Socialist Worker

The Trial of Christine Keeler rights some historic wrongs

This new BBC drama looks back on the events of the Profumo Affair—and tells a story of wealth, power, sexism and abuse, says Tomáš Tengely-Evans

Issue No. 2685

Sophie Cookson as Keeler and Ben Miles as Profumo in a show about power and unequal relationships

Sophie Cookson as Keeler and Ben Miles as Profumo in a show about power and unequal relationships


Links between Tory ministers, Russian spooks, and abuse in the top echelons of society are the sort of stuff that ought to bring down the powerful.

BBC One’s The Trial of Christine Keeler is a gripping watch that tells the story of when it did.

The Profumo Affair rocked the British establishment in 1963. Tory war minister John Profumo, tipped to be the next prime minister, had sex several times with 19 year old model Christine Keeler in 1961.

She had also had sex with Captain Yevgeny “Eugene” Ivanov, a naval officer working out of the Russian Embassy in London. They had met at a party hosted by Dr Stephen Ward, an osteopath and posh pimp for the rich and powerful.

Profumo lied—then was forced to resign. Ward killed himself before he could be sentenced for living off immoral earnings.

The major objections to Profumo’s behaviour at the time were about security implications, not abuse of power by older men. Keeler was then vilified in the press and lived a life of poverty.

When she died in 2017, the Guardian newspaper took the opportunity to reprint several photographs of a young Keeler in a swimsuit.

Dinner

In contrast, Profumo was slowly rehabilitated, awarded an OBE in 1975 and hosted to dinner by Margaret Thatcher.

The BBC drama tries to rectify what happened—and partially succeeds. The narrator is Keeler herself, played by Sophie Cookson.

Cookson’s portrayal of Keeler is of someone with a mind of her own, yet still a victim of the rich and powerful.In this world of ruling class depravity, you know which side you’re supposed to be on. Ben Miles is a perfect Profumo. There is something fundamentally weird and creepy about Ward (James Norton).

At the same time Ward is shown as an integral part of the upper classes, shooting with Lord Arran or dining with the Astors.

The drama doesn’t shy away from dealing with the abuse that Keeler suffered. One scene shows a visit to her mother’s home on a caravan site in Uxbridge. Keeler references how her stepfather and his friends used to abuse her.

There’s a powerful flashback to when Keeler almost died aged 16 because she had to induce an abortion with a pen after having sex with a boyfriend. Her mother objects to her boyfriend being black.

One of the show’s strengths is how it looks at unequal relationships. Keeler’s friend Mary (Ellie Bamber), who has just turned 18 in the drama, was in a relationship with slum landlord and gangster Peter Rachman.

The show introduces us to the pair as they have sex, a look of disdain on her face.

Mary both fears his temper and feels guilt when he dies of a heart attack.

If it continues as it started, The Trial of Christine Keeler is one to watch in 2020.

Starts Sunday 29 December, BBC1

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