The Trial of Christine Keeler: sex scandal told with the vigour of Confessions of a Window Cleaner
TV Review: This telling of a very British scandal – heaving with sensuous imagery and light on intellectual demand – belongs to the Instagram age
However we want to remember The Profumo Affair – that titillating mess of sex, political upheaval and the dull threat of nuclear annihilation – the act of remembering usually says more about us. We tend to sharpen the details we like and smudge over others, simplifying the narrative, fetishising the fashions, reducing history to a few memorable catchphrases. (Well, we would, wouldn’t we?)
The Trial of Christine Keeler (BBC Two, Sunday, 9pm), its latest telling, begins with a disclaimer, admitting some details have been altered for dramatic effect, before adding, in a gossipy aside, “But mainly, you couldn’t make it up.”
Perhaps not. But you can always dress it up. Writer Amanda Coe’s version seizes Christine Keeler as its protagonist, a young woman we first see pursued by the camera, like a startled gazelle, immaculately turned out in a polka-dot dress. “How can one girl have the power to bring the whole world crumbling down?” Sophie Cookson’s character asks, in awed voiceover, trailing her predicament while simultaneously originating the humble brag.
It is worth remembering, of course, that Keeler is just 19 years old, stunningly gorgeous, and, to all appearances, independent in a confirmedly swinging London. This is her story, for better or worse. Its telling – heaving with sensuous imagery and very light on intellectual demand – now belongs to the Instagram age, simply for worse. “Men are such fools,” Keeler tells us, as the show lays out her sexual history with the vigour of Confessions of a Window Cleaner. “But I like them. And they seem to like me.”
And on it goes in this vein, introducing the political players – James Norton’s simpering, effete, louche Soviet stooge Stephen Ward, Ben Miles’s precious, waxy John Profumo – while attempting to find some substance in Keeler beyond the breathless dear-diary style of her voice over. “I had no idea what an extraordinary life I was leading,” she tells us. “Everyone was worrying about the bomb when they should have been worrying about me,” she tells us, adding, lest we miss the point, “I was much more dangerous than Russia.” Enough already.
This kind of dreadful overwriting does not spell huge confidence in the story (given artificial propulsion by tiresomely frequent “one year earlier...” time hops), or its audience (spoon fed the importance of every moment), or, ultimately, its heroine. “These girls aren’t going to cause any trouble”, MI5 decide early, only to realise, by the episode’s end, that they are indeed going to cause a lot of trouble after all. Keeler, who we see at one point playing around with a handgun in her knickers, is more armed and dangerous than just a pretty, vapid bystander, we are meant to understand. But when we later see a tabloid headline that helped thrust her into public consciousness with the words, “Model in Shooting Drama”, you have to wonder, amid all the glam and gloss that surrounds her, how much deeper is the series?