Thirty years after its release – and with the Profumo affair about to get a new screen treatment – RICHARD LUCK looks into the story behind the incendiary film Scandal
Now Stephen’s in the dock for spending money that was earned
By Christine, and the prosecution says that money burned
A hole in Stephen’s pocket, for expensive sins he yearned
It may be false, it may be true
But nothing has been proved
Dusty Springfield, Nothing Has Been Proved, lyrics by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe
Summed up by one journalist as serving up ‘tarts, titles, tits’, Palace Pictures’ Scandal was one of the great sensations of 1980s independent film. On paper, a reexamination of the Profumo affair, Michael Caton-Jones’ debut picture reignited old controversies, sparked a fresh debate about chequebook journalism and tabloid hypocrisy, and upset all sorts of important people.
It was also a marketer’s dream. As Palace’s ad copy had it, ‘In 1960, Christine Keeler met Mandy Rice-Davies at a London cabaret club. She was 18. Mandy was 16. Three years later, they brought down the British government… This is their story.’
Of course, there were certain parties who didn’t want Christine and Mandy’s story to be retold. Australian screenwriter Michael Thomas would later recall that seven years passed between his writing Scandal – originally envisioned as a three-part, 360-minute television series – and the cameras rolling on the movie. When record producer Joe Boyd brought the project to the attention of Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell – whose hipper than thou Palace Pictures had given the world The Company Of Wolves, Absolute Beginners and Mona Lisa – Stephen Frears seemed destined to direct and the BBC looked set to stump up the cash.
That was until the SDP’s Roy Jenkins went on Radio 4 and lobbied hard against the project, so persuading first the Beeb and then Channel 4 to drop the series.
Thirty years on, such risk aversion seems to have passed at the Corporation. It recently announced plans for a six-part drama on BBC One, The Trial of Christine Keeler, starring Sophie Cookson as Keeler and Ellie Bamber as Rice-Davies.
Back in the 1980s, the BBC’s squeamishness saw Scandal briefly fall into the disreputable hands of Robert Maxwell before Palace – with the television series now a 115-minute feature film – eventually agreed terms with Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax Films.
‘Scandal was a big film for Harvey Weinstein,’ Stephen Woolley explained on the BBC’s Moving Pictures. ‘He paid a lot of money for it.’ Interviewed on the same programme, the now-disgraced mogul claimed that he was convinced of the project’s marketability from the off: ‘Scandal was an obvious choice – the subject matter of sex and politics was incredibly provocative.’
So great was the picture’s potential to offend, Woolley, Powell and Caton-Jones – who had already done his bit for Palace, directing the making-of documentary for the doomed Absolute Beginners – had a tough time casting the movie.
The role of disgraced war minister John Profumo was particularly problematic, with David Suchet and Anthony Hopkins among the actors who feared that association with Scandal might ruin their chances of receiving knighthoods. In the end, the role fell to Ian McKellen, whose exception to the Thatcher government’s position on same-sex relationships meant he was more than happy to play Profumo, one of dear Margaret’s closest friends and confidants.
As for the other key roles, John Hurt was the perfect choice to play Stephen Ward, the society osteopath and illustrator whose appetites for sex, gossip and intrigue brought him into the orbit of showgirls Christine (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, another inspired casting) and Mandy (Bridget Fonda, a far-from-obvious choice who it was thought might improve the film’s chances of finding an American audience).
The supporting cast also featured plenty of names to conjure with. Besides a never-better Leslie Phillips as Lord Astor, Paul Verhoeven favourite Jeroen Krabbe played Eugene Ivanov, the Russian naval attache who was squiring Keeler at the same time that she was sleeping with Profumo, Britt Ekland essayed society hostess Mariella Novotny, Hilda Ogden herself, Jean Alexander, appeared as Christine’s mum, and Fine Young Cannibal Roland Gift beat out Red Dwarf’s Craig Charles for the part of Johnny Edgecombe, the West Indian gangster whose visit to estranged girlfriend Keeler led to the shoot-out that set in train the series of events that culminated in Profumo’s resignation and Ward’s conviction on two trumped-up counts of living off immoral earnings.
One really can’t say enough good things about John Hurt’s performance as Ward, a man equal parts charming and sleazy, a sinner who understood that loyalty and friendship are higher values that must never be betrayed.
What makes the turn that much more remarkable is the fact the actor was battling alcoholism the entire length of the production. Eventually, Caton-Jones asked his personal assistant Jo Dalton whether she could spend time with Hurt in the hope of keeping him off the sauce. The two hit it off so well that they were married the following year.
At least in part a love story, Scandal is also a political thriller and a courtroom drama. However, as far as the film’s American investors were concerned, the picture was about one and one thing only. As Stephen Woolley told the BBC, ‘Harvey Weinstein was particularly concerned that [the sexual element] of the film was vivid and would be, to an American audience, something they hadn’t seen before out of a British film. We shot scenes that we knew would get the American censor ‘happy’.’
Caton-Jones also recalls the executive’s obsession with flesh. ‘Stephen and I wanted to make a film about hypocrisy, but Weinstein wanted us to make a film about sex. Harvey used to turn up on set with a white plastic bag whenever we shot sex scenes – he was the sex police.’
