New BBC drama The Trial of Christine Keeler was “illuminated and galvanised” by the #MeToo movement, the show’s creators have said – as they finally get a chance to tell the story of the Profumo Affair from a female perspective.
Model and showgirl Christine Keeler, played in this drama by Sophie Cookson, was just 19 when she had a brief sexual relationship with married government minister John Profumo (Ben Miles). When the story broke in 1963, it had huge consequences for everyone involved.
More than anyone, Keeler herself was vilified. “She really was seen as this harlot, this temptress, this siren,” screenwriter Amanda Coe said.
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Since then, the Profumo Affair has been the subject of many books and TV shows as well as a movie, a play, and even a stage musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But, as Coe pointed out, “the thing that seemed very notably missing was the story of the girls, and the women, and Valerie [Profumo]. And it was a story that had been told through this very male point of view and it just seemed ripe to be told in the kind of way that would redress that imbalance.”
The Trial of Christine Keeler has actually been in the works for six years – and, by happy coincidence, during that time we’ve seen huge change in the public conversation.
Two years ago, in October 2017, sexual abuse revelations about Harvey Weinstein and other industry figures finally hit the headlines. That was when the #MeToo movement exploded onto the scene.
Producer Rebecca Ferguson told press: “I think post the #MeToo movement, it suddenly felt like… I mean, the film Scandal was very much about Stephen Ward, and the rhetoric surrounding Profumo has always been: outstanding family guy who then went on to lead a charitable life and was awarded a CBE. And then Christine was always talked about as this kind of wanton woman who was a seductress.
“And it just was so unfair! Because he was in his late 40s and she was 19 and that difference of age – and then #MeToo and #TimesUp happened, and suddenly you go: well actually, let’s look at that story from the woman’s perspective and the young girl’s perspective. A teenager’s perspective, really.”
She added: “It was in development before, but then it just became so much more illuminated and galvanised by that movement.
“And she’s not a kind of Snow White character, Christine, but she certainly didn’t deserve what the press did to her… she’s not a sugarcoated character, but we do tell the truth of what happened to her and how she had systematic abuse throughout her life, and she had no money – she had nothing.
“It’s all very well and good that Profumo went on to do his charity work, but he was landed gentry, a man with incredible wealth, and she had nothing.”
Looking back on her decision to make the show alongside Amanda Coe, executive producer Kate Triggs explained: “It’s race, class, politics, sex – everything. So first of all I think it’s hopefully really enjoyable and really compelling for the audience, but I think the reason that I wanted to do it was I did want to refocus the lens on Christine and Mandy (Ellie Bamber), primarily, but also Stephen (played by James Norton).
“And to see these outliers, which they were – because as young women they weren’t married… they were very much out of their time, in a way. So it’s relevant, because it’s post Me Too, it’s very much on the money in terms of sexual politics, and the power balance between men and women, and also the power balance between the powerful and the not so powerful. So in all aspects, political social moral, all of that, it happens to be a story that has all of those things going for it.”
She added: “We started it six years ago, so it’s kind of lucky that it’s hit its moment, this moment, which is particularly exciting for it.”
Silent Witness star Emilia Fox, who takes on the role of Profumo’s wife Valerie, also reckoned it was the right time for a drama like this: “The audience perception has changed, and there is an appetite to see it from the point of view of the women and the ripple effect of what the scandal does.”
Keeler wasn’t the only young woman to be caught up in the scandal; her teenage friend Mandy Rice-Davies was also close to Stephen Ward and his social set. Told in court that Lord Astor had denied having an affair with her, she famously said: “Well he would, wouldn’t he?”
Ellie Bamber, who plays Rice-Davies, said: “It was also so important to give the girls and Stephen a voice, because it was always told from the establishment point of view and the press side. I feel like it should be told from their side.”
The Trial of Christine Keeler begins on Sunday 29th December at 9pm on BBC One