Sex, Lies and A Very British Scapegoat was first broadcast on ITV1 on December 22nd, 2013. Presented by the composer and theatrical impresario, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, the documentary marks the end of a year’s reflection on the Profumo Affair, half a century after the first scandal erupted. Focussing on one man’s downfall, the programme also coincides with the opening of Stephen Ward: The Musical.
‘At the time it was impossible not to take sides,’ says Lloyd-Webber. ‘You either believed the moral integrity of public life was under attack, or you thought it was a breath of fresh air, a sign that times were changing, along with the Pill, the British pop explosion and the smashing of class barriers.’
However, for the high society doctor at the centre of events in 1963, it would end in tragedy: ‘When the scandal cost Stephen Ward his life, others – especially the young – began to consider Ward as a victim of hypocrisy.’
Stephen Ward was born in Hertfordshire, the son of a vicar. He trained as an osteopath and established a surgery at Cavendish Square, near Harley Street, London.
‘He was the most fantastic osteopath,’ recalls Gillian Devas, who was Ward’s receptionist in 1955. ‘I didn’t know anything about osteopaths in those days, but people used to come in hobbling, uncomfortable, they’d walk out properly. It was amazing.’
Ward was also a talented sketch artist, whose drawings of public figures – from Princess Margaret to actor Terry Thomas – brought him into contact with the cream of society. ‘Ward went to the same cocktail parties as Prince Philip did,’ Lloyd-Webber says, adding that this was ‘before he met the Queen.’
Lloyd-Webber speculates that ‘Ward’s initial professional insecurity led him to be very ambitious socially.’ But as Mandy Rice-Davies recalls, ‘He was a great friend to people…he could keep you entertained for hours.’
‘Ward’s other gift was his way with women,’ says Lloyd-Webber, who believes ‘he thought they were artworks.’ Rather less romantically, journalist Tom Mangold says Ward was ‘essentially a voyeur’, while another friend, Noel Howard-Jones – then a law student – assumed he was just ‘a lucky guy.’ Mandy Rice-Davies adds, ‘he was always the go-between.’
But it was his platonic relationship with Christine Keeler that would ultimately be his undoing. They meet when Keeler was just seventeen, thirty years his junior. She was only the latest in a long line of girls taken under his wing. ‘Did Ward think of himself as some kind of Professor Higgins?’ Lloyd-Webber ponders, noting that My Fair Lady was one of the most popular musicals at this time. ‘Was he creating his Eliza Doolittles to launch out onto the London social scene?’
Unlike her erstwhile friend Mandy, Keeler was not involved in either this documentary, or Stephen Ward: The Musical. Perhaps this is because of her ongoing association with the touring play, Keeler, based on her own memoir.
‘I haven’t seen Christine since the 1980s,’ Rice-Davies admitted at a press conference in September. ‘For some reason she doesn’t like me, maybe because I lived abroad and escaped a lot of the obvious prejudice she suffered.’
‘A very beautiful girl,’ Mandy says, recalling her first impression of Keeler. ‘She was good fun to be with – a very free spirit – and I’d never met anyone like Christine before.’
The two girls – both teenagers – met while working at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho. ‘Christine was a showgirl,’ Mandy explains, adding that showgirls ‘stood at the back of the stage, topless but [they] couldn’t show their nipples. Couldn’t move at all…hardly breathe I might add. Anything that might give a slight bounce to the breasts…’
‘And these girls were expected to join the customers,’ says journalist Richard Barry O’Brien, ‘and encourage them to spend large sums of money, like five pounds…on very inferior champagne…’
‘The good time meant going to parties – going here, going there,’ Mandy Rice-Davies says of the notion that she and Christine were “good-time girls.” ‘If I fancied somebody, or they fancied me, we went to bed – not in exchange for presents or money or anything like that – but I felt I was part of the vanguard movement into the more liberal future.’
One of the most affecting images in the documentary is a photo of the converted railway carriage where Keeler lived as a child. ‘She had grown up only nine miles downriver,’ Lloyd-Webber reflects, ‘but in a world that was light years away from the opulence of Cliveden.’
Cliveden was, of course, the Buckinghamshire estate of Lord Astor, where Stephen Ward rented a cottage. And it was there, so legend has it, that John Profumo – then forty-six, and Minister for War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government – encountered Christine swimming in the pool.
‘After six years of marriage, his eye had begun to wander – to the increasing irritation of his wife,’ Lloyd-Webber comments. ‘She complained that even when he was dancing with her, he’d be scanning the room for pretty girls.’