In his study of the Palace Pictures’ story The Egos Have Landed, author Angus Finney remembers how, during the film’s pivotal swimming pool sequence, where Keeler and Profumo first meet, Weinstein got into it with Caton-Jones when Whalley-Kilmer backed off on performing the scene in the nude: ‘Michael, you’ve got to get her to take her clothes off!’ implored the Miramax head.
Meanwhile, it was the actress who incurred Weinstein’s wrath when she initially refused to recreate the famous Lewis Morley photograph of Keeler’s astride a plastic chair: ‘Joanne, if you don’t do the picture then I’m gonna do it with full breasts with a lookalike and nobody will know it’s not you. But if you do it, I’ll make sure it’s really tasteful and we won’t show anything and it’ll look great.’ Whalley-Kilmer soon came round to Harvey’s way of thinking.
The leading lady wasn’t the only performer who wasn’t keen on getting her kit off, mind you. As Woolley recalls, Palace had a hard time finding extras to populate Scandal’s orgy scene. In the end, bonuses of £500 were offered to anyone who was happy to simulate sex for the cameras. It wasn’t until the producer visited the editing suite that it became apparent that one couple hadn’t drawn the line at simulation. Careful blurring and the slicing of a few frames helped spare everybody’s blushes.
With Weinstein’s endless demands and the constant sniping of the press in general, and William Rees-Mogg in particular, Scandal was anything but a straightforward shoot. There were smiles all round when the film premiered in the March 1989, mind you. Making over a million pounds on its first week of release in the UK, Caton-Jones’ picture took in nearly $9 million in the US, a remarkable sum for a British independent movie at the time.
As for how the film stacks up today, Scandal is that rare thing – a period movie that has as much to say about the time it was made as the time in which it’s set. Film critic Adrian Turner once remarked that Palace films were all ‘fast cars, loud music and blow jobs’, and there are certainly plenty of cheap thrills to be had here. If it looks a little too soft at times, the visuals bringing to mind any number of music videos, one has to remember that Palace was bent on showing that there was more to British film than Merchant-Ivory, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. The film also suffers from having to pare down Christine’s relationships with Notting Hill faces Edgecombe and Lucky Gordon, interactions which led to her perjury conviction and prison sentence.
But while Roland Gift’s casting is the worst sort of stunt and Bridget Fonda’s accent veers both north and south of the Thames and east and west of the Atlantic, so much of Scandal is superb, the film’s flaws serve simply to offset what the it gets right. As reporter and editor respectively, Keith Allen and Ken Campbell are just the right sort of scumbags to give birth to the new era of tabloid journalism. And as for the QCs, Daniel Massey and Harold Pinter’s actor of choice Terence Rigby nail the admonishing tone of the higher-ups who are content to stamp on as many little people as possible to help their own kind and their clients.
Scandal is also to be praised for helping to rehabilitate both Ward and Keeler. Growing up in Australia, Michael Thomas remembers that the first image he ever saw on television was that of Keeler being harangued outside the Old Bailey. ‘From that moment on, it became my cause in life to redeem this young girl,’ he later explained, noting that Christine and Mandy’s contribution to the film as technical advisers was crucial to Scandal’s success. Keeler visited the set and met with Whalley-Kilmer and Hurt and also accompanied the film to Cannes, where she rubbed shoulders with Weinstein on the Croisette ahead of Scandal’s screening.
Of course, once the film was in the can and the promotional tour was over, the women returned to their very different homes; Keeler a council flat in Chelsea, Rice-Davies the Virginia Water mansion she shared with her third husband, waste management magnate and close friend of Dennis Thatcher’s, Ken Foreman.
Stephen Ward, on the other hand, went from being the only person accused of wrongdoing in Lord Denning’s report on the Profumo misfortune to being seen as a man more sinned against than sinning. Calls for his conviction to be quashed have been supported by everyone from Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell to Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber, whose attempt to re-stage the tragedy as a musical proved a rare West End misfire.
Similar misfortune would do for Palace Pictures who, after eight years and 20 productions, wound up filing for bankruptcy in 1992. Undeterred, Stephen Woolley headed to Hollywood and produced Interview with the Vampire and a number of other films with regular collaborator Neil Jordan, before returning to the UK to finance pictures such as Their Finest and Colette.
Michael Caton-Jones also went mainstream, making This Boy’s Life
with De Niro and DiCaprio, The Jackal with Bruce Willis, and Shooting Dogs
and Rob Roy, both of which co-starred John Hurt.
Speaking of the great man, Scandal didn’t dissuade the royals from awarding Hurt a knighthood for services to drama in 2015. More remarkably still, Ian McKellen received the same honour in 1991, less than two years after he played John Profumo.
And Harvey Weinstein? Let’s just say that subsequent events mean he’ll forever be synonymous with scandal…
Last night he wrote these words…: ‘Sorry about the mess
‘I’m guilty ’til proved innocent in the public eye and press’
The funeral’s very quiet, because all his friends have fled
They may be false, they may be true
They’ve all got better things to do…
But nothing has been proved.