, they also wanted to very quickly judge them and call them sluts,’ Ellie says. ‘I think it’s disgusting [how they were treated].
Mandy and Christine were two young women who enjoyed sex and were perfectly allowed to have sex with as many people as they wanted. This was the start of the 1960s and a segue into free love; you can see now how this event was a catalyst. I think it’s really sad that they weren’t able to enjoy their sexuality. In our current day, we have moved on a little bit, but we’ve still got further to go.’
Getting into character as Mandy required a dramatic transformation. Ellie’s Berkshire accent sounds softly aristocratic and her tousled hair has flitted between shades of her natural white-blonde colour and red dye jobs over the last few years. She adopted Mandy’s Llanelli-Solihull blended accent (Mandy moved from Wales to the Midlands as a child), as well as her heavy eyeliner and stiff yellow-blonde beehive updo. She didn’t need to act the fire, though; Ellie is a passionate feminist, swears a lot, and sticks up for the characters she plays.
‘Mandy is f—king funny,’ she enthuses. ‘She’s bright, she’s intelligent. She has this façade throughout, as her clothes were an outer layer that was like her battle armour to go into these humiliating situations where people would be shouting at her in the street.’Continue reading “STELLA MAGAZINE: The untold story of the Profumo Affair: Ellie Bamber on playing the ‘heroine’ behind the 1960s sex scandal”