Some 60 years ago, the UK witnessed a sex scandal that shook the Conservative government and went down in history as the Profumo Affair, because of the involvement of Secretary of War and Member of Parliament, John Profumo, and a network of sexual exploitation. of young people. Due to the similarity of some factors with the current institutional crisis involving Prince Andrew and his connection with Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein, clearly covered up by the Royal Family for at least 2 years, many people have returned to talk about Christine Keeler, the 19-year-old who contributed to the end of the political career of one of the most admired men in England.
Christine’s story, which became a pop reference, yielded series, documentaries, books, and films. Still in the year when everything happened, in 1963, the feature The Keeler Affair came out, for which the iconic photo of Christine in a chair, naked, was created. Then, the most famous version is the 1989 version, directed by Michael Caton-Jones and starring Joanne Whaley (at the time still signing Whaley-Kilmer), John Hurt, and Ian McKellen. Scandal to History that seduced the world was a critical success at the time, with a song written by the Pet Shop Boys, sung by Dusty Springfield (Nothing Has Been Proved), in addition to bringing what was considered daring, with scenes of nudism and bacchanalia.
More recently, The Crown found a way to include the fact that – surprisingly, it didn’t involve anyone from the Royal Family – hinting that Prince Philip would also be involved with what was happening at the home of osteopath Stephen Ward. If they make it to seasons 8 and 9, they won’t have to force their hand anymore.
The weight of the scandal had as a facade the concern of National Security, after all, in the middle of the Cold War, the Secretary of War, John Profumo, shared the same lover, Christine Keeler, with the Russian diplomat and alleged spy, Eugene Ivanov. In fact, the whole narrative was to condemn female sexual freedom (taking its first steps in the 1960s, when the libertarian wave of sex and drugs became known as Swingin’ London) and to expose the hypocrisy of British society’s hierarchy.
In the midst of this whole story, the 1989 film argues that it’s the only one paying the bill, doctor Stephen Ward. It was he who “discovered” Christine, aged 18, in a cabaret in Soho and “adopted” her, introducing her to noble and influential friends. Their relationship, according to the film and Christine, was platonic. There are reports that Ward was working with MI5 to convince Ivanov to defect, which made him feel like a “James Bond”. It is important to remember that, in the Cold War, espionage on both sides was almost romanticized in movies and books, so “ordinary” men felt more important participating in these risks.
Shall we revisit history?
The Profumo Case
The “Profumo Case”, as it became known, has not yet been 100% clarified because one of its main vertices died in silence in 1963.
John Profumo, or Jack, was a British war hero who entered politics in 1940. Publicly adored (and by the Royal Family), he was tipped for Prime Minister, but “scandal” interrupted that trajectory.
In July 1961, Profumo was introduced to Christine Keeler at a pool party at Viscount Astor‘s house. Christine was there as the companion of the osteopathic doctor, Stephen Ward, who circulated among the traditional and more “open” parties of English society, always with young and beautiful by his side. It was never known for sure when the affair between Profumo and Christine started, but it seems it was almost immediate.
Christine, like typical girls her age in more liberal times, had a number of men in her life, including Russian diplomat Eugene Ivanov and drug lord Johnny Edgecombe. She lived with Stephen, but it wasn’t a romantic relationship. Worn by men, it would unwittingly shake up English politics.
According to reports, the affair with Profumo was brief, lasting only a few weeks. MI5, who followed Ivanov and knew everything, alerted the Secretary of the risks, who broke up with Christine. Her escapade only came to light because of an incident between boyfriends that ended up attracting the attention of the police and precipitating all the drama.
When Christine tried to get away from Johnny Edgecombe, the dealer began to threaten her. Afraid, he returned to Stephen’s apartment, where his friend Mandy Rice-Davies was, to hide. When Christine refused to see Johnny, he fired several shots at the door and was then arrested. It didn’t take long for the tabloids to realize that instead of the gunfight in a money neighborhood, there was a bigger story, because of Christine’s ties to powerful men.
To make matters worse, instead of appearing at Johnny’s trial, Christine “disappeared”. It was the cue for the tabloids to tell more about her and her other novels. Soon Profumo’s name was plastered to the headlines. In March 1963, no longer able to avoid his name in the midst of everything, the Secretary of War lied to Parliament that he knew her, but that he would never have had an affair with Christine. Evidence to the contrary was exposed and the public began to devour the scandal.
Ten weeks after his statement in Parliament, Profumo felt forced to come out with the truth, apologizing and abdicating his public life. He began to make a living doing charity, with the unrestricted support of his wife. In 1975, he received a Royal Pardon and was knighted as Sir. He never spoke publicly about the case until his death in 2006.
Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe
Back in 1963, Christine reappeared and, like Mandy, was presented as a prostitute, something they denied. Stephen Ward came to be identified as a pimp, being isolated and abandoned by his friends. He went to trial, but, before the obvious conclusion, killed himself with an overdose of medicine before hearing his conviction in absentia for “living immorally for what he received from young women”. His death eventually spawned more conspiracy theories about the story, which endure to this day.
Christine was also sentenced to prison for perjury. The young woman spent nine months behind bars. When leaving, unlike Mandy who soon became a celebrity and did everything to get money out of the situation, she remained discreet. He married twice and had children, only writing his biography in 2001.
The drama was one of the most outstanding in the history of the United Kingdom, so it also entered The Crown. We’ll talk about that later.
The 1989 film: respect at the Cannes Film Festival
Ironically, Scandal was one of the first feature films from Miramax, Harvey Weinstein‘s production company. It came up with the concept of a miniseries, but it became a feature film when, amazingly, Ghislaine Maxwell‘s father, Robert Maxwell, financed the script, in 1985. The controversy surrounding the whole story had great appeal and Harvey bet on the mega-success. of the movie. So the production for a film got a greenlight.
One of the things that we can notice watching the film is that – as it was originally designed for 4 episodes of 1h, – the cut leaves the narrative loose, confused with the entry and exit of some characters. The other is that there are, of course, nudity and sex scenes, but that’s because Harvey Weinstein appreciated the backlash he received for nudity in his films, encouraging that kind of content. Decades later, this information gains another perspective, doesn’t it?
The highlight of the 1989 film is the great performance of John Hurt as Stephen Ward. He gives the necessary complexity to such a controversial personality, as well as humanity to his relationship with Christine Keeler. At the time of release, Christine was still alive (as was Profumo) and she supported the production
However, over the years Scandal ended up falling by the wayside and is hard to find. Today it’s funny to see Ian McKellen, still unknown to the international public, with makeup that makes him look like John Profumo, and his performance is also precise and delicate. It’s hard to imagine Joanne Whaley as a 19-year-old girl, but she’s fine on paper. And the tip of Fine Young Cannibals frontman Roland Gift is trivia for music fans.
A reference photo in pop culture
An image that translates a thousand words. In 1963, Christine Keeler did a photo shoot from which she came out that would be forever linked to her image.
The photo was taken by Lewis Morley for the poster of The Keeler Affair, but the negatives were stolen by the Sunday Mirror (owned by Robert Maxwell). Today it is part of the National Portrait Gallery collection, due to its artistic importance. Unsurprisingly, it’s the Scandal poster too.
The Crown: Closing Season 2
The Profumo Affair could not be left out of The Crown, but it had nothing to do with the Royal Family. What they used was the fact that, yes, Stephen Ward knew both Prince Philip and Princess Margaret, whose portraits he actually drew in real life. Stephen was a talented portraitist, but it was a hobby of his to draw people with whom he came in contact.
In The Crown, the screenwriters use Philip’s connection with the doctor, alluding to the Queen’s husband’s escapades and how the affair would have been hushed up. There is no evidence for anything other than a superficial relationship between them.
John Profumo may reappear soon. The Former Secretary, who won the “pardon” in 1975, was one of the rare guests at Margaret Thatcher‘s 70th birthday dinner, which included Elizabeth II. He had the honor of being seated next to the Queen. After all, Thatcher called him a National Hero, and Profumo maintained his long friendship with the Queen Mother, visiting Clarence Hall frequently. Discreet, when the film came out in 1989, there was a dinner at the queen’s house for which he thought it best to decline to show up, lest he connects her to the gossip. The Queen Mother did not accept the refusal. What about that?
The series promises to end at the Golden Jubilee, if they change their minds and go to Platinum, the story can tie up better… no?
The Stephen Ward controversy
In the midst of so many versions, Stephen Ward‘s role was never clarified. Years later, it came to light that he was an MI5 informant, so his relationship with Ivanov was reinforced by this liaison. Christine accuses him of being a spy for the Russians in her biography, but documents reveal the opposite, that yes, he worked with British intelligence.
His memory is therefore marked by abandonment and having been chosen to pay the bill alone. There are versions that he would not have killed himself, but murdered, so that he would not reveal the truth in court. In 2014, there was an attempt to revisit his conviction, but some vital transitions were “missed” and, in 2017, the sentence was upheld. The documentation remains confidential in the National Archives until 2046. So yes, still a good story to tell.