Politics on Screen: The Trial of Christine Keeler

*WARNING: Spoilers*

Rating: 4.5 Stars

When I read in the Radio Times that the Profumo Affair was to be televised into a six-part BBC drama I must admit that I was underwhelmed. Although British screenwriters work wonders with recreating events of the past, with series such as The Crown and A Very English Scandal enthralling their audiences, it all seems to be a tad overdone. However, when The Trial of Christine Keeler came to its conclusion last week, the series brought to light the timelessness of political scandal, and its prevalence in the 2020 contemporary media.

The Trial of Christine Keeler dramatises the real-life affair between 19-year old Soho showgirl and aspiring model, Christine Keeler (Sophie Cookson), and Secretary of State for War, John Profumo (Ben Miles) in the height of the Cold War. The affair was mixed up with Keeler’s sexual relationship with Soviet diplomat and suspected spy, Yevgeny Ivanov. These sexual entanglements ultimately brought about the downfall of Profumo and, with it, Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government. This shook up 1960s Britain and overtook its media to the extent that this period is often referred to as the Profumo Affair era.

There have been many reincarnations of this affair in the past, such as the 1989 film Scandal and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2013 West End musical flop, Stephen Ward. However, this rendition is revolutionary in that it does not victimise the cheating John Profumo, nor does it see the events through the sleazy lens of Stephen Ward. Instead, its screenwriter Amanda Coe places Christine Keeler at the centre of her own story, illustrating the abuses made by the powerful, male-dominated British government and the cruelties and intrusions of the media.

Coe, alongside director Andrea Harkin, delves into the life of the complicated protagonist, portraying Christine Keeler as a multi-dimensional young woman with her own agenda, who will not be reduced to the symbol of her sex. While following Keeler’s trajectory, this all-female creative team shockingly reveals the underbelly of the scandalous, private world in which the chauvinistic, arrogant politicians operate.

Sophie Cookson portrays the enigmatic and complicated Christine Keeler brilliantly, bringing her character to life. She does not allow Keeler to be boxed into the archetypal “floozie” role. Cookson’s performance encourages us to see Keller as a misunderstood, innocent, and whimsical young woman who enjoyed sex in a time when “good girls” were not supposed to. The casting team have been criticised as Cookson is a 29-year-old depicting a 19-year-old girl. However, Cookson embodies the youthful and playful Keeler, perfectly portraying the life of a dynamic and independent young woman living in a time dominated by the constraining shackles of masculine rules.

However, it is in episode five that Stephen Ward (James Norton) steals the screen. Throughout the series, this hedonistic, socialite osteopath is depicted as sleazy and creepy, naming Keeler “little baby”. However, when he overdoses on the eve of his trial verdict, Norton convinces the audience to feel sympathy for Ward, despite him being the man who pawned girls off to his wealthy friends in order for him to get ahead in life.

Where this series truly shines is in its timeless themes. There are uncanny similarities between the harassment of Keeler and the tabloids’ intrusions into the life of Meghan Markle, obsessing over her – from what clothes she wears to what she eats for breakfast. With the ending of The Trial of Christine Keeler, we see Keeler imprisoned for nine months after being found guilty of perjury. Whereas her affair counterpart John Profumo  – who is forced to resign from his position in government and face the wrath of his wife – effectively gets off scot-free.

Like Keeler, Meghan Markle was attacked when she and Harry made their announcement in January that they would be revoking their positions as senior royals. The Duchess of Sussex found herself subject to mass criticism by the media, notably with Piers Morgan labelling her as a “ruthless social climber”. Both Markle and Keeler have found their lives encroached on by the British media. Markle’s social life has been exploited and aggressively publicised to portray her as a materialistic tyrant who poses a threat to the British monarchy. Meghan has received all the blame, while the media has suggested Harry was manipulated by her feminine charm. Therefore, the relevance of The Trial of Christine Keeler has intensified conversations about the issues surrounding racism and misogyny in the British media.

This series’ scathing depiction of British politics and the tabloids is so powerful because it is rarely seen. It emphasises the almost indestructible status of certain politicians and paints a Britain fixated on money and success. Set against the backdrop of the pivotal Cold War, entangled with scandal, sex, and lies, this series is poignant, compelling, and engaging.

Miriam Higgs

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