Full exclusive interview of The Times magazine with the cast of ‘The Trial of Christine Keeler‘.
The Trial of Christine Keeler was filmed in Bristol, some of whose citizens turned out to have long, unkind and not necessarily accurate memories of an affair that became Britain’s gold standard for political sex scandals. One morning, Sophie Cookson, who in this new BBC drama plays Keeler, the young woman credited with bringing down a prime minister, overheard a shopper as she passed the shoot. “Oh yes, well, she was the prostitute,” she educated her companion.
“For me,” Cookson says in a photo studio in London a few months later, “it was just like, ‘Gosh, some people are so fixed in their opinion about it and so quick to judge.’ I think as a society we need to be forgiving and understanding and kind to each other. All Christine did was have an affair with a man she found attractive. And yet that led to this whirlwind of chaos, which she lived with throughout her life.”
The man Keeler found attractive was John Profumo, the archaically named secretary of state for war in an exhausted Tory government. An Old Harrovian, decorated war hero and philanderer, Profumo was 46 when he met Keeler, this astoundingly beautiful working-class girl from Berkshire, the product of an unhappy upbringing in a pair of converted railway carriages. The venue for their encounter was, in cinematic contrast, a sunny, champagne-drenched summer party at Cliveden, the country home of Lord Astor, a former Tory MP who had inherited his wealth from Waldorf Astor, his newspaper-proprietor father. Keeler was 19 and naked, having emerged from the viscount’s outdoor swimming pool. Profumo kept looking. Their liaison was brief – a couple of months, perhaps – but at the same party was another guest, Yevgeny Ivanov, assistant navy attaché and spy at the Soviet embassy. Keeler, it was said – and it may even have been true – also slept with him, possibly later that very afternoon.
The Cold War was never hotter than when this supposed love triangle rang out.
The Profumo affair – a double entendre in its very naming – was born. It reached a pause two years later when, on June 5, 1963, buried under an avalanche of press speculation, Profumo resigned, admitting he had lied when he had told parliament ten weeks earlier there was “no impropriety whatsoever” in his “acquaintance with Miss Keeler”. The Times published a leader, “It Is a Moral Issue”, accusing the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, of “debauching” the nation. In October that year, Macmillan quit during the Conservative Party conference, his resignation relayed from the hospital where he was being operated on for a benign tumour on his prostate.
The Profumo drama almost immediately recommissioned itself a second season. Six weeks on, Stephen Ward, an osteopath, artist and friend to high society who had introduced Keeler to both the spy and the cabinet minister, went on trial at the Old Bailey accused of procuring and living off immoral earnings. Keeler appeared for the prosecution, claiming Ward had turned her into a prostitute. In what is now seen as a miscarriage of justice and an establishment stitch-up, the scapegoat was found guilty. As the verdict was pronounced, he lay dying of an overdose. A suicide note read that while he was sorry to disappoint the “vultures”, he felt the day was lost, an insouciance in the charmer’s voice remaining to the last.
Like “the Profumo affair”, “the trial of Stephen Ward” became a phrase. Half a century on, The Trial of Christine Keeler subverts both dashes of shorthand. Firmly at the centre of its story is Keeler herself, variously over the years regarded as either a vixen or a victim, but in this clever retelling by the screenwriter Amanda Coe – and thanks to Cookson’s astounding performance – not quite either. Surrounding Cookson in the imbroglio are James Norton as the enigmatic Ward, Ellie Bamber as Keeler’s chipper friend Mandy Rice-Davies and Ben Miles as the lothario Profumo. In a series of interviews, each actor speaks to me with loyalty to the morally ambiguous, now departed figures they stand in for, although none is probably as indignantly faithful as Cookson is to Keeler.Continue reading “THE TIMES: The true story of the BBC’s The Trial of Christine Keeler”