UK TV review: The Trial of Christine Keeler
Ivan Radford | On 29, Dec 2019
The 1960s can seem so long ago. Young fans going crazy over a boy band. Tensions between the UK and Russia. Political scandals spilling out on to newspaper front pages. The Trial of Christine Keeler is one of the decade’s most famous of scandals, and the BBC’s new series brings the shock and drama of the Profumo Affair bang up to date.
Sophie Cookson plays Christine, a 19-year-old would-be model who unwittingly found herself at the centre of a tumultuous love triangle. A friend of socialite and doctor Stephen Ward (James Norton), she ends up hiding out at his seedy den when her relationship with Johnny (a brooding Nathan Stewart Jarrett) takes a violent turn thanks to her obsessive ex, Lucky (an intense Anthony Welsh).
That temporary living arrangement sees her brush shoulders with all manner of powerful people, including a Russian minister and UK War Minister John Profumo (a suitably slimy Ben Miles). Already acquainted after crossing paths at a party – again, thanks to Stephen – they wind up in a heated affair. But as Profumo courts the press as part of his push to climb the political ranks, their relationship is buried, just waiting to be exposed, not least because of its apparent Russian connection.
The affair needs no introduction for people of a certain age, but the show’s achievement is realising that the woman involved does: brushed under the carpet or pushed aside in favour of the male establishment’s perspective, Christine’s voice is amplified afresh here by Amanda Coe.
The BAFTA-winning writer brings to vivid and complex life the era’s sexual and cultural attitudes and expectations – from the disapproval in the streets that meets Christine’s relationship with a black man to the way that Christine and her friend, Mandy (Ellie Bamber), navigate the desires of the men around them to get what they want.
The cast sink their teeth into the material, including Emilia Fox as Profumo’s wife, Valerie, an actress who, it is easy to forget, was famous and recognised in her own right. At the heart of it is James Norton who is unrecognisable as social climber Stephen, a man whose own tastes and preferences are guarded close to his chest but who has no shame in the way he hooks up his girls with the affluent and powerful – a seedy puller of strings with a finger in every pie and secrets held on everyone.
But this is Christine’s story, and the show’s strength lies in the way it always returns to her perspective – even the naughtier moments are filmed by Andrea Harkin and Leanne Welham without the male gaze. It’s a gripping, stylish and wonderfully evocative portrait of a woman who lives on the fringe of the patriarchal system’s biggest players, but never lets herself be played. Period drama rarely feels so modern – you could swear the 1960s were only yesterday.
The Trial of Christine Keeler is available on BBC iPlayer until December 2020.