The Vogue UK published their exclusive interview with Ellie and Sophie Cookson as part of the promotion of ‘The Trial of Christine Keeler‘ which hits BBC One on December 29th.
Nearly 60 years after she shook Britain’s moral foundations to breaking point, a retro-glam sheen still lingers, like the faded smell of hairspray or a lipstick-marked cigarette, over the life of Christine Keeler. Now, a gripping six-part television drama – set to dominate post-Christmas viewing when it arrives on BBC One later this month – wants to unpick the myths and expose the misogyny that sealed the fate of one of the 20th century’s most hounded women.
Firstly, says Ellie Bamber, who plays Keeler’s showgirl confidante Mandy Rice-Davies with eerie accuracy, it’s important to note that the girls (and they were practically still girls) at the centre of the Profumo affair – the notorious early-1960s scandal that played a part in bringing Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government to its knees – were not prostitutes. “They were just two young women who liked having sex. Absolutely nothing wrong with that,” she says. Sophie Cookson, who plays Keeler, agrees. “They weren’t willing to play by the rules and let The Establishment control them.”
Lavishly costumed and easy on the eye, The Trial of Christine Keeler – also starring James Norton and Emilia Fox – provides a heady jolt of escapist nostalgia, but its makers have a bigger mission: to snatch back a narrative. For the first time, Keeler’s extraordinary tale is in the hands of an all-female creative team, from writer Amanda Coe (Apple Tree Yard) to director Andrea Harkin (Clique), with fascinating results. “What’s so brilliant about this,” says Cookson, a high-cheekboned chameleon, best known for her supporting role in the Kingsman franchise, “is it’s truly seeing it from her perspective. Vivid, complicated, nervous, brave…”
Bamber, who returns to the BBC after triumphing in December 2018’s Les Misérables, nods, furious at Keeler and Rice-Davies’s treatment. “It was hideous. They weren’t allowed to talk for themselves. They were totally used as scapegoats by men in power.”
A Soviet spy, a minister for war, a topless encounter at the swimming pool at Cliveden, a photoshoot on an imitation Arne Jacobson chair… for a generation of baby boomers, the tropes of Keeler’s life are as vivid as the moon landing or the Suez Crisis. A beautiful, working-class girl from Middlesex, whose hardscrabble upbringing was beset by sexual abuse, the teenage Keeler fled to London to become a model but instead found herself a hit on the shady party circuit of Mayfair’s elite. In 1961 – thanks to her friendship with society osteopath and artist Stephen Ward, who rubbed shoulders with everyone from Prince Phillip to Lord Astor – Keeler had overlapping affairs with John Profumo, secretary of state for war, and Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché and spy.
Cue national crisis. When the press got wind of it, Profumo resigned, Macmillan’s government was rocked (the prime minister stepped down later that year) and Keeler became the nation’s harlot-in-chief, famous in a way that perhaps only Monica Lewinsky can imagine.
In the summer of 1963, Keeler had to make a series of court appearances – firstly, because an ex-boyfriend had tried to shoot her at Ward’s Marylebone mews home, where she was living at the time, then Ward himself was put on trial on various vice charges. (When the trial ended, he attempted suicide and was found guilty while in a coma. He died before sentencing.) Keeler and Rice-Davies – her happy-go-lucky party pal, who was also a fixture at Ward’s and had had a long affair with millionaire Peter Rachman – were 21 and 18 respectively when they were called as prosecution witnesses against Ward. The scandal had exposed moral hypocrisy at the heart of a nation clinging to the vestiges of a Victorian value system, and the raging about these “dangerous, deviant” women essentially put Keeler on trial herself.
Cookson and Bamber pitch their performances perfectly – ballsy, human, vulnerable – painting the pair as prototypes for sex positivity, and as victims of their era. “To reclaim a story that belongs to Christine feels important,” says Cookson. “While I was prepping, the Kavanaugh case was going on in the US. Initially, I’d been reading the script thinking, ‘This is set in the ’60s… blah blah blah.’ But it’s as relevant today as it was then. Profumo was obviously shamed for a while, and had to earn his way back up, but he recovered his reputation. Christine never did.”
If Cookson, a serious and introspective seeming 29-year-old, is spiritually closer to Keeler – who spent her later years as a near-recluse – Bamber, 22, nails the pure fizz of Mandy. In the 1980s and ’90s, the car-show model from Solihull turned herself into a minor celebrity via a movie role, three husbands, one a millionaire, and a chain of nightclubs in Israel.
Bamber, a star since her teens, when Tom Ford cast her in Nocturnal Animals, and whose own love life occasionally makes the tabloids thanks to ex-boyfriends such as Richard Madden, has full sympathy for the way young women continue to be treated by the media. “I think it’s very courageous how Rice-Davies managed something that could have been her downfall, and said, ‘F**k you guys, I’m going to put a smile on my face.’”
In the end, only bitterness remained. Keeler and Rice-Davies, who died in 2017 and 2014, did not enjoy a lasting friendship. “A true tart,” was Keeler’s ultimate view of the latter. After two failed marriages, two children and life as a punchline, Keeler’s fate was to die poor and alone.
Respect is overdue, say Cookson and Bamber. This was the woman who helped usher in Britain’s sexual revolution, whose celebrity was the precursor of reality TV fame and who suffered for it most of her life. Cookson says Keeler knew this female-made drama was happening before she died, and gave it her blessing. “We wanted to set the record straight,” she says, firmly. “If one more person had said to me, ‘Oh, you’re playing that prostitute,’ I was going to bloody kill them.”
The Trial of Christine Keeler begins on BBC One on 29 December
See the photoshoot and scans by clicking on the thumbnails below.