During that hot July weekend in 1961, Christine also caught the eye of another of Stephen’s friends, the Russian naval attaché Evgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov. He was, as Lloyd-Webber observes, ‘A spy, who drank ferociously, lusted after women and played bridge. Just the kind of person Stephen Ward found amusing.’
After noting that it was ‘very unusual at that time for Russians to be able to mingle in society,’ Rice-Davies adds that despite Ivanov’s fondness for the trappings of Western capitalism, ‘he was an absolutely dedicated Communist.’
Although some have doubted Christine’s claim to have had a one-night stand with Ivanov after returning to London, Mandy believes her. ‘Christine told me she slept with him,’ she reveals, ‘long before Fleet Street was involved and money was waved around.’ Several weeks after the fling with Ivanov, Keeler confided in Mandy about her affair with Profumo.
Their relationship lasted for a few months, slowly cooling after Profumo was warned by MI5 of her connections to Ward and Ivanov. And though he had offered to set her up in a flat near Westminster, she turned him down.
In December 1962, Christine made headlines for the first time after an ex-boyfriend, Johnny Edgecombe, fired shots outside Stephen Ward’s flat. ‘You can imagine the neighbours,’ Mandy recalls, ‘curtain-twitching…’
It was only a matter of time before reporters made the connection between Keeler and Profumo. Mandy, who was also approached, admits that ‘If you are a nineteen year-old girl and you are offered large sums of money by the press, it’s very difficult to turn it down.’
‘Red-tops at the time felt threatened by television news,’ Lloyd-Webber comments. ‘Stories had to be headline-grabbing and illustrated with dramatic photographs. Circulation wars…were intense. It was the start of a familiar story – journalists playing incredibly dirty for a scoop.’
‘If they were to get it published,’ he continues, ‘they would have to prove it was in the public interest. So they urged [Keeler] to sex up the relationship with Profumo, and particularly the relationship with Ivanov.’
The time had come for Ward to choose where his loyalties lay, and his friendship with Christine was over. ‘It was Stephen Ward who put an end to the Sunday Pictorial’s scoop,’ Lloyd-Webber says. ‘He warned that if the story was published, he, Astor and Profumo would sue. He claimed there were many, many inaccuracies in Christine’s account.’
Meanwhile, Ivanov returned to Moscow ‘before he became an embarrassment to his embassy.’ Even after an innuendo-laden story appeared in Westminster Confidential on March 8, Profumo declined to sue. But the rumours had not gone unnoticed by his opponents in the Labour Party.
After being called as a witness in Johnny Edgecombe’s trial, Christine fled to Spain. ‘Perhaps her friends realised that if she told her story in court,’ Lloyd-Webber remarks drily, ‘the newspapers could report it without having to pay her.’ With a flood of headlines speculating on her disappearance, Profumo had nowhere left to hide.
Just after midnight on March 22, Labour MP George Wigg forced a parliamentary debate on the matter, using the Rule of Privilege which permitted him to speak freely, without fear of libel action. (Incidentally, Wigg was charged with kerb-crawling in 1976.) At three o’clock that morning, Profumo was summoned to the House of Commons where he was grilled by senior Conservatives.
The next afternoon, he denied ‘any impropriety’ with Keeler. He then went to Sandown Races with his wife. ‘With the benefit of hindsight,’ Lloyd-Webber says, ‘he looks distinctly shifty, but at the time he must have thought he’d drawn a line under the affair. But then friends he would perhaps rather have forgotten about began to rally round…’
Ward then made the rash gesture of supporting Profumo in a television interview. As Noel Howard-Jones remarks, this was ‘above and beyond the call of duty, but he would have considered it the decent thing to do, to stick up for the chaps. I think that was really dumb of him – he should have kept away from it.’
Lloyd-Webber suggests there may have been another factor behind Ward’s decision: ‘Ward’s love of being the centre of attention was to prove his downfall. He began to attract the curiosity of the government.’
The Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, ordered a police investigation on Ward. ‘Permissiveness of all kinds – “sleazy stuff,” as he called it – troubled [Brooke] greatly,’ Lloyd-Webber explains, while Tom Mangold adds, ‘I think what lay behind that was the establishment view that Jack Profumo would never have behaved like that if he hadn’t run into the cold and clammy embrace of someone like Stephen Ward.’
As the net tightened, Ward wrote letters to Brooke and Labour leader Harold Wilson, admitting he had lied about Profumo’s affair with Christine. ‘Wilson cunningly forwarded the letter to the Prime Minister,’ Lloyd-Webber recounts, ‘and waited for the fireworks to begin.’ Caught in a lie, Profumo was forced to resign.
