Scandal ...Femme Fatales-Christine Keeler And Mandy Rice-Davies, The Profumo Affair
1963: The Profumo scandal
At the height of the cold war in the early 60s, as the established order was challenged as never before, Britons paid rapt attention to a sordid little affair which involved a cabinet minister, a showgirl and a Soviet naval attache. Derek Brown looks back on 1963
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 10 April 2001
That old rogue Larkin was out by a few years of course, but he captured perfectly the mood of the early 1960s. It was an era in which anything was possible and nothing was safe; a time when the established order was being challenged, subverted, and ultimately buried.
The Chatterley ban was indeed one of the first shibboleths to evaporate. In August 1960 Penguin was prosecuted for publishing one of DH Lawrence's lesser works, Lady Chatterley's Lover, notable only for its use of the f-word and some sublimely silly sex scenes. The trial was farcical - at one stage the jurors were invited to consider whether they would be happy for their wives and servants to read such a book - and the outcome rarely in doubt. When Penguin was given the go ahead to publish, there was minor pandemonium: the initial print run of 200,000 copies sold out on the day of issue, November 10, at the then rather stiff price of 3s 6d (17.5p).
Several more sensations were to unfold before - to follow Larkin's conceit - the Beatles' first LP. 1961 saw the first publication of a little magazine trying to revive an age old tradition of political and social satire. It was called Private Eye. In the same year, and the same spirit, a group of Cambridge graduates - Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller - brought their irreverent revue, Beyond the Fringe, to London's West End.
In 1962 satire burst out on television, with the late night show That Was The Week That Was, or TW3 to its aficionados. It thrived by debunking religion, politics, royalty and sex, attracting a colossal audience of some 12m viewers - almost as many as the other TV sensation of the age, Coronation Street - making presenter David Frost a national celebrity, and giving the BBC governors some sleepless nights.
The mood of iconoclasm spread even to the Palace of Westminster. In 1961 a young and ardent Labour MP, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, was barred from the House of Commons after winning a byelection at Bristol South-east, on account of having inherited a viscountcy. Tony Benn, as we now know him, went on to campaign successfully for peers to be allowed to renounce the titles - and, in his case, to shear several syllables off their names as well.
The mood of the day was embodied in the explosion of pop culture. Towards the end of 1962 there was a surge of interest in a new group - they were not called bands then - from Liverpool. It wasn't so much the music at first which caught the public eye (their first single, Love Me Do, barely scraped into the Top 20), but rather their bizarrely long hair. The following year, curiosity became craze, and the Beatles were on their way to their first LP.
The political context
Some commentators have compared the convulsions of the early 1960s, leading up to the election of Harold Wilson's first Labour government in 1964, with the sweeping aside of the Thatcher-Major years and the accession of Tony Blair in 1997. The analogy is tempting: both events involved the ending of long periods of unbroken Conservative government, and the promise at least of a new era. But it is a false comparison none the less. What happened in 1997 was a change of management and style. In 1964, the upheaval was much more fundamental.
At the start of the decade, the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, was still basking in the glow of his 1959 near-landslide election victory, with a Commons majority of over 100. The cartoonists called him Supermac, and political writers were addicted to the adjective "unflappable". Urbane, patrician and when the occasion demanded utterly ruthless, he seemed scarcely threatened by a Labour party wracked by left-right dissent.
But Supermac was not invincible at all. There was rising discontent in the country and in the Tory party over Britain's lacklustre postwar economic performance. Japan and Germany were booming, while the UK's hidebound economy was bedevilled by inflation and dreadful labour relations. Belatedly, the government lumbered towards an application to join the European Economic Community, universally known as the Common Market, but the nation was less and less enamoured by ministers who seemed to represent a bygone age.
Rising discontent led to a series of resounding byelection defeats for the government, most sensationally at Orpington in Kent in March 1962, when a Tory majority of nearly 15,000 was turned into a majority of 7,800 for Jeremy Lubbock of the suddenly resurgent Liberal party. Macmillan, hitherto unflappable, began to flap like a wet hen. Four months after Orpington, in one of the most ruthless political bloodlettings of modern times, he abruptly sacked and replaced seven senior ministers - one-third of the entire cabinet. It was instantly dubbed 'the night of the long knives'. Supermac became Mac the Knife.
