Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo Affair was published fifty years this week. Though dismissed as a government whitewash, its steamy topic made this official enquiry an unlikely bestseller. At the same time, a very different version was unfolding in the pages of a new satirical magazine, Private Eye. This is the subject of Colin Shindler’s radio play, Rumours.
Christopher Booker, then 26, was the magazine’s editor, assisted by Richard Ingrams and Willie Rushton. All three had attended the same private school, though Rushton was in national service when the others studied at Oxford and Cambridge.
The play begins – and ends – with a lawsuit. The first, filed by Randolph Churchill, involved writs being issued among all thirteen staff. Booker was preoccupied with his other job, as political scriptwriter for BBC television’s That Was the Week That Was. Rushton often appeared on the show, impersonating Harold Macmillan (there is a running joke that viewers believed he was actually Prime Minister.)
The affairs of a 21 year-old model, Christine Keeler, were first publicised in December 1962, when an angry ex-lover, Johnny Edgecombe, fired shots outside the London flat she shared with Dr Stephen Ward. But gossips claimed that she had also been the lover of powerful men, including the Soviet naval attaché, Eugene Ivanov.
In early 1963, this story was parodied in Private Eye – with Keeler named only as ‘Miss Gay Fun-Loving.’ As the play reveals, ‘Everyone knows that Private Eye prints rumours – that’s why people buy it.’
Ingrams was initially sceptical of another rumour – that Keeler had been involved with John Profumo, the Minister for War, while at the same time seeing Ivanov. But then word came from Labour MP Gerald Kaufman that the story was ‘all over the Commons.’
Macmillan also disregarded the rumours at first. Profumo denied meeting Keeler, and – in retrospect, rather unwisely – Macmillan believed him. He was also untroubled by the possibility that Ivanov was a Russian spy. ‘The Civil Service likes spies they can identify and keep track of,’ he tells secretary Timothy Bligh, in the first of several conversations.
At lunch with a girlfriend, Sandra, Ingrams learns about illicit sex in high places. They jokingly try to name the ‘Headless Man’ photographed in a compromising position with the Duchess of Argyll; and the ‘Man in the Mask’ who served guests at an orgy attended by several famous and influential people (including Stephen Ward.)
The Profumo affair was first alluded to in a minor magazine, Westminster Confidential. But when Keeler failed to appear at Edgecombe’s trial, it became clear that trouble was brewing. In one scene, Ingrams talks with a journalist. The reporter refers to a recent front page with the main headline ‘MISSING MODEL’, placed alongside a photograph of Profumo ‘on the town’.
When another Labour MP, George Wigg, named Keeler as the ‘missing witness’, questions were asked in parliament. But Profumo denied it again, and even The Guardian accepted his answer, proclaiming ‘Mr P Clears the Air.’
Despite his secretary’s pleas, Macmillan refused to curtail either Private Eye or That Was the Week That Was. In another consultation, he explains, ‘It’s better to be laughed at than ignored.’ Though no fan of satire – he was frequently the butt of their jokes – he disliked censorship.
After Keeler’s return, another rumour began – that, at Ward’s behest, she had asked Profumo to share military secrets. The Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, ordered an investigation into Ward’s claim that he had been recruited by MI5 to befriend Ivanov, and – sensationally – that he had helped to mediate in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Brooke’s search took a sinister turn, however, when Ward was later arrested and spuriously charged with living off immoral earnings. The play conveys the unease Ingrams felt as the scandal he had uncovered turned into a witch-hunt.
Meanwhile, Private Eye published ‘The Last Days of Macmillan,’ a parody of Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This prompted a visit from an anxious Ward, as the cottage he rented from Lord Astor at Cliveden was denoted by a sign in cod-Latin, reading ‘Per Wardua a Astor’. A later scene shows Ward being brushed off by his aristocratic friend.
In another satirical piece, ‘Summer Predictions’, the Private Eye editors joked that Keeler would soon be appointed Chief Whip. And in a That Was the Week That Was skit, a squeaky-voiced Christine says, ‘I’m sure that one day my luck will turn again – especially with all the information that I’m prepared to spill if it doesn’t.’
Realising that he could no longer cover up for his friends without implicating himself, Ward calls Timothy Bligh and tells him Profumo lied. He then threatens Macmillan with the prophetic message, ‘You have just signed a death warrant for the Conservative government.’
Soon after, Profumo was forced to resign, and Keeler sold her story to the News of the World. Macmillan was genuinely shocked to discover Profumo’s deception. ‘People shouldn’t be given what they want just because they want it,’ he tells Bligh.
Nonetheless, opposition leader Harold Wilson seized the opportunity to accuse him of ‘dereliction of duty’. Nevertheless, the motion was defeated (by a majority of sixty-nine.) But Macmillan was not encouraged: ‘They’ve already decided I’m yesterday’s man.’
As Ward’s trial reached its grim conclusion, Ingrams deposed Booker as editor-in-chief of Private Eye. He then meets Sandra to discuss Ward’s suicide. ‘How could she sell him out?’ Sandra says of Keeler, who had problems of her own.
She then asks Ingrams why the public seems to hate ‘good-time girls’ like Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. ‘Because they’re young and pretty,’ he replies, ‘and seem to be having a jolly good time.’
With Ward out of the way, and Lord Denning’s report in print, the scandal began to wind down. The Great Train Robbery now dominated the headlines, and as Ingrams observes, the public seemed to have more sympathy with the criminals than their captors.
‘Maybe that’s Stephen Ward’s legacy,’ he reflects; ‘a deep and abiding scepticism towards the police force.’
In October 1963, Macmillan became seriously ill and swiftly resigned. In a final scene with Bligh, he wishes he could stay, ‘if only to disappoint the hordes of satirists.’ His secretary tells him that satirists ‘are only Telegraph readers in waiting’ (probably an in-joke, as Booker now writes for the pro-Conservative broadsheet.)
Although Macmillan’s fall had long been their aim, the mood at Private Eye was not entirely celebratory. Erstwhile impersonator Willie Rushton grouses, ‘I’ve lost my livelihood.’ As Harold Wilson wins the 1964 election for Labour, Ingrams says of the new cabinet, ‘They’re all going to hate us. Isn’t it marvellous?’
Ingrams, Rushton and Booker are played by Harry Hadden-Paton, Ewan Bailey and Gunnar Cauthery. Sandra is played by Joanna Tincey. John Rowe and Nicholas Murchie both shine as Macmillan and Bligh, while David Seddon is aptly billed as ‘Hysterical Reporter’. Wilson is played by Paul Stonehouse, and Ward by Carl Prekopp.
Produced and directed by Marc Beeby, Rumours was originally broadcast last weekend as BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Drama. It is available to play online until September 21st.