The Trial of Christine Keeler: an oddly intriguing return to the Profumo affair

The Trial of Christine Keeler longs to be the new A Very English Scandal – unfortunately, it wants both for that series’s pace and its camp wit.

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Why revisit the Profumo scandal? Well, why not? It has everything, after all: sex, spies, social class, pesky tabloid hacks and lying politicians. It should be a story for our times – except, our times are somewhat different.

In 1963, John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, swiftly resigned after newspaper revelations that he’d lied to the House of Commons in the matter of his relationship with a showgirl called Christine Keeler (he had first denied any “impropriety”, but he had slept with her, and she – perhaps – had also slept with a Russian spy). He then quietly devoted the rest of his life to charity work. We, meanwhile, live in an age in which some politicians lie almost as a matter of course. When they do finally exit Westminster, it’s for well-paid gigs as company directors and on the international speaking circuit, not stoical do-gooding in the East End. 

The USP of the BBC’s series The Trial of Christine Keeler (29 and 30 December, 9pm) – let’s not worry about spoilers, since we all know what happened – is that it tells the story from the side of the women: not only Keeler and her cheeky friend and collaborator, Mandy Rice-Davies, but also Profumo’s wife, the long-suffering actress Valerie Hobson. Alas, I’m not sure this entirely comes off in practice, though I’m fully prepared to have my mind changed (I’ve seen only two episodes).

The problem is that while what happened to Keeler (Sophie Cookson) certainly was extraordinary and – gazed at from the distance of 2019 – both disturbing and unjust, as a character she is simply not very interesting. The same goes for Rice-Davies (Ellie Bamber). These girls want for ambiguity; being teenagers, they’ve no insight into themselves.

Hobson won’t be centre stage until after you read this – the tabloids have not yet done their worst – and perhaps this will be something to see. I’ve always wondered about her decision to stand by Profumo. What did it cost her, this woman who’d already put her acting career behind her, seemingly for the sake of her marriage? But the casting of Emilia Fox here seems to me to be wilfully unimaginative, and her performance has a varnished quality that I find intensely boring, however good she looks in all those in hats and bracelet sleeves.

My sense is that The Trial of Christine Keeler longs to be the new A Very English Scandal, Russell T Davies’s brilliant and ultimately moving 2018 take on the Jeremy Thorpe affair, starring Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw. Unfortunately, it wants both for that series’ pace (six parts seems excessively long for this story) and its camp wit: the odd todger joke doesn’t quite do it, I’m afraid. In Stephen Ward (James Norton), the osteopath who introduced Keeler both to Profumo (Ben Miles) at Cliveden, and to Yevgeni Ivanov (Visar Vishka), we have (potentially) a character up there with Thorpe when it comes to sexual equivocation – and perhaps the series will make more of this as it goes along. (Is he, when it comes to Keeler, a pal or a pimp? I think he was ultimately more sinned against than sinning.) But at the moment, the spotlight is on Profumo, whose depiction is not exactly nuanced. I’m sure he was oily, lascivious, vain and ruthless. But he must have had other qualities, too – his immaculate silence on all matters Keeler-related after he sent himself into exile speak to these, as does his war record – and I think that feminism can, and should, do better than simply to rubbish the male (again, I’m prepared to be proved wrong).

Still, this series is oddly intriguing, even if it is possible to watch it, metaphorically speaking, with only one eye open. Oh, the times! When I last saw a film about Keeler, it was 1989, and Joanne Whalley was playing her (though Stephen Ward and his naughty pencil sketches crept into the second series of Netflix’s The Crown). In those days, the Profumo affair still hung about like a bad smell; Keeler was a cultural figure in a way that she really isn’t now (apart from anything, she was still alive; not too long before, she’d appeared on Newsnight, her smoker’s voice as gravelly as Cliveden’s long drive as she talked of her latest job as an agony aunt on a porn magazine).

What is perverse, however, is that even as she fades from the collective memory, it only grows the more chastening to ponder these events. We’ve no cause to be smug; I think more and more that we patronise the past at our peril. It’s not only that honour, in 21st-century public life, is a concept as tarnished as a cheap wedding ring left too long in a drawer. In the intervening years, things have changed less than anyone could ever have imagined they would. Beyond the horrific racism and sexism, the clouds of cigarette smoke and Max Factor pressed powder, we may discern in The Trial of Christine Keeler something with which we remain all too familiar: the establishment quietly pulling its levers; the old school tie, then as now, rather too tightly knotted around people’s necks. 

The Trial of Christine Keeler
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special