Conservative disarray, meanwhile, was being mirrored by Labour consolidation. For much of the 1950s, the party had been convulsed by ideological wrangling, most notably over the issue of nuclear disarmament. Hugh Gaitskell, who had taken over the leadership from the last Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, was politically all but hamstrung by the internecine strife. But the new decade, with its intangible but unmistakable sense of change, brought a new sense of purpose - and opportunity - to the party. By the time Aneurin Bevan, the leading leftist scourge of the establishment, died in 1960, the party was reinventing itself as a movement for change.
Harold Wilson, seen as a pragmatic leftist, first challenged Gaitskell for the leadership, unsuccessfully, in November 1960. But he and his generation of Labour leaders - George Brown, Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey - were honing a new style of politics which looked to the challenges of the future, not the ideology of the past. That their time was coming, they had no doubt. But they could not have known that their ascent to power would be hastened by a scandal more sensational than any in modern British politics.
Tarts, toffs and traitors
Even today, in our peculiar society, we get excited when ministers and other public figures are caught with their pants down. In 1963, the very notion was deeply, deliciously shocking.
It was still mostly a pre-pill, pre-promiscuity age, when unmarried pregnancy was a matter of deep family shame, and backstreet abortionists thrived. The tabloid newspapers were already brash but not yet sex-crazed, and were by and large polite to politicians. But when the storm broke, it was not simply driven by sex; there was a deep, dark context of rank treachery.
Since the early 1950s, when diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean fled to their paymasters in Moscow, the chattering classes had speculated about the existence of a "third man". The brave new world of the 1960s did nothing to curb the tittle-tattle; indeed, as the cold war intensified, the issue assumed ever more menacing implications.
In 1961 George Blake, another ex-diplomat, was given a record 42-year prison sentence for spying for the Russians. Sensationally, he was said to have been brainwashed by communists while in captivity in Korea. Even more sensationally, he was to escape from jail after serving only five years.
The cold war was at its coldest, and the Soviet Union was at the zenith of its power, launching the first man into space, and defying the world by supervising the construction of the Berlin Wall. America's apparent impotence, meanwhile, was underlined by the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world terrifyingly close to nuclear annihilation.
Close to the peak of the crisis, a 38-year-old Admiralty clerk and the son of a vicar, William Vassall, was jailed for 18 years for spying for the USSR. He had been recruited by the KGB in a homosexual "honey trap". In July 1963 the government named Kim Philby, former Foreign Office colleague of Burgess and Maclean, as the "third man". But even that huge revelation was subsumed in a greater sensation now gripping the nation.
For months, rumours had circulated about the private life of John Dennis Profumo, secretary of state for war. Educated at Harrow and Oxford, he was a quintessential high Tory who had achieved cabinet rank after serving in a number of junior posts. He was married to the film star Valerie Hobson, and moved effortlessly in the highest of society.
In the deferential spirit of the 1950s, the rumours may have been restricted to salon gossip. Now, in the new age of iconoclasm, the whispers were amplified in the media. That Was The Week That Was scored a telling blow with a splendid parody of the old music hall number, She was Poor but she was Honest. The words of the new version went: "See him in the House of Commons / Making laws to put the blame / While the object of his passion / Walks the streets to hide her shame."
The "object of his passion" was a young woman whose name is now embedded in British political folklore: Christine Keeler.
Keeler, unlike Profumo, had had an extremely undistinguished life. Born in 1942, she left home at 16 after an unhappy childhood in the Thames Valley, and gravitated to London where she found work of a sort at Murray's cabaret club. There she met and befriended another showgirl, Marilyn "Mandy" Rice-Davies. Soon, both young women had drifted into the racy circle around Stephen Ward, a fashionable West End osteopath and socialite.
Keeler's relationship with Ward was both torrid and rocky. They broke up several times, but he seemed to exercise an almost centripetal force on her, and always she drifted back. Soon both young women were celebrated players, albeit with bit parts, in Ward's sexual circus.
