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Mary Kenny: The new TV drama about Christine Keeler takes us back to a very different world. But how does it relate to today?



Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin

The Christine Keeler portrayed by the actress Sophie Cookson in the current BBC TV drama doesn't look at all like the Christine Keeler I met in the 1980s. By then, Christine seemed a poor soul living on a council estate in Chelsea. She had no money. She had lost custody of both her children, by two marriages. You could see that she had once been pretty, even beautiful, and with a fabulous body: but she now seemed worn down and almost bedraggled. I felt sorry for her.

Every now and then there's a TV drama or a movie about Christine Keeler and her side-kick, Mandy Rice-Davies, the two 'showgirls' who helped bring down the British Conservative government in 1963. They also made a significant contribution to the sexual revolution which ensued. Their stories fascinate generations who remember 'the Profumo affair' - referring to Christine's relationship with John Profumo, a leading British politician - though to a savvier generation today it seems less than world-shattering.

"Remind me, what exactly did John Profumo do which caused such a hullabaloo?" asked a man in his forties.

"He lied to the House of Commons. About sleeping with Christine Keeler."

"Is that all? Don't all politicians lie? And hasn't Boris slept with a few wenches in his time?"

"Well, Christine was also keeping company with a Russian intelligence officer, Yevgeny Ivanov. At the height of the Cold War."

"Okay. Bit of pillow talk going back to the Kremlin, eh?"

The Profumo affair is a complicated story which The Trial of Christine Keeler is seeking to re-tell, capturing the spirit of 1963 for contemporary audiences. And it's watchable enough, with some fine performances, especially from James Norton as Stephen Ward, the osteopath who was accused of pimping Christine and Mandy for the rich and powerful. Cookson and Ellie Bamber (as Mandy) do a fine job, although Bamber is prettier, and slimmer, than Mandy was. As it happens, I also met Mandy, later, on a TV show in Manchester: she was chubby-faced, and had stout legs, but she was one smart lady, and prospered in life, unlike poor Christine.

The period detail is well-observed: they all smoked like chimneys. Tellingly, both Mandy (2014, aged 70) and Christine (2017, aged 75) died from smoking-related illnesses. Ivanov, who only had a single boozy one-night stand with Christine - when neither was in a condition to discuss nuclear installations - died an alcoholic.

The significance of the Profumo affair is that it's said to have lifted the lid on the hypocrisy of the ruling classes, and exposed to the world a bold, sexually liberated lifestyle. It also had an impact on Ireland, when the press reports opened a new era of candour, and words like 'intercourse' and 'call girl' - euphemism for prostitute - were bandied about in an unprecedented way. In July 1963, Irish pilgrims on a bus journey were heard to start gossiping about Christine Keeler as soon as they had finished saying the Rosary. This was considered unedifying, especially since Miss Keeler - it was claimed - had family connections in Leitrim. But it was also spicy and it had the effect of breaking down barriers, and opening up secrets.

Actually, Christine and Mandy were never 'call girls' in a professional sense. They were, initially, just two giddy teenagers who came to London to make a bit of money and have some fun, and in Christine's case, escape from her dysfunctional family. Through various modelling jobs they got work in a slightly sleazy, but also slightly glamorous, Soho night-club, and there they met Ward.

The contrast between Christine and Mandy is a fascinating side of the story. Christine had an awful background. Her father deserted the family when she was a young child. She then acquired a stepfather who allegedly treated her in a sexualised way. When she babysat for neighbouring families in the bleak area of Berkshire when she grew up, she said the fathers tried to grope her. At the age of 15, she became pregnant, and, late in the pregnancy, attempted a self-induced abortion: her son Peter was born prematurely and lived for a week.

Christine was treated abusively, and despite her stunning looks, had a low sense of self-worth. She was a bad chooser of men, and always seemed to end up a loser.

Mandy was a totally different character. Her father was a policeman and a mathematics tutor. The family structure was stable. Mandy was truculent as a schoolgirl, but she was also intelligent and ambitious. She certainly slept with powerful men for the advantages they brought her, but she also improved herself, all through her life, learning, starting businesses, writing a thriller and a historical novel. Her third husband was the rich Ken Foreman, an associate of Dennis Thatcher's, and in her mature years, Mandy became quite friendly with Margaret Thatcher's husband. She was never as beautiful as Christine, but she was smarter, and she cheered men up.

Today, the public is less easily shocked, and almost certainly more cynical about politicians. Whether that's a healthier attitude is another matter.

Weekend Magazine