Profumo affair: The scandal that changed a nation

Christine Keeler in 1963. Picture: Getty
Christine Keeler in 1963. Picture: Getty
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The Profumo affair had it all – sex, glamour, high society and ‘low morals’ – and it struck at the heart of the UK’s political establishment. But are those the real reasons a 50-year-old event still grips the public imagination? Dani Garavelli finds out

SHE SITS naked astride a mock plywood Arne Jacobsen chair, her chin resting on clenched fists, her face a powerful mix of vulnerability and defiance. Instantly recognisable, this photograph of Christine Keeler has been reproduced on T-shirts, sent up by Dame Edna Everage and even recreated in Lego, but looking at it afresh it is still possible to see how with one click of the shutter photographer Lewis Morley caught the essence of a scandal that was to change the way Britain saw itself. With its stark eroticism, the image captures a country on the cusp of a cultural revolution; the moment when the old order, with its droit du seigneur-style privilege yielded to a brasher, less deferential society.

Conservative politician John Profumo. Picture: Getty

Conservative politician John Profumo. Picture: Getty

Fittingly, given the way it cocked a snook at the elite, the image was shot on the first floor of the Establishment, a satirical night club part-owned by Peter Cook, at the height of the Profumo Affair, when fresh revelations about the war secretary, the call girl and Russian spy Yevgeny Ivanov seemed to be rolling in on a daily tide of newsprint.

Taken before they had inflicted any real damage; before John Profumo’s lie to the Commons had been exposed, before Stephen Ward’s trial and suicide, it transformed Keeler from just another politician’s plaything to a symbol of both licentiousness and liberation.

“It captures the rather tinselly glamour that was just starting in London in the 1960s,” says Richard Davenport-Hines, author of An English Affair, about the scandal. “There was this sort of gimcrack modernity, this showy fake Hollywoodness that looks very pathetic and unconvincing nowadays, but it was very much part of the story.

“Its power in the 1960s – the idea that a young woman would sit on a chair without wearing any clothes – it was dazzling and iconic, and is key to the story’s enduring appeal.”

Fifty years on, a rare vintage print of the photograph is to form the centrepiece of an exhibition which traces the unfolding of the story in the summer of 1963, when the Cuban Missile Crisis, the exposing of British naval attache John Vassall as a spy and the release of the James Bond film Dr No the year before meant sex and espionage were high on the agenda.

The exhibition, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, includes Ward’s pastel drawing of Keeler at Cliveden, the Astor family’s Buckinghamshire mansion, where Profumo first saw her climbing naked out of the swimming pool, and newspaper photographs of the main protagonists: Russian naval attache/spy Ivanov, Keeler’s friends Mandy Rice-Davies and Paula Hamilton-Marshall, and jazz promoter Johnny Edgecombe, the ex-boyfriend who alerted newspapers to the prospect of a juicy tale when he fired shots at Ward’s flat.

The extent to which the story filtered down into popular culture is demonstrated by ephemera from the films, The Keeler Affair, which was never shown in the UK, and Scandal, and by satirical material, such as Gerald Scarfe’s famous cartoon showing the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan as Keeler, which appeared on the front cover of Private Eye’s Christmas annual.

The events that were to send Britain into a paroxysm of prurience began in 1961, when Profumo, then married to actress Valerie Hobson, met Keeler at the Cliveden house party organised by Ward, an osteopath and Keeler’s sometime landlord and friend, who moved in elevated circles. Profumo later got Keeler’s telephone number from Ward and the pair began an affair but, after just a few weeks, Tory ministers got wind of it and Profumo brought it to an end.