Not all the action was centred on Ward's Wimpole Mews flat, equipped with two-way mirrors and other aids to lubricity. Soon, Keeler and Rice-Davies were circulating in more exalted milieux, including Lord Astor's country mansion of Cliveden. It was there that John Profumo first laid eyes on her. A brief but passionate affair ensued, and tongues began to wag.
Even then, it might have been brushed under the carpet in the time honoured English way, but Profumo made a fundamental error: he lied to the House of Commons. In March 1963 he told the chamber that there was "no impropriety whatever" in his relationship with Keeler. Ten weeks later he appeared before MPs again to say "with deep remorse" that he had misled the House, and would resign.
What brought Profumo down even more than his deceit of the Commons, was the startling revelation that Keeler had also slept with Eugene Ivanov, the naval attache at the Soviet embassy. It was that detail which captured world attention, notably in the United States, where the FBI compiled a detailed report called Operation Bowtie.
In Britain, Profumo's downfall naturally caused a huge sensation, inflated by the establishment's crude and cruel attempts to find scapegoats for its own embarrassment. As usual, official wrath was turned on those least able to defend themselves. Stephen Ward was prosecuted for living on immoral earnings. On the last day of his trial, he killed himself with an overdose of sleeping tablets.
Keeler was also tried and imprisoned on related charges. Rice-Davies, who escaped prosecution, earned a dubious immortality when, during the Ward trial, she was told that Lord Astor disputed her version of events and replied: "He would, wouldn't he?"
Less than two months after Ward's tragic and mysterious death, an official report was produced by Lord Denning, master of the rolls. It was a hot number: hundreds queued to buy a copy when it was released at midnight. But there were few juicy bits in Denning's findings. He criticised the government for failing to deal with the affair more quickly, but concluded that national security had not been compromised. And, to the dismay of the reading public, he failed to identify the man who, naked except for a mask, had served at Ward's dinner parties. There had been rumours that the "man in a mask" was a cabinet minister but Denning, who interviewed him, denied it.
There it ended, though it never really went away. The 1989 movie, Scandal reignited some of the controversy, and Christine Keeler raked over the embers in her autobiography, The Truth At Last, published early in 2001. In it, she revived some of the more startling claims made at the time - though alas she was unable to offer convincing new evidence to back them up. She claims for example, that the then MI5 chief, Sir Roger Hollis, was a Soviet spy; and that Stephen Ward ran a spy ring which included Hollis and Sir Anthony Blunt, who was surveyor of the Queen's pictures. Blunt was indeed revealed as a long-time Soviet agent in the 1980s, around the same time that Hollis, the object of numerous rumours, was officially cleared.
Now 58, Keeler has consistently said that successive governments have hushed up the truth of the sordid, sensational Profumo affair. Her only new (and unverifiable) claim, is that the cabinet minister made her pregnant.
And Profumo himself? Remarkably, he is still with us at 86, though friends say he is very frail now. It's nearly four decades since his humiliating fall from grace; years which he has devoted largely to charity work in London's East End. He has also remained true to his tribal code of honour, having never uttered a public word on the events which shook the nation in 1963.
The Profumo affair was no passing sensation. It all but brought down the Macmillan government and it almost certainly finished Macmillan himself as prime minister. In October 1963, less than a month after publication of the Denning report, the prime minister resigned citing ill health. There were no party elections in those days, and the mantle passed to the most improbable of candidates, the 14th Earl of Home.
The Tory mandarins - known as "the magic circle" - were desperate to keep out the obvious successor, Rab Butler, who was on the liberal wing of the party. They preferred the Old Etonian, cricket-loving laird, who was only too happy to oblige, quickly using the recent legislation sparked by the Anthony Wedgwood-Benn affair to renounce his ancient title and transform into being plain Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
It very nearly worked. Weeks after the installation of the new prime minister, the upheaval was subsumed in the global shock of the assassination of John F Kennedy. A year later, in October 1964, Sir Alec called a general election. The polls were against him and so were the satirists, who simply could not take seriously the cadaverous-featured drawling aristocrat. But the country was not so sure: the economy was looking up, the hugely respected Hugh Gaitskell had died and been replaced by the wily Harold Wilson, and Labour had been out of office since 1951.
