The Trial of Christine Keeler, episode 1, review: more than just a ‘good-time girl’

Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler and Ben Miles as John Profumo - 1
Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler and Ben Miles as John Profumo - 1

You must be one of three things: old enough to remember the “Profumo affair”; old enough to have seen Scandal, the 1989 film about it; or too young and quite possibly unaware of one of the most seismic moments in 20th-century British politics.

The Trial of Christine Keeler (BBC One) was at pains to help out viewers who fell into this last group, courtesy of a voiceover explaining why the story was worthy of your time. “Everyone was worrying about the Bomb when they should have been worrying about me,” intoned Keeler (Sophie Cookson). “What started as harmless fun has sown the seeds of scandal – the most serious scandal this country  has ever faced.”

On one level, then, this was the Profumo affair for beginners. But with so much historical source material to draw from, and a story that has been told once on screen and a thousand times in the newspapers, writer Amanda Coe needed to take a position. The result is a drama, made by an all-female team, that puts Keeler at the heart of her own story. At the time of the scandal in 1963, she was portrayed as the good-time girl, the floozy, the femme fatale who bedded the Minister for War and a Soviet naval attaché without a care for the security risks that this combination brought.

All we remember now of Keeler are the pictures: suited and sophisticated as she walked out of the courthouse; sultry and knowing as she straddled that (fake) Arne Jacobsen chair. The drama set out to recalibrate that memory, recounting events from Keeler’s point of view and reminding us that Keeler was just 19 years old when she met John Profumo: a teenage girl from a hard-scrabble background who was out of her depth.

Cookson was a fine Keeler: as gorgeous as the real thing, she was keenly aware of her sex appeal but already weary of the ways in which she had to deploy it in order to get by. It was easy to see why every man she met was beguiled, and also how her capriciousness sometimes led to trouble. Ellie Bamber, meanwhile, made for a perky Mandy Rice-Davies, her eye on the main chance. Both were a mix of worldliness and vulnerability.

The real Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler leave the Old Bailey after the first day of the Ward trial - Credit: Corbis Historical
The real Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler leave the Old Bailey after the first day of the Ward trial Credit: Corbis Historical

But despite all the advance publicity about this being a female-centred tale for the #MeToo era, the main draw turned out to be James Norton as Stephen Ward, the society osteopath whose role in the affair was so pivotal. Norton, whose career has taken him from scorched-earth psychopath in Happy Valley to bland Bond wannabe in McMafia, did an excellent job of portraying the various elements of Ward’s nature: kind, charming, generous, manipulative, sleazy.

In distinction to the approach taken by the film, in which John Hurt drew our sympathy for Ward as an unfortunate fall guy, Norton imbued his character with a creepiness from the moment we met him. Each addressal of Keeler as “little baby” made you shift more uncomfortably in your seat.

Ward’s motivations for setting up the girls with older men remained opaque. Was it for sexual kicks? Was he simply a social climber, using the girls as his entrée into the upper ranks of the Establishment? And were his attempts to meddle in affairs of state the work of a fantasist or, as Keeler later claimed in her autobiography, a spymaster? The drama opted for the former analysis. “He seems to think he can solve the Cuban crisis. He’s a back doctor, for God’s sake,” said the man from MI5.

The makers of the drama have said that there are no heroes or villains of the piece, but it was pretty clear how we were meant to feel. Ben Miles gave us an oily, unlikeable Profumo, cushioned by a privilege that meant that it was Keeler, rather than him, who would come out of this the worse.  Keeler’s boyfriends, Johnny Edgecombe (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Lucky Gordon (Anthony Welsh), were both good-for-nothings. Eugene Ivanov (Visar Vishka) cut a weak figure. This drama was about the women: Profumo’s wife, Valerie (Emilia Fox), made only a couple of appearances in this first episode but showed some flashes of steel.

The shifting timelines felt like an unnecessary complication. A working knowledge of the story helped: it wasn’t immediately apparent, say, that Rice-Davies’s odious partner was landlord Peter Rachman. But with high production-values and space to get to know the characters (since it’s being shown over six episodes), it played out in places like a sexier and less staid version of The Crown.

It was a compelling history lesson, and – more than that – one that might help to repair the reputation of a much-maligned young woman.