By the winter of 1962, the rumour mill was grinding; still smarting from rejection, Keeler had been moaning to anyone who would listen about her mistreatment at the hands of the establishment. But it was not until allegations surfaced that Keeler had also been sleeping with Ivanov (giving her the opportunity to pass on state secrets) that the scandal exploded into the public domain. In an era when the press was largely respectful of authority, the spectre of a security threat lent legitimacy to what was, in truth, just an opportunity to peer into the bedrooms of the rich and powerful. What happened next is well established: in March 1963, Profumo lied to parliament, denying any sexual impropriety, but just ten weeks later, with the pressure mounting, he admitted the truth and resigned.

Desperate for a scapegoat, the police went after Ward, who was charged with living off immoral earnings (although Keeler received more money from him than vice versa). On the last day of his trial he took an overdose; he was in a coma when the guilty verdict was announced and died shortly afterwards.

Weeks later people queued round the block to buy a copy of Lord Denning’s report which they scoured for “juicy bits” such as the identity of the man who, naked except for a mask, served at Ward’s dinner parties.

But there was still more damage to be done; before the year was out Harold Macmillan had resigned and been replaced by Alec Douglas-Home, and Keeler had been jailed for perjury. The following year, the Tory government lost the general election.

The case took a huge toll on all the protagonists. Ward died, Profumo tried to atone by devoting his life to poor people and Keeler, who was only 19 when the affair began, found her life blighted by her reputation as a call girl, a label she has always rejected. Today, she lives alone with her cat.

Yet the cause celebre’s most significant legacy is in the way it first reflected, then influenced, wider cultural shifts. With its emphasis on contemporary photographs, the Portrait Gallery exhibition explores the way the scandal changed the way newspapers operated. Touted around by unscrupulous publicists, Keeler and her friend were offered huge sums for their stories and key figures had camera lenses thrust in their faces, regardless of their rank.

“The landscape had already started to change – the arrival of commercial television meant some newspapers were losing readers and needed to find something more sensational and, the odd kiss and tell story had started to appear,” says Davenport-Hines.

“But after Profumo, the press took a completely different attitude to people in authority. It was much more eager to investigate and publicise shenanigans, regardless of people’s feelings. What’s depressing is that there were lots of financial shenanigans going on between politicians and businessmen, but that wasn’t sexy.”

If the newspapers exploited the scandal for sales, then the Labour Party exploited it for votes, emphasising the excesses of the Tories, who had then been in power for 13 years.

“Labour said ‘this is such a serious security lapse’, but that was just the entree into the story – what they were really saying is ‘this is all that is rotten at the heart of establishment’,” says Dr Eric Shaw, senior lecturer in the department of history and politics at the University of Stirling. “Harold Wilson’s thing was to contrast the effete, outdated, obsolescent, conservatives against the white heat of technology. There had been a spate of books about what’s wrong with Britain – it’s backward-looking, it needs to be more progressive, which the opposition capitalised on. Against that you had the Old Etonian – isolated, archaic-looking Harold Macmillan (although he wasn’t that at all) – the grouse hunting and the tweeds.”

Though the strategy secured Labour a much-needed victory, Davenport-Hines argues that winning was not in the party’s long-term interests as it prevented it from carrying out the kind of modernisation exercise it was to undergo three decades later.

“If they had lost that general election they would have lost five general elections in a row. The Labour Party would have been transformed into New Labour 30 years earlier instead of having the troubles of the 70s and 80s when it was in such terrible doldrums,” he says.

So the affair had political fall-out. But given sex scandals are ten a penny today why does one which happened half a century ago continue to grip the public imagination? Everyone agrees the photograph is significant. But the fact it played a seminal role in the sexual awakening of so many babyboomers also plays a part. Davenport-Hines was nine when the story broke and remembers being caned by his headmaster for using the word “orgy”.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of people I have spoken to who said ‘this was when I first discovered about sex’,” he says. “Lots of people in boarding school have stories of breaking out on Sunday mornings to go into the village to get the papers, which were banned. It had a tremendous impact on the imagination and on the sexual and political awareness of a generation.”

• The exhibition, Scandal ’63, will run in room 32 of the National Portrait Gallery in London until 15 September.