Following the success of The Crown and its very own A Very English Scandal, it’s unsurprising that the BBC has chosen to adapt another important chapter of British history.
The Trial of Christine Keeler revisits the Profumo Scandal of 1961; an event which saw the then Minister for War John Profumo embroiled in an extramarital affair with the eponymous Keeler.
The scandal was seen as a watershed moment for politics and went on to contribute to the downfall of Harold MacMillan’s Conservative government.
As producer Rebecca Ferguson notes, the scandal showed that “men in established positions were suddenly human beings, fallible and prone to bad behaviour.”
However, a key part of the new six-part drama is a change of emphasis. Whereas previous versions of the story have concentrated on Profumo, or the political machinations, this story grounds itself much more in the human impact of the events.
“The context of the myth of Christine Keeler really needed to be unpacked,” suggests Ferguson, “the rhetoric surrounding Profumo has always been that he was this outstanding family guy while Christine was always described as this wanton woman.”
The re-appraisal of Keeler is central to the drama, with the creative team keen to cut through the tabloid noise which engulfed the events. Instead, they concentrate on a young woman who had to contend with monetary problems, abusive relationships and a brewing political storm.
“She’s not a Snow White character, but she certainly didn’t deserve what the press did to her,” continues Ferguson, “we’ve been really true and honest about not making her a victim.”
This is a view shared by writer Amanda Coe, who said: “It’s really made me interrogate what it means to be a victim, because if you just say somebody is a victim then you rob them of agency and I think that was the thing that Christine most hated.”
At the time of the events Keeler was only 19, and the show further develops how this scandal caused huge ripples through not just her life but those of friends Mandy Rice-Davies and Stephen Ward.
As Ferguson summarises, “they were regular humans trying to live a decent life and have fun, but then you see what power and the establishment can do.”
While the show does play with heavy themes, it also looks to underline the fun, exciting lives which both Mandy and Christine carved for themselves.
Sophie Cookson, who plays the title role, was delighted to be presented with a character of such depth.
“It was so exciting to get to play someone that was so willful, vibrant, compulsive, irrational, petulant at moments but totally lovable in others,” she said.
The Kingsman alum also enthused over the depth of Coe’s script and the intricate research which went into recreating the period.
This is a view shared by James Norton, who plays Ward. “He was by nature peculiar, unpredictable and an anomaly,” said the McMafia star, “that’s the joy of that kind of role; It never stopped giving back.”
He continued: “The challenge wasn’t finding ways to like Stephen or find him fascinating, because that comes for free. The challenge was to keep reminding ourselves that he was far from inexcusable in his actions.”
Indeed, while Ward is presented as a friendly, caring influence for the girls, Norton suggests there were some ulterior motives.
“Whilst he was hoping to enable these young women and give them an opportunity to make a life for themselves, he also was using them to better himself and ingratiate himself into the boys’ club,” he said.
The human impulses and differing motives give the drama an added layer of complexity. As Emilia Fox, who plays Valerie Profumo, notes: “it’s a drama about the human beings themselves and not just the sex scandal and the headlines.”
It’s also a story which has only become more resonant in the wake of the MeToo movement and the Epstein Scandal.
Ferguson suggests that the series has become “so much more illuminated and galvanised,” by MeToo, while Coe believes that the story’s discussion of “who owns the truth,” has become even more relevant in recent years.
Though the headlines scream sex and scandal, the show intelligently unpicks the media noise. This may nominally be the Profumo Scandal, but the show depicts The Trial of Christine Keeler, and hers is the story which deserves to be told.
The Trial of Christine Keeler begins on BBC1 on Sunday 29th December.