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The Trial of Christine Keeler: the big questions we have after watching episode 1

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Sarah Shaffi
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The Trial Of Christine Keeler: Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler

Warning: this article contains spoilers for episode one of The Trial Of Christine Keeler. Read on at your own peril…  

It was one of the biggest scandals to ever hit British politics, and it’s surprising that it’s taken until now for it to be the subject of a television series.

We are talking, of course, about the Profumo Affair, the name given to the incident which kicked off with an affair between 19-year-old Christine Keeler and the then secretary of state for war, John Profumo, in the 1960s.

The affair itself would have been shocking enough on its own, but it as soon rumoured that Keeler had also been in a relationship with a Soviet naval attaché at the same time as she was seeing Profumo. The news led to worries that secure information could have been passed on to the Soviets, and led to the eventual resignation of Profumo, and the collapse of the government of the time.

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But The Trial of Christine Keeler will look as well at the impact on Keeler, who was a young woman at the time and who was subject to a patriarchal discourse which saw her come under harsh scrutiny.

“I never longed for the spotlight but somehow the spotlight found me,” says Sophie Cookson as Keeler in a voiceover at the beginning of episode one of the show.

Here’s what else unfolded in the first episode…

What is Murray’s and why is it so significant?

When we first meet Christine (Sophie Cookson), she’s living in Notting Hill and is about to embark on an audition for a toothpaste commercial.

Before her budding acting career, Christine used to work as a dancer in Murray’s, a burlesque club frequented by British politicians and the upper classes. It’s there, two years before the events of the show’s present day, that she met Stephen Ward, and began the journey that would lead to her involvement in the Profumo Affair.

Although she doesn’t realise it at the time, John Profumo (Ben Miles) also saw her at the club, although it’s another year before they meet.

The Trial of Christine Keeler: James Norton as Stephen Ward.
The Trial of Christine Keeler: James Norton as Stephen Ward.

Why is Stephen Ward being monitored by MI5?

While this is a story about Christine, Stephen Ward (James Norton) is arguably the most important character in her tale.

An osteopath, Ward’s “side hustle”, if one can call it that, is to make connections in some of the highest echelons of British power, and to gather secrets. He’s the one who introduces Christine to Profumo, and who facilitates the pair’s affair.

Stephen has a close relationship with Colonel Yevgeny Ivanov, a Soviet attache. Through Stephen, Ivanov has met Profumo and members of Britain’s upper classes, and is trying to arrange emergency nuclear talks between the US and Russia.

The British secret service is growing increasingly suspicious of Ward because of his friendship with Ivanov, and his phones are being tapped and he’s being watched by MI5.

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How long were Christine and Profumo together for?

In the opening scenes of The Trial of Christine Keeler, we see Christine swimming in a pool in a country estate called Cliveden, which at the time was owned by Lord Astor. As she undresses at the side of the pool, Profumo walks up behind her and sees her naked. He’s clearly interested and during their stay at the country house, Profumo and Christine grow closer, even though his wife, the former actor Valerie Hobson (Emilia Fox), is also on the trip.

Before they leave Cliveden, Profumo asks Christine if the pair can stay in touch, and she tells him he can find her in the phone book, at Stephen’s number.

One of the final scenes of the first episode shows Profumo turning up at Stephen’s flat, and Christine inviting him in, officially beginning their affair.

The main bulk of the episode takes place a year after Christine and Profumo’s meeting at Cliveden, and we know that their relationship by this point has been over for months, so their affair was fairly brief.

The Trial of Christine Keeler: Emilia Fox as Valerie Profumo and Rosalind Halstead as Bronwen Astor.
The Trial of Christine Keeler: Emilia Fox as Valerie Profumo and Rosalind Halstead as Bronwen Astor.

Does Valerie know her husband had an affair?

The partnership between Valerie – a former actor with many fans – and Profumo – a stuffy politician – seems an unlikely one, but they seem to be making their marriage work.

Valerie is on hand for Profumo’s flirtations with Christine; she appears moments after Profumo stumbles across Christine naked, but simply admonishes him to get Christine a towel. In a later scene, Valerie sits by the pool while Profumo and Christine, along with others play a game in the pool, and Profumo corners Christine to flirt with her.

During a scene with just Valerie and Profumo at home, she teases him about their sex life, and she’s savvy about what her popularity means for his political ambitions.

It seems unlikely that Valerie is completely blind to Profumo’s behaviour; she’s far too clever and independently-minded for that. Either Profumo is very, very good at hiding what he’s doing, or Valerie knows and chooses not to care for whatever reason.

Time will tell…

The Trial of Christine Keeler: tensions in Christine and Johnny's relationship lead to an incident that brings Christine, Stephen and Profumo the people's attention.
The Trial of Christine Keeler: tensions in Christine and Johnny's relationship lead to an incident that brings Christine, Stephen and Profumo the people's attention.

How does what happened between Christine, Johnny and Lucky play into the Profumo Affair?

In the show’s present day Christine is living with Johnny Edgecombe (Nathan Steward-Jarrett), who has emigrated to the UK from Antigua. Despite racial tensions – we see a white woman disgusted at Christine and Johnny’s relationship – the pair are happy together.

But that happiness is soon spoilt by Aloysius “Lucky” Gordon (Anthony Welsh), Christine’s ex-boyfriend. When we first see him, he accosts Christine in the street and slaps her, leading her to buy a gun for her protection.

Later, Lucky confronts Christine and Johnny in a club. Johnny and Lucky fight, and Johnny pulls a knife, slashing Lucky’s face. Johnny and Christine make a run for it, and get into a fight themselves.

After slum landlord Peter Rachman, who Christine’s best friend Mandy Rice-Davies (Ellie Bamber) is in a relationship with, unexpectedly dies, Christine feels remorseful and tries to find Johnny to apologise to him, but discovers him with another woman. She retreats to Stephen’s flat again, but is tracked there by Johnny, who pulls out the gun Christine bought and shoots at the front door. It’s this incident that really brings the attention of government, secret service and media to Stephen, Christine and Profumo.

The Trial of Christine Keeler: Ben Miles as John Profumo.
The Trial of Christine Keeler: Ben Miles as John Profumo.

Why does the Daily Mirror dislike Profumo?

It might be MI5 that’s monitoring Stephen, but it’s the media that’s more interested in Profumo’s wrongdoings, at least at first.

The Daily Mirror is a left-wing newspaper that hates seeing the Tories in power. As war minister and a popular politician, Profumo is on track to become leader of the Conservatives when the current Prime Minister steps down.

That’s something The Daily Mirror would like to get in the way of, and so they begin looking in to Profumo’s past to see if they can uncover any scandals. We see a reporter quickly get wind of his visits to Murray’s, and a relationship with a dancer there. The reporter is sidetracked by the story of a shooting at Stephen Ward’s house, and it’s there that he (very luckily) stumbles upon Christine.

Should we tune in for the second episode?

Absolutely! Although this might be a story many people think they know, The Trial of Christine Keeler is shining a new light on what happened during the Profumo Affair. The show is giving its female characters a real voice, and reframing the story to put the blame where it should have been: at the hands of the grown men who threw a teenage girl under the bus to save their reputations. As Christine says in a voiceover at the end of episode one: “It’s true terrible crimes have been committed, but not by me.”

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Images: BBC/Ecosse Films

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Sarah Shaffi

Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.

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