More than half a century on, the “Profumo affair” continues to exert a strong hold on the British public’s imagination. But while we’ve had the movie (1989’s Scandal), the West End musical (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2013 flop Stephen Ward) and even a top 20 hit (Dusty Springfield and the Pet Shop Boys’ Nothing Has Been Proved), The Trial of Christine Keeler is the first major TV treatment of the story (though some of its players did briefly pop up in the second series of The Crown).
As its title suggests, Amanda (Apple Tree Yard) Coe’s dramatisation places Christine Keeler – the Soho showgirl and aspiring model whose affair with Secretary of State for War John Profumo precipitated the downfall of Harold Macmillan’s government – front and centre in the saga. In that sense, it’s very much a post-#MeToo take on the affair, illustrating how a 19-year-old girl was hung out to dry by the powerful, male-dominated British establishment.
It would be a stretch to call Keeler the heroine of her own story, though: careless and capricious, she is often her own worst enemy, and Coe’s script – judging by the first two episodes, at least – doesn’t sugar-coat its portrayal of a woman with no qualms about using sex to advance her cause in life.
“Men are such fools,” she explains in voiceover. “I like ’em, and they seem to like me.” But when you’ve had as rough a start as she did – deserted by her father, penniless to the point of malnutrition, and sexually abused from a young age – you can hardly blame a teenage girl for dreaming of a better life
Her face, she is often told, is her fortune – but it also proves to be her ruin: trouble follows Christine wherever she goes, at which point there’s always a man, be it John Profumo or her ex-lover Aloysius 'Lucky' Gordon – a London jazz scenester with a violent temper – to say: “Look what you made me do.” As if men are so helplessly bewitched by her, everything that follows must be her fault.
To that extent, the success of this six-part series stands or falls on casting a lead actor with enough presence to forcefully convey what all the fuss is about. And Kingsman’s Sophie Cookson is simply sensational. Yes, the physical resemblance – that same, traffic-stopping beauty – is uncanny, but Cookson also finds just the right mix of strength and vulnerability in a young woman who is simultaneously street smart, and hopelessly naïve.
At times, it feels like Christine holds the whip hand (even standing naked by the pool at Cliveden, the country seat of Lord and Lady Astor, she exudes confidence where most of us would feel brutally exposed); at others, she is just as much of a fool for a wealthy man as they are for a pretty girl.
James Norton is reliably good as Stephen Ward, the “society osteopath” who gets his kicks introducing penniless swinging '60s London girls to his friends in high places – a particularly incendiary mix when one of those girls is making pillow talk with both the war minister (Ben Miles, oily of hair and character as Jack Profumo) and a Soviet naval attaché (Visar Vishka). Little wonder that, while initially dismissed by the security services as “mere window dressing”, Christine is eventually deemed to be “more dangerous than the Russian bomb”.
Directed by Andrea Harkin (this is a female-led endeavour at every level), it’s an extremely handsome, expensive-looking production that wouldn’t look out of place dropped into a run of The Crown. Indeed, two of Her Majesty’s Prime Ministers from that show, Anton Lesser and Michael Maloney, pop up here, in a cast that radiates class at every level.
Misfits’ Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is terrific as Johnny Edgecombe, the spurned lover whose arrest for possession of a firearm lit the fuse of the entire Profumo scandal, and Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals, Les Misérables) cements her rising star status as Christine’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies, of “he would, wouldn’t he?” fame. A special mention, too, for Emilia Fox as Valerie Profumo who, far from being the poor, wronged wife, invests every line with a glint of steel that leaves us in no doubt about who wears the trousers in that relationship (and what she might do if her husband doesn’t learn to keep his on).
The story hops all over the timeline, as every drama these days is seemingly obliged to do, gradually revealing its tapestry of sex, lies and scandal. “I was a naive girl with more power than I could ever have dreamed of,” says Christine at one point. Except, of course, there are much bigger powers at work, and that same naïve girl, tossed on the storm of events she can no longer control, seems destined to pay a heavy price.
In an age where politicians appear increasingly bulletproof in the face of scandal, there was a danger that The Trial of Christine Keeler’s sexual and political shenanigans might look tame in comparison. But there’s something about the characters in this particular drama that, coupled with the evocative Cold War backdrop, makes the story as compelling today as it was to the people following every twist and turn in the headlines six decades ago.
The Trial of Christine Keeler is on BBC One on Sunday nights at 9pm throughout January