TRAGIC TALE: Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler (BBC/Ecosse Films/Ben Blackall)


BBC VERSION RECOGNISES CHRISTINE KEELER WAS ‘UNFAIRLY’ VILIFIED BY SOCIETY

by AMIT ROY

THERE is one character missing in the BBC’s retelling of the John Profumo scandal – Ayub Khan.

The Pakistani president was present on that fateful weekend, July 8-9, 1961, when John Profumo, secretary of state for war in Harold Macmillan’s government, met 19-year-old Christine Keeler, in the swimming pool at Cliveden, Lord Astor’s country estate in Berkshire.

Keeler was a guest of the society osteopath Stephen Ward, who had also invited Yevgeny Ivanov, a naval attaché at the Russian embassy in London.

The outlines of the story from 1961-63 are well known and form what is probably Britain’s most notorious sex scandal. It was claimed security was an issue because it was alleged that Keeler was sleeping with Profumo while she was also involved with Ivanov. At first, Profumo denied the affair in a statement to the Commons, but later resigned after admitting he had lied. The events led to Macmillan’s resignation as prime minister and the Tory defeat in the 1964 general election, which ushered the Labour leader Harold Wilson to power.

Ward, who was charged with living off immoral earnings of Keeler and other girls, took a fatal overdose before what would almost certainly have been a guilty verdict. Keeler was sent to prison for six months for perjury.
Both charges were concocted.

More than half a century on, it is recognised that what happened was a classic stitch up by an upper class establishment which sought to protect its own. Ward, whatever his other faults, was not living off immoral earnings nor was Keeler a prostitute as she was widely depicted.

The current six-part series, The Trial of Christine Keeler, attempts to tell the story from Keeler’s point of view. The drama has been written (Amanda Coe), directed (Andrea Harkin/ Leanne Welham), produced (Rebecca Ferguson/ Kate Triggs) and commissioned (Charlotte Moore) by women, with the actresses Sophie Cookson and Ellie Bamber cast as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, the 19- and 17-year-olds at the centre of the story.

Ben Miles as John Profumo and Sophie Cookson (BBC/Ecosse Films/Ben Blackall)

Coe recalled: “It so happened that I’d just been on holiday and one of the books I’d read, and very much enjoyed, was the excellent Richard Davenport-Hines book, An English Affair. It is a brilliant cultural history of the Profumo Affair, looking at all the different aspects of it in terms of where British society was at that time and why it was such a flashpoint. I’d been thinking, wouldn’t it be great to make a drama about that?”

The book, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, published in 2013, attempts to separate fact from fiction.

In the chapter called “Hacks”, on the role played by journalists, the author says: “The Profumo Affair was made in Fleet Street more than in Wimpole Mews (Ward’s address) or Cliveden. It was incited, publicised and exploited by journalists.

The fatal convergences began in 1960, when Yevgeny Ivanov arrived as assistant naval attaché at the Russian embassy in London. He was less coarse than most communist diplomats, although a rumbustious drinker. In pursuance of his duty to manipulate ‘agents of influence’, he visited the offices of the Daily Telegraph, where he met the editor, Sir Colin Coote, who was a patient of StephenWard’s. Coote, who knew that Ward was keen to visit the Soviet Union, invited Ivanov over luncheon at the Garrick Club. Ivanov began meeting Ward socially.”

The author writes of the weekend when Profumo meets Keeler, who was dismissed at the time as “common”.

“On the weekend of 8-9 July 1961, Ward organised a party at Spring Cottage (on the Cliveden estate). His Saturday guests included … Keeler.

“A more formal party was held at the big house. …The President of Pakistan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, on his way to Washington to confer with the Kennedy administration, was guest of honour. Profumo, as Secretary of State for War, was invited for the whole weekend with his wife (the actress Valerie Hobson) for their first Cliveden visit.”

Legend has it that Profumo first spotted Keeler when she was either naked or in the process of taking off her costume. Their meeting and subsequent affair should shake British politics.

Davenport-Hines writes: “Keeler’s vivid tale that she and another woman had clambered onto the shoulders of Astor and Ayub Khan in the pool later aroused Anglo-Pakistani diplomatic ructions.”

He goes on: “On Sunday morning, July 9, while Astor took Ayub Khan to inspect the Cliveden stud, some of his guests mingled with Ward’s guests at the swimming pool, Ivanov had a swimming race with Profumo. When Profumo asked Keeler for her telephone number, she directed him to Ward. The osteopath, who seemed pleased by the approach, said his number was in the telephone directory.”

In 1989, there was a movie called Scandal, with Joanne Whalley as Keeler. In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical Stephen Ward at the Aldwych Theatre in 2013, Keeler was portrayed by Charlotte Spencer. The musical had a bit role for General Ayub Khan, Pakistan president (1958-1969). It’s not known if he crossed the line of control.

In an interview, Keeler described the Sandhurst-trained Ayub as “more British than the British”. Keeler, who died two years ago, aged 75 and was quite unrecognisable as the ravishing beauty she had once been, knew of the BBC drama on the scandal and only asked not to be treated as a “victim”.

The iconic image of the scandal is a photograph taken by Lewis Morley of an apparently naked Keeler straddling a chair. “Despite looking like she was naked … she had in fact worn knickers,” confirmed scriptwriter Coe.

Christine Keeler in iconic Lewis Morley photograph

“When explaining why it’s important to look at this story now, we only have to look at the Me Too and Windrush stories to see why it’s relevant. She was vilified in the court of public opinion and there’s some restitution in seeing her side”.

Keeler was also condemned for having a black boyfriend at one stage, so the drama also touches on racism.

Sophie Cookson said about playing the role of Keeler: “With this amazing third wave of feminism, it’s such an exciting and pivotal moment to be looking at this story with a female gaze…it feels like she is being released and is finally free to tell it how it was.

“She attempted to self-abort her child when she was still a teenager. She had the most tragic life. To forever be known as this girl, this whore, this prostitute – which she absolutely was not – was just disgraceful. It makes me so angry!”

Ben Miles, who plays Profumo, agreed: “Christine was utterly vilified in the press and by society and Profumo assumed that he would be untouchable throughout, because most people who were wearing judges’ wigs at the time were probably old school friends of his. The ‘old boys’ network looked after their own.”