‘Now that there was no possibility of Profumo suing for libel, Fleet Street could let rip,’ Lloyd-Webber notes. And the headlines practically wrote themselves: ‘sexual scandal amongst the upper classes, Cold War anxieties about national security, and a censorious curiosity about a white woman sleeping with black men…’
In a television interview, a furious Lord Hailsham – chairman of the Tory Party – demanded, ‘The question is not whether there was a security risk, but whether there was an actual breach of security.’ Wilson, for one, did not believe there had been, but made the most of this ‘golden opportunity to strike out at the Prime Minister.’
Ward’s trial for living off immoral earnings began on July 22. From the outset, it was apparent that he was ‘out-manoeuvred.’ Noel Howard-Jones, who was called as a witness, felt ‘overawed,’ and admits, ‘I’ve been kicking myself for fifty years.’
Richard Barry O’Brien telephoned Stephen on the evening of July 28, after the jury was sent out. He advised Stephen that if found guilty, he should appeal. The next morning, Noel Howard-Jones discovered that Stephen had taken an overdose.
After his death, Private Eye published a photo of Ward on a stretcher, being carried to a waiting ambulance. The caption read, ‘For God’s sake say something, even if it’s only goodbye.’
Macmillan wrote of the Denning Report, published in September: ‘Not much in it, Harold Wilson remarked. Which meant not much in it for him.’ Extraordinarily, Lord Denning’s own files on the Profumo Affair will not be released to the public until 2046.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Ward’s suicide, Andrew Lloyd-Webber raised the subject in the House of Lords, pointing out that the embargo was ‘giving rise to an awful lot of unhealthy speculation about who the individuals might be within the files.’ To which Lord Wallace of Saltaire responded, ‘There are still some sensational personal items which would be embarrassing to be released.’
In a recent interview for the Independent on Sunday, Richard Davenport-Hines (author of An English Affair) suggested that the files may be blocked because of Ward’s prior association with Prince Philip, whom some tabloid stories had implicated in the scandal at the time. ‘In fact, and I am very emphatic about this, the duke had no such involvement,’ he reiterated, ‘but I imagine Denning would have interviewed courtiers and others about the duke, and that suspicion would be enough to embarrass the Royal Family.’
And Geoffrey Robertson QC – an eminent barrister who has defended clients from the editors of Oz to Julian Assange – has learned that the transcript of Ward’s trial is also inaccessible, except to those who gave evidence. Mandy Rice-Davies has received a copy of her testimony on request, after agreeing not to divulge its contents to anyone else.
‘The scandal wasn’t quite the beginning of the Swinging Sixties. Frankly, too many of those involved had their lives blighted for it to be thought,’ Lloyd-Webber concludes. ‘But it did perhaps mark the moment when people stopped looking to their elders and betters for leadership, and began to set their own standards of behaviour.’
Sex, Lies and A Very British Scapegoat ends with footage of Lloyd-Webber at the piano, playing the opening bars of ‘Human Sacrifice,’ a song from Stephen Ward. The documentary retells the story with evocative use of archive footage, as well as new interviews and clips of some key locations, from Cliveden to the former El Rio Café.
Few people now doubt that Ward was a scapegoat, although perhaps Lloyd-Webber lets him off too lightly by playing down his manipulative side – most evident in his relationship with Christine Keeler, whose absence is keenly felt. History has been kinder to Profumo, but his behaviour was even less creditable. The sexual revolution was on its way, but young women like Keeler were still ultimately disposable.
Of the other main players, Lucky Gordon is still alive. He was Keeler’s former lover, who was found not guilty of assault on appeal, after it was proved that she had perjured herself. His contributions might have shed new light on the racist aspects of the affair. Maybe, like others, he doesn’t want to be reminded of ‘the scandal that refuses to go away.’
There is some irony in Andrew Lloyd-Webber, a pillar of today’s establishment, defending Ward, the victim of a bygone era. Some may wonder if raking over old news is relevant or useful today. But in his latest book, Stephen Ward is Innocent, OK?, has called for Ward’s conviction to be quashed, if only to prevent the injustice from recurring.
As the suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly at the dawn of the Iraq War has shown, the new establishment is still quite willing to place unbearable pressure on those unlucky individuals who happen to get in their way. And maybe we will yet discover that our suspicions weren’t so far from the truth, after all.
Directed and produced by Jamie Muir, Sex, Lies and a Very British Scapegoat can be viewed on ITV Player until Tuesday, January 21st.