Sex, politics, scandal, and a potential security breach to a Soviet spy; the Profumo Affair of 1963 had all the ingredients needed to make it one of the most infamous moments in British politics, after a prominent minister’s sexual affair with a showgirl helped topple a prime minister and later a government.
Now the political scandal is being dramatised onscreen in BBC One’s six-part series The Trial of Christine Keeler, starring Sophie Cookson, Ellie Bamber, Ben Miles and James Norton. Here’s everything you need to know about the real-life history behind the series…
Who was Christine Keeler, and how did she know Stephen Ward?
Christine Keeler (1942-2017) was a model and topless dancer who at 19-years-old had brief sexual relationships with both John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, and Captain Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché, during a similar time period.
Taking place during the Cold War, the Profumo Affair of 1963 rocked the country and the sitting Conservative government, as the public questioned whether Keeler could have passed sensitive information between her two lovers, resulting in a security breach. She was branded a “tart” by Harold Macmillan, the prime minister whose government collapsed as a result of the scandal.
Keeler (played in the BBC series by Sophie Cookson) came from a working-class background in Uxbridge. Her father left the family during World War 2, and the family moved to a house made of two converted railway carriages in Berkshire. She was found to be malnourished by local authorities, and at once point during her childhood she was sent away from home. According to Keeler’s memoirs, her step-father sexually abused her at age 12 and even asked her to run away with him. At 17 she became pregnant and tried to abort the child with a pen; the baby died at six days old.
Shortly afterwards Keeler began dancing at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho, London, where she met osteopath Stephen Ward (played by James Norton), an influential and fashionable figure who moved in high society and who made it his business to introduce Keeler to the toast of London. Ward was also a talented artist, and drew various sketches of his friends (his pastel portrait of Keeler was purchased two decades later by the National Portrait Gallery).
The pair reportedly had a platonic, non-sexual relationship: Keeler lived with Ward at his 17 Wimpole Mews flat in London, and he referred to her as his “little baby,” taking her to orgies and parties where she would meet powerful men, including Captain Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov, the Soviet naval attaché with whom she had a brief sexual relationship.
Little Women actor James Norton, who plays Ward in the BBC series, told RadioTimes.com: “The challenge was to keep reminding ourselves of the fact that he [Ward] was far from excusable in his actions, and while actually he was hoping and wanting to enable these young women and give them an opportunity to make a life for themselves, he also was using them in order to better himself and ingratiate himself with the gentlemen’s boys club. So it was that which was the challenge to honour, both of those sides to Stephen.”
How did Christine Keeler meet John Profumo?
The story goes that on 8th July 1961, a 19-year-old Christine Keeler emerged naked from a swimming pool at Cliveden, the Buckinghamshire mansion, owned by Lord Astor, where she was visiting. It was there during a pool party, also attended by Stephen Ward, that she was spotted by John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War – they were introduced while Keeler attempted to cover herself with a towel.
Profumo, then 46-years-old, was married to his wife Valerie, a former actress, known professionally as Valerie Hobson, who had appeared in a roster of acclaimed films including 1946’s Great Expectations, Bride of Frankenstein, The King and I, and Kind Hearts and Coronets (Keeler herself was impressed that Profumo was married to the famous actress). The Profumos made a glamorous and well-connected couple, and John Profumo seemed to tipped to become the next Prime Minister.
However, just two days after Profumo and a teenage Keeler were introduced at Cliveden, Profumo tracked her down, before meeting her while Valerie was away in his constituency and having, as Keeler would later put it, a “screw of convenience,” thus beginning the affair that would eventually end his political career.
Producer Rebecca Ferguson told RadioTimes.com she believes that there are certain similarities between the Profumo Affair and the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal, which rocked the White House some decades later. “The parallels between Monica and Christine are very, very obvious and other things that are happening right now,” she said. “It’s a very interesting – this series couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Ferguson added: “She’s not a kind of Snow White character, Christine, but she certainly didn’t deserve what the press did to her… She experienced abuse as a kid, and she experienced abuse in relationships, and this – the context of Christine Keeler ‘the myth’ really needed to be unpacked, and I think that’s what a long-form series does as opposed to a film.”
Who were ‘Lucky’ Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe?
Jamaican-born jazz singer Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon and Antiguan jazz promoter Johnny Edgecombe (‘the Edge’) were both Christine Keeler’s lovers following her affair with John Profumo; both would prove intensely jealous of one another and of Keeler’s affections. It was an altercation between the two men that would catalyse the eventual exposure of the Profumo Affair, and Keeler would also be later imprisoned for perjury after accusing Ward of assault.
