29 December 2019 10:36

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The great political scandal of the 60s, the Profumo affair, with its heady whiff of spies, sex and society cover-ups, is usually told through the stories of the men involved. There was John Profumo, the rising political star who fell from grace only to find redemption in charity work; Harold Macmillan, the prime minister whose government was so damaged by the scandal that he resigned on grounds of ill-health only months after the story broke; Yevgeny Ivanov, the KGB officer rejected by his nation who turned to drink for solace; and Stephen Ward, the celebrity osteopath who killed himself after being convicted of living off immoral earnings. The women caught up in the story – Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies – are rarely given the same space or sympathy. Dismissed at the time as "call girls" and "harlots", they are reduced to memorable images and infamous phrases: Keeler straddling an Arne Jacobsen chair in the famous photograph by Lewis Morley, enigmatic and unknowable. The Trial of Christine Keeler – which is written, produced and directed by women – places Keeler centre stage.

The Profumo affair … seen, at last, through the female gaze

"Here is a story with two young women at its centre that we've never seen told from the point of view of those women because they're just treated as transactional objects," says the series writer, Amanda Coe. "Yet once you start researching the story, the thing that really strikes you is what it must have felt like to be Christine Keeler. "She and Mandy became famous for being famous, and then added to this was the political espionage scandal and the fact that she was absolutely vilified as this slut who had brought down the government. It was chaotic to be Christine and I wanted the series to show both how that might feel and why it might be." By contrast, Rice-Davies was "the Becky Sharp of the piece" says Coe. Younger than Keeler but also more streetwise, she turned potentially life-destroying accusations to her own advantage. "I think Mandy is really ballsy," says Ellie Bamber, who plays her. "She had horrible accusations made against her but she rode the wave, pushed any vulnerability deep down and turned the publicity to her own advantage." To understand the impact of the Profumo affair on British society at the time, it's essential to realise how repressed the country still was in 1963 when the news broke that Profumo, the secretary of state for war in Harold Macmillan's government, had had an affair with Keeler. The spice in the story came from reports that Keeler had also been sleeping with Soviet naval attaché – and spy – Ivanov, whom she had met through osteopath Ward. Ward had introduced her and Rice-Davies to well-connected men, and before long rumours were swirling of other establishment figures who may have known the girls. "She felt they would go after her for her boyfriends so she offered Ivanov up to take the pressure off," says Coe. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Keeler arrives at court in the 1963 trial of Ward. "The thing that really struck me reading the reports from the time is how much the press constructed the story they wanted to tell," says Andrea Harkin, who directed four of the six episodes of the series. Sophie Cookson, who plays Keeler in the series, does a fine job of capturing those contradictions. Her Keeler is both a lost teenager seeking solace and a father figure in Ward, and the sort of girl who can pick a fight in a nightclub to hold her boyfriend's attention. "I do think her story will resonate because even now women can feel that they should behave in this way or that way. At the story's heart lies the complicated relationship between Keeler and Ward (played by James Norton with a curdled charisma that both attracts and repels). For Coe, that ambiguity permeates the Profumo scandal. "This is a story filled with grey, and Stephen Ward in particular is a deeply ambivalent character," she says. "I do think [viewers'] opinions of him will change as the story goes along, as it will of Christine, because part of the message of the drama is that nobody is one thing. Similarly, Profumo's wife, Valerie (played by Emilia Fox), and the ebullient Rice-Davies are both given extended moments in which the images we have of them – the dutiful wife, the carefree good-time girl – are upended. "Valerie stood by her man, and that's often seen as a strategic act of loyalty but I think it's clear that she loved Profumo and remained attracted to him," says Fox. "What I loved about the story is that it seems to be a perfect storm of a public scandal with all the right ingredients – sex, race, politics – but at the heart it's a story of human frailty. How there was one story for men and another for women." It is also an attempt to explain why, after all these years, the Profumo affair continues to fascinate us. The Trial of Christine Keeler starts on Sunday 29 December at 9pm on BBC One Michael Caton-Jones's well-reviewed film starred Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler, Bridget Fonda as Mandy Rice-Davies, Ian McKellen as John Profumo and John Hurt as Stephen Ward. Hugh Whitemore's play follows Harold Macmillan's reaction to Profumo's resignation and the fallout from the affair. Stephen Ward (2013) William Nicholson's novel, which is partially about the Profumo affair, was praised for its addictive storytelling although some found his re-creation of the Ward set unconvincing.

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