I’ve never forgotten my afternoon with Christine Keeler. It cost my then-employers at the Daily Mail £5,000 to arrange a newspaper stunt publicising Scandal, a breezy 1989 film about the Profumo affair in which Keeler was the colt-legged catalyst.
She was played by Joanne Whalley and there were posters all over Britain at the time of the actress recreating the celebrated, black-and-white photo of a naked Keeler, legs wrapped around that Heal’s tubular steel chair.
I took a riverside suite at The Savoy and the two women arrived for a photo session, to chat about the film, Profumo – and sex, of course – all over afternoon tea. I didn’t know what to expect of the nation’s foremost scarlet woman, but the Keeler who walked through the door wasn’t anything like the Keeler of my imagination.
She wore an elegant dress, black gloves and light make-up, spoke quietly and seriously, and observed Sunday school manners. Only her snaggletoothed grin from behind scarlet pillow lips hinted at the sexual hinterland that once made her irresistible. She behaved with an almost regal poise.
Joanne Whalley wore clothes that looked as if they had come from Oxfam, had dirty fingernails, interrupted rudely and generally was a pain in the behind. She lived up to her name by having nothing interesting to say about the character she played. Keeler was the real lady at The Savoy and told me with complete candour: “I never liked sex. With men there was always an understanding that at some point I would take my clothes off.
I liked proper relationships but there weren’t many of those. Lovemaking with Profumo was unmemorable. It was all over so quickly. Stephen Ward? He never procured men for me. He was innocent. But the police frightened me into saying things.” All great copy for a mid-market newspaper.
Now Andrew Lloyd Webber has written a musical – entitled Stephen Ward – about the Profumo affair, which premieres in the West End in December and has cast little-known former child-actress Charlotte Spencer as Keeler, who I trust will bring more conviction to the role than Whalley.
Lloyd Webber is focusing on Stephen Ward, the society osteopath who committed suicide before he could be convicted at the Old Bailey of living off immoral earnings. It was Ward, of course, who introduced Keeler to Profumo at Lord Astor’s Cliveden estate after the Tory war minister famously became dazzled by the sight of her swimming sans costume. It’s now accepted he was set up by an Establishment desperate for a scapegoat to hang.
Don Black is the lyricist. He is a wonderful writer and has an Oscar on his mantelpiece for Born Free. But I have a nagging feeling Lloyd Webber’s old collaborator Tim Rice would be a better fit. Tim is more journalistic, best illustrated by Evita, and would, I am sure, have created an illuminating text on this dark passage in Britain’s post war history.
Lloyd Webber provided his famous friends with a 45-minute preview of Stephen Ward recently at his Watership Down mansion. The composer has one of the finest art collections in private hands but guests entering the hall were greeted by a sketch of a beautiful Bardot-era French actress they didn’t recognise, drawn by an unknown hand.
The artist was, in fact, Stephen Ward himself, in great demand in the late Fifties by fashionable society. Lloyd Webber is so obsessed by Ward he hunted down the only drawing by him he could buy, and there is no doubt the exposure of the Profumo story to new generations will rescue Ward’s reputation in this, the 50th anniversary of the scandal.
Of the major Profumo players only Keeler and her fellow topless showgirl Mandy Rice-Davies are still alive. Keeler has spent half a century bitching about Mandy, perhaps because she lives in straightened circumstances while Mandy, who married wealth, enjoys the lush life. Mandy was the star guest at Lloyd Webber’s party.
Today, Christine is unrecognisable from the siren in those old news photographs that dominated front pages even in the year of Kennedy’s assassination, the Great Train Robbery, and the first James Bond film.
Mandy, at 68, conversely still has the foxy personality that captivated the nation. She told me: “Christine and me are forever twinned in the public’s mind, like Cross and Blackwell, but most of my life has been a slow descent into respectability.”
I was once invited to her London home. She offered me a drink. When she opened the fridge I noticed there was no food; only bottles of champagne. Mandy loved to party.
Lloyd Webber is hoping to bring Mandy and Christine together for the first time in half a century. That may be a bigger event than the show itself.