Image Credit: BBC
The so-called “Profumo Affair”, the nickname for the liaison between Secretary of State John Profumo and model Christine Keeler and its varying, occasionally harrowing consequences, continues to hold fast in public memory nearly 60 years after the affair began. The political scandal following the relationship embroiled Profumo, Keeler and associates in defamatory attacks from the media, and contributed significantly to the suicide of Stephen Ward, the high-society osteopath who introduced Profumo and Keeler. Screenwriter Amanda Coe’s recent BBC production, The Trial of Christine Keeler, dramatizes the events of 1961-3 for a post #MeToo audience by focusing on the affair from Christine’s perspective.
With Britain still reeling in the wake of the overturn of the ban of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, attitudes towards extra-marital sex were highly divided. Attempting to capture this zeitgeist, viewers get a sense of the pace at which mores were changing through Christine Keeler’s (Sophie Cookson) interactions with the press. Whilst some heralded the scandal as a beacon of sexual liberation, Coe’s drama is crafted to highlight the emotional and practical impact the scandal and its publicity had on Keeler herself. In a story where the salaciousness is often highlighted, the human impact is given consideration too, as we discover the emotional toll that events have taken on her. One of the characters talks of the tragedy of the “Keeler Affair”, as opposed to the gossip and intrigue of the “Profumo Affair”, emphasising how, for all her suffering, the identity and feelings of one of the 1960s’ most notorious women were largely ignored.
However, throughout the series Cookson presents us with a woman who is relentless in her struggle for agency, fighting against accusations that she was a prostitute and the resulting ostracization from society. The drama evolves into a struggle between Keeler and the narratives she is trying to dispel – those that would condemn her as a temptress, and vindicate Profumo from responsibility.
A highlight of the dramatization is the way in which Coe humanizes the key players of the affair by exposing and emphasising the many grey areas between the moral black-and-white of the scandal. Each character treads the line between naivety/ignorance and worldly wisdom. We see the former in everyday scenes of Keeler and friend Mandy Rice-Davies (Ellie Bamber); whether the women are enjoying themselves in nightclubs, or grabbing coffee in a breakfast bar, we are reminded time and again of their relative youth and innocence. The self-assuredness of the political establishment is represented in the nonchalance of Profumo (Ben Miles) and his associates; whilst Profumo could be portrayed as the ultimate villain, Miles plays his character’s fatal misjudgements to our sympathy, as we hear his character insist that he was only doing “what everyone else was doing”. An excellent performance by James Norton as Stephen Ward meticulously dramatizes the osteopath’s transition from high-spirited, above-authority socialite to despairing, ostracized outcast.
For a drama set just before the Swinging Sixties, one of the key focal points is necessarily the conflict between accepted behaviours and social traditions and the signs of modernity that were, at that point, just beginning to break through. We see how the affair between Profumo and Keeler is mere evidence of this period of change; a signpost, and an omen, for those interested in “keeping up appearances”. Where the drama cannot cast an analytical eye on events with contemporary foresight, it invites the audience to speculate. In particular, scenes between Profumo and wife Valerie Hobson (Emilia Fox) demonstrate the shock caused by frank discussions of sexuality, and the realization that “new” ideas may in fact be old ones, exposed. Giving Profumo’s wife a voice also adds to the promotion of female voices from the scandal that Coe is trying to achieve.
Furthermore, it is not only changing sexual mores that are shown to shock society; we witness overt racism against Christine’s ex-boyfriend and stalker Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon (Anthony Welsh), and how this racism interacts with the sexism and slut-shaming Christine receives. Coe succeeds in exploring the “Keeler Affair” from a range of angles to show the intersectionality of prejudice in early 1960s Britain.
The significance of the latest retelling of this story, is how Coe manages a nuanced interpretation of events that gives reality to Keeler’s story without defining her as hero or pariah. Whilst the legal system of the time is shown to manipulate and mistreat her and others, Keeler’s own mistakes are also delved into. The use of flashbacks to portray Keeler’s thought processes allows empathy for her without romanticising her lot in life. Keeler, who in real life stated that she did not want to be portrayed as a "victim", is finally given agency, whilst the audience is left to consider the links between a scandal Rice-Davies called "a pimple" and the prevalence of fake news and exaggerated stories in today’s media. Ultimately, the audience are the witnesses to Keeler’s trial, and her posthumous fate is left to our judgement.