In the end, that last point almost certainly swung the election. The slogan "13 wasted years" was drummed home again and again, and found resonance with an electorate who knew they were living in a new age; one that was no longer represented by the Tory old guard who had propelled an earl into Downing Street.
The result was close, though. Labour won 317 seats, the Conservatives 303, and the Liberals nine. Taking the Speaker and deputies into account, Wilson had a Commons majority of just four, to support him in his promise to deliver Britain into a new age.
Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century - 35: Christine Keeler, Call Girl
Saturday, 10 April 1999 in The Independent
Arguably the least enduring aspect of the so-called Profumo Affair was that it helped nail the coffin lid on 13 years of Conservative government. We've lived through other political cycles since then, and now more easily appreciate that these come and go in fairly predictable patterns. Scandal is a symptom of decline - not a cause.
John Profumo, Harold MacMillan's Minister of War, resigned in 1963 after lying to the House of Commons about his affair with "society girl" Christine Keeler. "Procured" for Lord Astor's Cliveden set by society osteopath Stephen Ward, the 17-year-old Keeler was first spotted by Profumo climbing naked out of the swimming pool as Profumo and his wife, the actress Valerie Hobson, took an evening stroll. There is something almost classical in the encounter - like the Greek god Alpheus's first espial of a river nymph. This was a cautionary tale - but Profumo was presumably too enraptured to remember his Ovid.
It might have ended with Profumo's prompt resignation in 1963 had not the authorities decided to make a scapegoat of Stephen Ward. It was at Ward's trial for living off immoral earnings that Christine Keeler and her co-witness Mandy Rice- Davies came into their own.
There is no doubt that Rice-Davies, not Keeler, was the folk heroine of the trial. Her artless replies to cross-examination de-lighted the public, and her answer on being told that Lord Astor denied having an affair with her - "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?" - has passed into daily usage. Blonde and brunette, Keeler and Rice-Davies became inseparably linked, although Keeler, at the time and since, has publicly disassociated herself with the "call girl" Rice-Davies.
So what happened to elevate Keeler to the status of heroine? After all, life wasn't very generous to her after Profumo. A nine-month stretch in Holloway for perjury and two divorces led to a poverty-stricken life in a public housing project by the time Joanne Whalley-Kilmer portrayed her in the 1989 film Scandal.
But the thing is, the film was principally about Keeler - not Rice-Davies, who was played in a lesser role by Bridget Fonda. Something had happened between 1963 and 1989 and that thing was a photograph. The famous shot of a naked Christine Keeler astride a black plastic Arne Jacobsen chair - the chair's back keeping her decent - is often misattributed to David Bailey or Terence Donovan. It was in fact taken by the Hong Kong-born snapper Ewis Morley in an upstairs room at Peter Cook's Establishment Club in Soho during the summer of 1963.
The photograph was meant as a publicity still for a projected film about the Profumo affair. "She only agreed to strip after we cleared the room of all attendants and turned down the lights," remembers Morley. "I even offered to turn my back." Keeler always claims she kept her pants on.
Morley remembers a wide-eyed, naive young woman - the exact opposite of everything that the photograph conveys. This became an instant icon of the emergent Swinging Sixties - defiance and liberation in one posture. Popsies as Pop Art. Fallen women were no longer brushed out of sight - they were a fashion statement.
The photograph's potency has endured - shorthand for modern, sexually independent women - and has been reconstructed in advertising campaigns as diverse as the Citroen Saxo and granary bread. Kylie copied it, Joe Orton satirised it, and the pose is a veritable cliche in men's style mags. Last year in Glasgow, the Spice Girls even recreated the pose on stage - giving Christine the ultimate accolade. The progenitor of Girl Power.
Christine Keeler 1963, Lewis Morley (Australian, born 1925), Gelatin-silver print
The urban myth that the photograph of Christine Keeler astride an Arne Jacobsen chair was taken when she was a model is false in more senses than one.
First, the chair used in the photo turns out to be a copy of the original. The hand-hold aperture cut out of the back was a ploy to avoid the legalities of copyright. Secondly the photograph was taken, not on a modelling session, but at the height of the revelations regarding the exposure, of the going ons, of the War Minister and a young female, caught up in an affair which became known as 'The Scandal' or 'The Profumo Affair'.
