The trial of Christine Keeler

A new BBC series brilliantly portrays the early Sixties and the Profumo scandal.

Leyla Sanai


The Trial of Christine Keeler, the new BBC TV series dramatising the Profumo Affair, is thrilling. Of course, the real-life story of this politics-and-sex scandal that rocked Britain in the early Sixties is so compelling that it needs no embellishment. So, wisely, the BBC is keeping to the facts.

The casting and acting is excellent. Sophie Cookson captures all the guile-free innocence and teenager-going-on-30 bloom of Keeler, who was just 19 when she was briefly involved with the then secretary of state for war, John Profumo, and, reportedly, a Russian diplomat too. Ellie Bamber captures very well the wit and sophistication of Mandy Rice-Davies, Keeler’s friend and fellow showgirl. The series highlights the key differences between the two women – most strikingly, Christine’s greater vulnerability and sense of damage, which was partly due to her awful mother.

James Norton plays Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who brought together Keeler, Rice-Davies and various political and public figures. Norton conveys Ward’s inscrutability and kindness, his outward bravado masking a life that was, like a domino house, dependent on all the parts remaining strictly in place.

Ben Miles is an excellent Profumo: entitled, used to having his own way, infatuated with the nymph Keeler, but genuinely devoted to his government post and his wife, despite his serial adulteries.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s portrayal of Keeler’s black boyfriend Johnny is potent. He shows us Johnny feeling driven to distraction and violence by Keeler’s prostitution (I say ‘feeling’, because of course all adults have agency over their actions). The moment he gets sent down, after Keeler inexplicably lied in his trial for possession of a firearm, is stirring and upsetting.

But of course, it must have been unbearable for Keeler, too, to know that the only way for her to live her life as she wanted was to cultivate friendships with benefits with wealthy men. By a certain point, she had developed too many expensive habits to keep herself any other way. Johnny, like many others in this true drama, was driven to despair by unrequited love for Christine.

The tragedy of Keeler’s life in the Sixties was that the men who were capable of giving her the love and emotional security she so needed were not able to keep her in the manner – or manor – to which she had become accustomed.

There is so much to be observed about British society in the Sixties in this deft dramatic representation. The ghettoisation of blacks. The racism they faced. The judgemental nature of those who deemed themselves ‘respectable’. The vast chasm between the working-class and the privileged. The double standards regarding male and female sexuality, always exacerbated when class prejudice was brought into the equation. People weren’t shouting ‘slut’ at the married, middle-aged Profumo, but at the free and single Christine.

It was a time of racism, misogyny and classism. And sometimes, those who seemed to embrace the ‘freedom’ of the era the most enthusiastically – those men who could ‘buy’ young, impressionable girls – caused the most pain.

And yet, it was also an exciting, buzzing period in British history. The sexual revolution did bring casualties – mainly women – but it also brought laughter, fabulous pop music, gorgeous clothes, scrumptious make-up and hair, recreational drugs, and fun. The generation gap between middle-aged people and younger people had never seemed so vast. People felt alive, and the increasing openness about sex meant that they didn’t have to marry the first person they slept with.

One thing that is so clear from this dramatisation is the youth and defencelessness of the girls involved. Sure, they could talk tough and use their sexuality to procure days out and posh meals. But because they were working-class girls in the city, they were at the mercy of others. And however paternal and generous mentors like Stephen Ward seemed, their largesse was always dependent on the girls playing their pretty little poppet roles. Young people not born into money really had very little power, and, because of this, they had little autonomy, despite the heady glamour and hedonism of their existence. That’s the real story of Christine Keeler.

Leyla Sanai is a writer.

