This month’s ten-minute extra bonus episode on news events at the time we’re looking at is on the Profumo Affair, and how a sex scandal transformed Britain. Click through to the full post to read a transcript.
Welcome to the second episode of “I Read the News Today, Oh Boy”, the ten-minute bonus podcast I’m running monthly alongside the main podcast. In case you’ve forgotten from last month, in these bonus episodes I’m going to talk about aspects of the news that were happening at the same time as the music we’re talking about, so you have some idea of the wider context in which the music was being made.
This month, we’re going to look at the Profumo affair, which was one of the most important moments in post-War British history, not for anything that actually happened, but because of the change in cultural attitudes it created. A brief warning — this one contains some mention of suicide, violence against women, and gun violence.
In 1963, the Conservative Party had been in power in Britain for twelve years, and as with any party in power for that long, it was starting to become unpopular. In that time there had been three different Prime Ministers — Winston Churchill, who had returned to power in 1951 after losing the 1945 election, but who had retired before the 1955 election; Anthony Eden, who had replaced Churchill, and who had been Prime Minister during the Suez Crisis, which was the event that finally led to the realisation that Britain was no longer a major world power; and finally Harold Macmillan, an ageing, Patrician, figure who gave the impression of being an amiable but rather befuddled old man.
But the government was finally brought down by the first British sex scandal among the ruling classes ever to go public. John Profumo was a minor minister, never in the Cabinet but with a long history of ministerial roles. He was as establishment as you could get, having been educated at Harrow and Oxford, and he was technically the fifth Baron Profumo, a member of the Italian nobility, though he inherited his title during the Second World War at a time when Britain was at war with Italy, and the title was abolished soon afterwards. He had been the youngest MP to be elected in 1940, he’d gone and fought in the war and risen to the rank of Brigadier, and he was married to Valerie Hobson, an actor who had appeared in films such as Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London, Great Expectations, and Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Profumo had attended a party hosted by his friend Viscount Astor, where he’d been introduced by the society osteopath and artist Stephen Ward to Christine Keeler, a model who was twenty-seven years younger than him, and who had a very active love life. Keeler was involved with many men, and Profumo soon became one of them — which caused problems with MI5. Because one of the other men with whom Keeler was involved was Yevgeny Ivanov, a Russian spy in Britain who MI5 were trying to induce to defect, while Profumo was the Minister of War, in charge of Britain’s defence.
Profumo and Keeler’s affair was quite brief, and would have been hushed up as these things usually were, except that one of Keeler’s other lovers, a jazz promoter named Johnny Edgecombe, attacked another man, a singer called “Lucky” Gordon, after being told by Keeler that Gordon had assaulted her. Edgecombe became angry when Keeler refused to testify in his defence, and took a gun round to Stephen Ward’s flat, where Keeler was staying, and shot five rounds into the building.
This brought Keeler to the attention not only of the police, but of the press, and the story was initially just about the shooting — along with the excitement of the shooting itself there was also the prurient interest of a beautiful young woman with multiple lovers, and a chance for some good old-fashioned British racism, as Edgecombe and Gordon were Black.
But because of this interest, the press started sniffing around Keeler’s other lovers, and discovered her connections with both Ivanov and Profumo. Up to this point, there had been a convention in the British media that one didn’t attack people in power, but that had very slowly been changing over the last few years, to the point where it had become possible for the comedian Peter Cook to actually impersonate the Prime Minister on stage during the show “Beyond the Fringe”:
[Excerpt: Peter Cook, “T.V.P.M”]
So the media didn’t say anything explicit about it — and even if there hadn’t been questions of decorum they would probably have worried about British libel laws being used against them — but they did start dropping subtle hints, which allowed anyone who knew the people involved but didn’t know what had been happening to work it out. Least subtle of all was the satirical magazine Private Eye, owned by Peter Cook, which printed the details of the story, but just changed the names of everyone involved to things like “Miss Gaye Funloving” and “Vladimir Bolokhov”.
Eventually, George Wigg, an MP for the opposition Labour Party, used Parliamentary privilege to bring the matter out into the open. Parliamentary privilege is an aspect of British law which means that an MP saying something in Parliament is not liable under the normal laws of slander and libel. Profumo denied everything to Parliament, but suspicion still remained.
Meanwhile, the police were getting suspicious of Stephen Ward, believing that he was acting as a pimp, rather than just as a friend of lots of people who happened to sometimes introduce them to one another. They started pressuring people who knew Ward to testify against him — Mandy Rice-Davies, Keeler’s flatmate, was arrested for a driving offence and held in prison for eight days until she agreed to testify. Stephen Ward went to various government ministers to try to get the police action against him halted, and he told them that he’d been covering for Profumo, who had lied to Parliament.
Profumo resigned from his ministerial position, and retired from public life — he spent the rest of his very long life doing charity work in an attempt to rehabilitate himself, and seems to have been generally remorseful about the whole business. Stephen Ward, meanwhile, was put on trial for living off immoral earnings, though there seems little evidence that he was actually a pimp. But none of his friends would testify for him, and he was found guilty in absentia — the night before the verdict was due, he took an overdose of sleeping pills, and he died in hospital a few days later without ever regaining consciousness. Keeler was imprisoned for several months for perjury in a related trial, about the assault she had claimed Lucky Gordon had committed — Gordon was found not guilty of having attacked her. Keeler’s life was ruined, and she spent the next fifty-three years having to live with having had her sex life made a topic of national discussion.
There were many more rumours about other people having been involved in compromising actions as part of Ward’s set, including other ministers and members of the Royal family, but the truth of most of those rumours will never be known.
The Conservative government was fatally wounded by the affair — Macmillan resigned shortly afterwards, claiming he had health problems which led him to suspect he would not live much longer, though in fact he lived for another twenty-three years, finally dying at the age of ninety-two in the mid-eighties. His successor, Alec Douglas-Home, remained in power a little less than a year before being defeated in late 1964 by the Labour Party.
That defeat let in one of the great reforming governments of the twentieth century — the Labour government that came in, and Roy Jenkins, who was Home Secretary for much of the next few years, abolished the death penalty, legalised sexual acts between men, legalised abortion, got rid of corporal punishment in the prison system, and ended censorship in the theatre, among many other things. And part of the reason they were able to do these things was because the Profumo affair had brought to light just how the people in power were behaving, and from that point on the media had decided politicians didn’t deserve respect because of their office. While nothing has a single cause, you can trace all the social changes we’ll see in Britain as we look at the sixties back to this point, and to a powerful man having an affair with a much younger woman.