Photographer Lewis Morley recalls the photo session which led to the creation of a modern icon:
'This photograph was one of a series of publicity shots for an intended film which never saw the light of day. It was not until 1989 that a film of the 1963 happenings was released under the title Scandal. The photographic session took place in my studio, which at that time was on the first floor of the "Establishment" , a satirical night club, part-owned by Peter Cook of "Beyond The Fringe" fame. The satirical sketches took place on a small stage on the ground floor of the club. The Dudley Moore Trio played Jazz in the basement.
'During the session, three rolls of 120 film were shot. The first two rolls had Christine sitting in various positions on the chair and on the floor, dressed in a small leather jerkin. It was at this point that the film producers who were in attendance demanded she strip for some nude photos.
Christine Keeler 1963, Lewis Morley (Australian, born 1925), Gelatin-silver print.
Christine was reluctant to do so, but the producers insisted, saying that it was written in her contract. The situation became rather tense and reached an impasse. I suggested that everyone, including my assistant leave the studio. I turned my back to Christine, telling her to disrobe, sit back to front on the chair. She was now nude, fulfilling the conditions of the contract, but was at the same time hidden.
'We repeated some of the poses used on the previous two rolls of film. I rapidly exposed some fresh positions, some angled from the side and a few slightly looking down. I felt that I had shot enough and took a couple of paces back. Looking up I saw what appeared to be a perfect positioning. I released the shutter one more time, in fact, it was the last exposure on the roll of film.
'Looking at the contact sheet, one can see that this image is smaller than the rest because I had stepped back. It was this pose that became the first published and most used image. The nude session had taken less than five minutes to complete. It wasn't until I developed the film that I discovered that somehow I had misfired one shot and there were only eleven images on a twelve exposure film. How this came about is a mystery to me.'
Johnny Edgecombe, who has died aged 77, fired the gunshots that precipitated the Profumo affair of the 1960s, which brought down the Conservative government of the day and led to Labour's narrow election victory in 1964.
04 Oct 2010 in The Telegraph
Edgecombe, a dope-dealing drifter, was the lover and minder of Christine Keeler, the young nightclub "hostess" who was also the mistress of John Profumo, Secretary of State for War. This irregular state of affairs might never have become public knowledge but for Edgecombe's decision to seek a showdown with Christine Keeler 10 days before Christmas in 1962, following her decision to end their live-in relationship.
Keeler had sought sanctuary at the Marylebone flat of her "mentor", the society osteopath Stephen Ward, where at lunchtime on December 14 an agitated Edgecombe leapt out of a minicab clutching a pistol. When Keeler refused to see him, he attempted to charge down the front door, and then fired several shots at the lock.
He was only one claimant to her affections. As well as Profumo, Keeler was also sleeping with Yevgeny Ivanov, a spy based at the Russian embassy in London under diplomatic cover as assistant naval attaché. Furthermore she had become involved with a vicious Jamaican drug dealer called Aloysius "Lucky" Gordon, who was jealously infatuated with her. When she ended this last affair, Gordon had assaulted her in a London street and held her hostage for two days while wielding an axe.
As a result Edgecombe confronted Gordon in a Soho club and sliced his face with a knife, inflicting a wound that needed 17 stitches. Fearful of reprisals from Gordon, he then asked Keeler to help him find a solicitor so he could surrender himself to police. But Keeler, jealous that Edgecombe (the man she called "the Edge") had taken another lover, refused to help him and said she planned to give evidence against him in court. This decision led him to plot her murder, and thus to the exposure of the whole Profumo story.
When Edgecombe arrived at Ward's Wimpole Mews flat and fired at the front door, it gave the still-deferential newspapers of the day the chance they had been looking for to dig deeper into rumours about Keeler and Profumo that had been circulating in Fleet Street for some time. An apparently motiveless shooting in a quiet London street would normally have attracted little attention; but Edgecombe's appearance in court the following day made the front page of The Daily Telegraph.