Watch the trailer for The Trial of Christine Keeler:

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Guillaumé T

16th January 2020 at 4:18 am

What a lovely article and the memories of those days, as Leyla writes.
With so many men with money, who can possible lay any negatives on a nice looking young woman exploiting this. Christine and Mandy you made wonderful news for us and the memories of those times

Paul Marks

10th January 2020 at 2:45 am

The double standards were not that extreme – after all Jack Profumo not only had to resign, he was frozen out of the society he had been part of and spent the rest of his life doing unpaid social work in the East End of London.

Also quite a few people from humble backgrounds had risen very high – including become Prime Minister (even before the First World War), there was actually quite a lot of social mobility (although it sometimes took a couple of generations – some people managed it in one).

As for Christine Keeler – age could be playing tricks with my memory, but I do not believe that the lady had that “working class” accent. I have had menial jobs all my life and I do not have such an accent either.

nick hunt

9th January 2020 at 7:54 pm

Leyla Sanai celebrates the countercultural revolution of the 60s, noting that “the generation gap between middle-aged people and younger people had never seemed so vast.” Does she have any idea what pain, upheaval and confusion that gap meant and still means for untold millions of alienated young people and their divided famiies? Has she thought how such a gap entails the collapse in transmission of knowledge, values and love of nation from old to young, or what this means for our culture’s future? Maybe Sanai doesn’t realise that the now common ageist sentiment of welcoming the deaths of elderly people because of their political opinions horrifies anyone who remembers a much kinder and more civilised UK. It sounds like she is one of those superior, enlightened souls who value western culture so much she is happy to see it transformed beyond recognition, rather like Hitler loved Germany and its culture but wished to raze it to the ground anyway. Maybe Sanai confuses love and hate, as Antifa do.

Gareth Edward KING

9th January 2020 at 3:27 pm

‘The generation gap between middle-aged people and younger people had never seemed so vast’. That comment sounds very familiar. Now, which is it? That in the early 1960s there was an unbridgeable generation gap? or that, fast forward sixty years, the oft-cited ‘generation gap’ due to Brexit is even more important?

Ven Oods

9th January 2020 at 1:32 pm

Many years ago, I read Ludovic Kennedy’s book ‘The Trial of Stephen Ward’. It detailed forensically how the Establishment, outraged at having been embarrassed by the scandal, set out to exact revenge on whomever it could.
I’m enjoying the series on TV. The two female characters are splendid, and I’m happy to be revising my opinion of James Norton’s acting, since his Stephen Ward is compelling.
I wonder if they’ll feature the iconic naked-sitting-backwards-on-a-chair image of Ms Keeler. It made my dad’s eyes pop when he bought his Sunday newspaper…

Jane 70

9th January 2020 at 1:39 pm

I’ve read it as well, along with many of his other books: a great thinker and author.

Garreth Byrne

14th January 2020 at 10:33 am

I too was impressed by Ludovic Kennedy’s well-written book about the Stephen Ward trial and the establishment nastiness towards Ward (not himself an appealing man) and its wretched casting aside of the glamorous but worldly unwise working class girl Christine Keeler. I think disgraced cabinet minister Jack Profumo was one of the few mainplayers in the Cliveden Set to emerge finally with some honour. By working in unpaid social work for many years and declining to talk in public about the scandal he showed a model of repentance. His wife and family members seem to have borne with him in a spirit of quiet forgiveness.

Jane 70

9th January 2020 at 1:03 pm

I suggest that folks who are interested watch 1989’s ‘Scandal’ with its memorable soundtrack and outstanding performances.

And for reading: ‘Honeytrap’ by Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril

and ‘Never Had It So Good’ by Dominic Sandbrook

steve moxon

9th January 2020 at 11:54 am

Come again? Keeler was happy to try to play off people against each other. She was hardly a victim. This actually comes over in the dramatisation, surprising as this is for the Boob — and the portrayal of the bad mother too! This has got to be a modern first for the Boob.
Keeler, inasmuch as she is in part a money grabber, appears in part to have been a chip off the old female block as much as escaping it.
Still, the author here is right that the series is (for once) a balanced view of human foibles.

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