“Lucky Gordon and Johnny are the characters that no one really knows,” producer Rebecca Ferguson told RadioTimes.com. “Everyone knows Profumo and Stephen Ward, but actually the reason Christine was so motivated to perjure herself was because she was absolutely terrified of Lucky Gordon.”
Keeler first met ‘Lucky’ Gordon in August 1961, while he was selling marijuana in Notting Hill. However, they had a toxic and violent relationship; Gordon once held her hostage for two days. They separated and Keeler met Johnny Edgecombe in 1962. The couple briefly moved in together in Brentford, but Gordon continued to stalk and harass Keeler; during a fight between Gordon and Edgecombe at the Flamingo Club in London, Gordon was left a gash on his face that required 17 stitches.
Anthony Welsh, who plays ‘Lucky’ Gordon, told RadioTimes.com that his character “thought he was bewitched by her [Keeler], or he thought that she’d put a spell on him. So it was trying to delve into what this obsession was, and this violence came out of, in a twisted way, some form of love that he didn’t understand. And I think it’s handled really delicately in the script. And it was tough but worthy.”
Keeler broke things off with Edgecombe, and a fortnight before Christmas in 1962, he arrived in a taxi outside Stephen Ward’s flat where Keeler was staying. Armed with a hand gun, he fired five shots into the door.
Why were the newspapers interested in Christine Keeler?
Christine Keeler first attracted the media’s attention and appeared in the papers after the shooting incident at Stephen Ward’s flat, when her ex-lover Johnny Edgecombe fired at the front door. Both Keeler and her friend, Mandy Rice-Davies, were inside the flat at the time.
The sensationalised story of violence and ‘pretty girls’ proved popular; both women were name-checked in various articles about the incident. The trial also brought attention to the women’s connections to Ward and his well-connected social set; following the resulting press interest Keeler began to speak out about Ward, Ivanov and Profumo. Rumours circulated around Parliament about Profumo’s affair – rumours that he strongly denied at first.
The series’ screenwriter Amanda Coe told RadioTimes.com that “one strong ingredient of the drama is: who owns the truth and who is telling the truth? In a way, it hinges on the lie that Profumo told to Parliament, which is that he didn’t have an affair, and that’s interesting because Christine then subsequently was the one who in later life had the reputation for being an unreliable witness”.
Keeler attempted to sell her story to the Sunday Mirror, and was given £200 up front and promised £800 once it was published. However, Stephen Ward informed the paper that the story was false and that he and others would threaten to sue – they eventually decided to hold the article.
Press interest was only heightened, however, when Keeler didn’t show up to Johnny Edgecombe’s trial, where she was supposed to testify as a witness (she was on holiday in Spain), and speculation abounded that Profumo had stopped Keeler from attending…
Who was Mandy Rice-Davies?
Mandy Rice-Davies was Christine Keeler’s friend and fellow showgirl, described in the papers following the Johnny Edgecombe shooting as an “aspiring actress”.
Rice-Davies worked at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho, where she met Keeler and was introduced to osteopath Stephen Ward and slum landlord Peter Rachman, whom she began a relationship with. She was with Keeler in December 1962 when Johnny Edgecombe appeared at Ward’s front door and, after being refused entry, fired shots at the door.
She would also later deliver the infamous line, “Well he would, wouldn’t he?,” when she was told in court that Lord Astor denied having an affair with her.
Les Misérables actress Ellie Bamber, who plays Mandy Rice-Davies in the series, said of her character: “She’s really fun and really honest, and kind of meets this awful situation with a smile on her face and even in her book she says, I realised from a young age that if you held your head high enough and walked through a room, nobody would ask you where you’re going. That was kind of like, that was the heart of her. She just kind of like got on with it and just said, ‘F**k you guys I’m going to do my thing.’
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, she continued: “I love Mandy, I think she’s f**king great. I think she’s brilliant. I remember, like, always calling her a hoot-and-a-half on set, because she’s just so fun and I just think she’s so brave, and to kind of really – to see the light in such a dark time, I think is a really special quality to have. I spoke to her daughter about that, and I think that was a thing she was always able to smile through it and she had this incredible sense of humour which allowed her to kind of see the humour in anything.”
Did Christine Keeler have an affair with Captain Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov?
In the BBC series, Christine Keeler says that she believes that she had a short, drunken sexual relationship with Captain Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché, referring to the night in question as a “blur” due to the amount of whisky she drank.
At the time, there was some speculation as to whether or not Keeler had really slept with Ivanov, as she reportedly first referenced it when she began speaking to the press.
However, it’s also true that on 22nd January 1963 the Soviet government recalled Ivanov, potentially because they sensed an impending political scandal.
The Trial of Christine Keeler is on Sunday nights on BBC One in January