Keeler, already threatened by the pressure she had been put under to extract nuclear secrets from Profumo, was left feeling even more vulnerable after what Bernard Levin called Edgecombe's "Sarajevo-like" volley of shots. Three months later, when she failed to turn up at Edgecombe's trial, the dam of press reticence about the case finally burst. On March 15 the Daily Express, signalling the extent of the gathering political storm, ran the banner headline "WAR MINISTER SHOCK" alongside a large picture of Keeler under the heading: "VANISHED".
John Arthur Alexander Edgecombe was born on October 22 1932 in St John's, the capital of Antigua, the youngest of eight children. His father, a sailor known as "Captain Johnny", owned a schooner running gasoline for Esso from Trinidad to Antigua, and his small son often accompanied him until, in 1942, he took American citizenship and disappeared.
The 10-year-old Johnny junior stayed with an uncle in Trinidad, but ran away after only a few weeks, hustling for food and shelter. After returning to Antigua, he sailed as a pantry boy aboard HMS Prospector, carrying sugar to the Tate and Lyle refinery in Liverpool.
From Liverpool he moved to Cardiff, where he slept at a seamen's mission in the Tiger Bay dock area and smoked his first joint. "Within days," he remembered, "I had a full time job smoking dope." He appeared to have had no formal education, and his teenage years floated past on a cloud of marijuana.
Determined to try to find his missing father, he hid on a ship bound for Galveston, Texas, but on arrival was arrested and put back on board for the return trip. When he docked at North Shields, magistrates jailed him for 28 days as a stowaway. Drifting to London on his release, Edgecombe found lodgings in Maida Vale, and – posing as an African prince – persuaded a series of jewellers to show him expensive rings which he and two accomplices proceeded to steal.
The scam soon landed him back in prison, and he served a three-month sentence. Putting his then girlfriend on the street, he combined the trade of pimp with that of running what he claimed was London's first shebeen, an illegal drinking and dope den, from a rented flat in Colville Terrace, Notting Hill, owned by the notorious 1950s slum landlord Peter Rachman.
There he met and first crossed "Lucky" Gordon, who threatened to tip off the police about the shebeen. Edgecombe closed it down, and drifted into the jazz scene, driving musicians like Tubby Hayes, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie to provincial gigs and back to London overnight. He moved on to dealing dope, mainly to black American GIs who arrived in London at weekends from their bases flush with cash. In September 1962 he met "a very foxy chick" called Christine Keeler and moved into her flat in Sheffield Terrace.
At the Old Bailey in March 1963, Edgecombe was acquitted of assaulting "Lucky" Gordon, but jailed for seven years on the lesser charge of possession a firearm outside Wimpole Mews. A week later Profumo told Parliament that there had been no impropriety in his relationship with Christine Keeler; 10 weeks later he admitted lying, and resigned from the government. For his part, Edgecombe complained of his "unjust" treatment at the hands of the Establishment.
He maintained his conviction had been racially motivated, and served more than five years of his sentence before being released. "The British people wouldn't wear a situation where a government minister was sleeping with the same chick as a black guy," he said.
On his release Edgecombe became a jazz promoter, ran a club called Edges, and found work as a film and television extra. His highly unreliable memoirs, Black Scandal, appeared in 2002.
Johnny Edgecombe, who died on September 26, is survived by two daughters from his marriage to Vibeke Filtenborg, a Danish au pair, and by a daughter by his former partner, Jane Jones.
Scandal (1989) is a British drama film, a fictionalised account of the Profumo Affair. Starring Joanne Whalley as Christine Keeler and John Hurt as Stephen Ward, personalities at the heart of the affair, the film details the scandal which in 1963 rocked the government of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and may have contributed to the defeat of the ruling Conservative Party at the following year's general election. The cast also includes Ian McKellen as John Profumo, Britt Ekland as Mariella Novotny, Bridget Fonda as Mandy Rice-Davies, Leslie Phillips as Lord Astor, and Roland Gift as Johnnie Edgecombe.
The film's theme song "Nothing Has Been Proved" was written and produced by Pet Shop Boys and sung by Dusty Springfield.
The film was screened out of competition at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.
