Screaming onto newspaper headlines in 1961, the Profumo Scandal rocked a genteel English society still lodged in the deferential 1950s.
The story feels commonplace now; a man in power (Secretary for War John Profumo) having an affair with a younger woman and then using his agency to keep it quiet. Yet, at the time, it was a monumental shock. More so, perhaps, because 19-year-old Christine Keeler refused to wilt under tabloid bombardment and institutional coercion. Accordingly, we have a 58-year-old story which feels remarkably at home in the context of 2019.
The larger questions of power, agency and sexuality are unpicked cleverly by Amanda Coe’s script, one which uses its first episode to set the scene of the bubbling scandal. The Trial of Christine Keeler may not have the gloss of The Crown or the sharpness of A Very English Scandal, but it achieves a perceptive emotional intelligence by giving life to characters which until now have fallen into pastiche.
Keeler (Sophie Cookson) herself is a range of things; fun-loving, witty and sharp for sure, but also squeezed by monetary worries and abusive relationships. In this way, Cookson brings a real energy to the role, often relayed through a glinting eye or coy smile. Tapping into the themes which underpin the show, Keeler can easily beguile men, but it will be in later episodes to see whether this power can ever translate to agency in the face of institutional pressure.
Aside from Cookson, the stand out here is James Norton, who embodies the playful, mercurial Stephen Ward. Though nominally a friendly, caring influence for both Mandy and Christine, there is a bubbling ulterior motive; something which is tied heavily to Ward’s desire for acceptance in the highest rungs of high society. Elsewhere in the cast Ellie Bamber is clearly relishing the role of Mandy Rice-Davies, while Ben Miles gives Profumo enough edge to make you question his ostensible charms.
The strong performances, coupled with the clever script, ensure that The Trial of Christine Keeler is an intriguing watch. The real-life story underlines the notion that the truth is stranger than fiction, so the jury may still be out on whether the show can manage to balance the startling events with its initial dedication to character. The opening signs are extremely positive, though.