Christine Keeler: Double exposure
Christine Keeler's notorious affair with John Profumo never seems to lose its charge. The scandal that rocked Sixties Britain has already been made into a film, and now it's to become both a play and a musical. Alice Jones reports
Tuesday, 23 January 2007 in The Independent
From the Wicked Witch of the West to Sister Wendy, these days no life story is immune from the musical treatment. Next in line for an all-singing, all-dancing biographical treatment is Christine Keeler, the 19-year-old model at the heart of the notorious Profumo affair which rocked the Conservative government in 1963. While the heady mix of sex, politics and spies was made into a film, Scandal, in 1989 starring Joanne Whalley as Keeler and Ian McKellen as John Profumo, A Model Girl will be its first musical outing.
As the first modern political sex scandal, the Profumo affair paved the way for countless tawdry tales about the private lives of politicians. From David Mellor and John Major, to David Blunkett and John Prescott, not to mention the Liberal Democrats, affairs of the heart have often eclipsed home affairs in the House of Commons. But in 40 years nothing has come close to the glamour and drama of the Profumo affair, immortalised by Lewis Morley's nude photograph of Keeler astride the sensual curves of an Arne Jacobsen chair.
The young showgirl was introduced to the upper echelons of society by the osteopath Stephen Ward at Lord Astor's country estate, Cliveden, in 1961. She went on to have affairs with Profumo, then Secretary of State for War and, at the same time, Evgeny Ivanov, a Soviet naval attaché. The tangled web ended in Keeler's imprisonment, Ward's suicide and Profumo's resignation, and heralded the beginning of the end for Harold Macmillan's government. It also ushered in a whole new era of sexual permissiveness and miniskirts, the birth of pop music and Beatlemania and new rules of engagement for the media as private lives were made public property for the first time.
"Great musicals are often set against the backdrop of historic watersheds," says Richard Alexander, the writer of A Model Girl. The story of a politician censured for lying about his affair provides a "useful contrast" with the current trend for spin and deception, while the media coverage at the time planted the seeds for today's pervasive and invasive celebrity culture. "If this happened today," says Alexander, "Christine would be in the Big Brother house."
Alexander has been working on the script for five years, attempting to establish some truths amid myriad reports on the scandal. "Everybody's autobiography differs. Christine - who has written three - differs with herself," he says. Of the main players, only Profumo, who died in March last year, maintained his silence. Alexander delayed the completion of his play until a biography written by the disgraced politician's son, David, was published in September. "[Profumo] never commented but I felt he might have told David. In fact he remained his totally charming, inscrutable self and told his son nothing."
Alexander's "investigative crusade" took him to the National Archives Office and forced him to navigate the vagaries of the Freedom of Information Act. He discovered that records pertaining to Stephen Ward's trial would not be released until 2045, and MI5 notes on the case were still heavily redacted, regarded as "too sensitive" to this day.
As news of his quest spread, however, he began to "get calls at strange hours of the night" from eye-witnesses. From these he has pieced together a new version of events which promises to raise some intriguing questions. Why was Ward investigated by more than 50 police for the relatively minor offence of living off immoral earnings? What happened to Ivanov?
The action will unfold via a swinging soundtrack of flugel horns and Hammond organs, composed by Marek Rymaszewski. The title song, "A Model Girl", has Ward crooning to his new protégée, "There's no one in Who's Who, who won't fall for you", over a breathy, doo-wop chorus of "ooh my baby".
In the role of Keeler, director Ruth Carney has cast Emma Williams, previously known to musical lovers for her squeaky-clean Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. "She brings the innocence that Keeler has to have," says Carney. "Audiences will see how that innocence has matured since she was 19 and playing Truly Scrumptious, in the same way that Keeler matures throughout the piece."
Williams isn't fazed by her move into a raunchier role. "It's not all about sex," she protests. "A lot of it is having to establish what was acceptable and what wasn't and to understand that women were not really allowed to enjoy sex. She was the first of a new generation."
The 23-year-old actress has read biographies but has been unable to run her interpretation by the woman in question. "She hasn't been forthcoming and I have to respect that and step away," she says. "I hope that she might come and see the show and she will find my interpretation respectful and truthful." Keeler, now 64 and living in London under an assumed name, has been sent drafts of the script, but to no avail. "She made some attempts via her lawyers to say Profumo was her copyright," says Alexander. "But you can't copyright history."
Just two weeks after A Model Girl opens in Greenwich, Keeler opens in Highgate, with Alice Coulthard in the title role. Unlike the musical, this project has Keeler's full approval, being based on her 2001 autobiography, The Truth at Last. The actor Paul Nicholas, business partner of producer David Ian, bought the rights to the book, having spotted its theatrical potential. "I think Christine just wants to put it out there and let it lay to rest. She's had to live with being Christine Keeler for a long time and it's not easy," he says.
Although Keeler will feature an early 1960s soundtrack of Shirley Bassey, Adam Faith, The Platters and Ritchie Valens, it is a straight play written by Gill Adams, who spent many hours consulting Keeler. "I wanted to get under the skin of the woman - we'd talk about make-up, how she felt when she wore certain clothes, the sexuality of a young girl realising she is beautiful and growing up during such an exciting period." Adams "felt like a detective" as she wrote and her script promises revelations of its own. "The relationship between Ward and Keeler will be the surprise more than anything else."
It is, to all intents and purposes, Keeler's play. "She drives the story right from the start. It wasn't easy for me - she approved every single word, down to the last letter," says Adams.
With not one but two plays dedicated to her story, Keeler's theatrical hour has finally arrived. As for Lembit: the Musical! with songs by the Cheeky Girls - it can only be a matter of time.
Macmillan to publish Christine Keeler's confession
By Catherine Milner, Arts Correspondent in The Telegraph
10 Sep 2000
An autobiography by Christine Keeler, the party girl whose revelations almost brought down Harold Macmillan's Conservative Government in 1963, is due to be published by Macmillan publishing house, the company he once ran.
Christine Keeler: the book is said to include 'sensational' revelations
The book, which will cast new light on Britain's biggest political scandal since the war, includes new confessions by Miss Keeler, 57, about her pillow talk with John Profumo, then the War Secretary, as well as Yevgeny Ivanov, the Soviet attaché with whom she was also sleeping.
It is being published early next year by Macmillan, which Harold Macmillan ran with his brother Daniel before he entered politics. David Macmillan, who is director of the publishing house, and his brother Alexander, Lord Stockton, who is President of the company are the grandsons of Harold Macmillan.
The book, the contents of which are secret, has been written by Miss Keeler with Douglas Thompson, a biographer. It includes intimate photographs taken by Miss Keeler which have never been seen before. A publishing insider involved with the book said: "Keeler now thinks she can tell everything. "It is not just sex but a detailed account of everything that went on. It will make disturbing reading for some people."
It is said to focus on Miss Keeler's bitterness towards Mandy Rice-Davies, her one-time friend and party girl who was involved in exposing the scandal. Miss Rice-Davies, when told that her allegations had been denied by Lord Astor, a key player in the drama, famously coined the rebuttal: "He would, wouldn't he."
The 500-page book is said to include "sensational" revelations which Miss Keeler will elaborate on this Wednesday when she revisits Cliveden, Bucks, to attend a publishing seminar organised by Macmillan. The house was the family home of the Astors during the scandal, and it was there, in 1961, that Miss Keeler was introduced to Profumo by the osteopath Stephen Ward, having stripped naked by the swimming pool.
Last year she went back to Cliveden and described the experience as "sad". She blamed Ward for making her name a "sullied dishcloth". In a television interview, she said: "Stephen dared me to take off my swimsuit and I did. Then all of a sudden Bill Astor and Jack Profumo came out and Jack started chasing me and Bill put the floodlights on.
"I do think that the things I did might have endangered national security. But I was set up. I went to prison. I suffered dearly for the wrong I had done. I must admit I wasn't interested in Jack Profumo, but Stephen had other plans. He could do anything with me. I was just a kid. Betrayal was Stephen's life."
In March 1963 Profumo lied to the Commons, denying an affair with Miss Keeler. MPs feared that state secrets might pass via her to the Russians. Three months later Profumo confessed and resigned his seat. Macmillan resigned the following year on health grounds. Miss Keeler, now married, lives in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex.