Saturday, August 10, 2013

Profumo and the origins of Doctor Who

On 2 November, I'll be at Doctor Who Day at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, talking about the beginning of Doctor Who in 1963 and the context of the times.

As homework, I've just read An English Affair - Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard  Davenport-Hines, an account of the political scandal that erupted in the summer of '63. The suggestion, which Davenport-Hines shows to be unfounded, is that in the same period that the Cuban missile crisis "brought the world to the brink of nuclear war" (p. 232), the British Minister of War was sharing a prostitute with a Russian diplomat and swapping state secrets in bed.

It's a strange book, often shocking, sometimes very funny and ultimately desperately sad. It's difficult not to read about the events - the lies, the dodgy fabrication of evidence and trial by gossip, the ruination of so many people's lives - without feeling a mix of grubbiness and despair.

Conveniently for me, the first two thirds of the book are all about the context of the times, detailing the history, position and worldview of the key players - Prime Minister Macmillan, War Minister Profumo, Lord Astor, Stephen Ward and the "good-time girls" Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies - as well as three groups of people involved in their fate (landlords, hacks and spies).

To begin with I found it hard-going: its densely packed with characters - ministers, MPs, celebrities of one kind or another, commentators and pressmen. Most are introduced fleetingly, and there's a sense we're expected to know them already as their perspectives shape events. I soon learned to let the cascade of names wash over me and just hurried on with the story.

There are occasional, brilliant portraits of people, some with only small roles in the narrative. For example, one hack gets two long paragraphs of introduction that tell us lots about the working practices of the time. We're told he's important, yet he's then only mentioned eight more times in the next 150 pages:
"Peter Earle was the News of the World journalist who did much to publicise the Profumo Affair. He had been investigating call-girl rings for some time, and was scampering ahead of the pack in 1963. Earle was a tall, gangly man who cultivated clandestine contacts with policemen and criminals. They would telephone him with tips, using codenames such as 'Grey Wolf' or 'Fiery Horseman'. He was unfailingly ceremonious with 'ladies', though he called his wife Dumbo. Office colleagues were addressed as 'old cock' or 'my old china'. Earle's speech was peppered with phrases like 'Gadzooks!' of 'By Jove!' When he agreed with someone he exclaimed: 'Great Scot, you're right!' To quell office disputes he would say: 'Let there be no more murmuring.'
Earle was the archetype  of the seedy Fleet Street drunk. He scarcely ate, but survived on oceans of whisky, which he called 'the amber liquid'. He held court in the upstairs bar of the News of the World pub, the Tipperary in Bouverie Street, or at weekends in the Printer's Pie in Fleet Street. 'Hostelry' and 'watering-hole' were his words for pubs. 'Barman, replenishment for my friends,' he would call when ordering a round. Earle had a prodigious memory for the details of old stories, talked like Samuel Johnson, and was an avid gawper at bosoms. Dressed in his Gannex raincoat, he left on investigative forays clutching a briefcase which was empty except for a whisky bottle. His doorstep technique was based on devastating effrontery; his questioning was indignant; and if rebuffed he mustered a baleful glare of wounded dignity. Either because he could not write intelligible English or because he was always drunk, his copy was unusable. He jumbled his facts and muddled their sequence. Subs had to read his incoherent copy, patiently talk him through it, and prise out a story that was fit to be printed."
Richard Davenport-Hines, An English Affair - Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, pp. 191-2.
If the supporting cast is too numerous and indiscriminate, Davenport-Hines is good at bringing the main characters to life with rounded (and sometimes contradictory) evidence: we get a real sense of the weariness of the war veteran Macmillan, Astor's failed efforts to get his mother's approval, the flightiness of Keeler and Rice-Davies, and there's this extraordinary insight into Profumo and his marriage:
"After six years there was sparring as well as glamour in the Profumo marriage. Valerie Profumo compiled a list of reproaches which suggest how tedious her husband's roaming eye had become. She resented his assumption that all pretty women, or preferably 'girls', were 'fair game' for him. 'You will stretch any manners, at any time, to do this - not quietly and discreetly, but laughing and showing off and behaving like an adolescent,' she complained. 'The way you kiss women you hardly know "goodbye"' was another irritation. So, too, was the tailoring of his trousers ('surely there must be some way of concealing your penis')."
Ibid., pp. 60-1.
The book's at its best when using peculiar details to give a vivid sense of the period. We're reminded that National Service was just ending, so that almost all adult men had done military service, with obedience and hierarchy drummed into them. There's lots on the prevailing ignorance about and poor quality of sex, gruff attitudes to homosexuality, the pressures on women to marry well and live meek, domestic lives - in short, there's a drudging sense of bland uniformity. And then there's the odder, unconscious strangeness:
"The spirit of these times was represented by the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. This far-reaching legislation was prepared in committee, and passed unanimously without a word of debate in either the Commons or the Lords. It covered eventualities that were hard to imagine (Section 1 specified that a man committed rape if he induced a married woman to have sexual intercourse with him by impersonating her husband), and showed the hidden stresses of the period by criminalising activities that many people thought inoffensive. Section 23 (which was invoked after the arrest of Stephen Ward in 1963) created the criminal offence of procuration of a girl under twenty-one. This provision meant that if someone introduced a male to a woman who was over the age of consent (sixteen), but under the age of twenty-one, and the pair subsequently had a sexual romp, then the introducer had committed a criminal offence. Introducing a man to such a girl at a party or in a pub, or joining in his bantering chat-up, could be the prelude to a criminal offence if they later had sex together (anywhere in the world). By the early 1960s most university graduates, and much of the population under twenty-five, were criminals if the law was interpreted as it was in the charges levelled against Ward. As this law remained in force until 1994/95, many readers of this book will have committed the crime of procuration."
Ibid., pp. 109-10.
The last third of the book focuses on the exposure of the scandal in early 1963 and the trial in June. Davenport-Hines concludes that the police and press effectively colluded to stitch-up Stephen Ward, and Astor and the Macmillan Government were casualties of that offensive. But no one comes out of the book very well: Astor comes across as a coward; Profumo devoted himself after the scandal to charity, but was still propositioning young women in his 70s. Davenport-Hines says of one particular bit of legal trickstering to ensure Ward would be found guilty,
"This exceptional proceeding - this corrupt, contemptible sequence of events".
Ibid., p. 323.
But that might do for any or all of this story.

Yet Davenport-Hines seems to be on the side of Profumo and Astor, or at least sees what befell them as a terrible calamity, where the fine old order of gentlemanly oversight was deposed by a rabid, tabloid mob. His own introduction, where he places himself in the story - a child of an establishment father who moved in similar circles to Profumo and who kept a mistress - suggests that this is a tale of his own loss of innocence. He says the Profumo affair gave licence to an industry of celebrity gossip and scandal, where traducing reputations has become all that matters in the media. He doesn't mention Leveson, but there's an implicit sense that all the most dodgy and criminal practices of the press have their origin here.

And yet his own contextualisation of the events tells a different story: the forces at work had been there for some decades before Profumo even met Keeler. The tabloids had covered sex scandals and delighted in ruining lives. The police had trumped up charges against others, too. There's no mention, for example, of Alan Turing, whose treatment by the establishment (on the basis of a potential security risk due to his sex life) compares horribly with Profumo.

So what makes Profumo different? I think it's that the scandal was just the tip of the iceberg. Profumo might not have been trading secrets, but he was sleeping with Keeler, and she was receiving money from her other wealthy lovers. The more the press delved into the story, the more salacious detail they found - about Keeler, about other people.

But there was more to it than that: in July 1963, a month after Ward's trial, Kim Philby was finally named as the famous spy ring's 'third man' - a cricketing term, suggestive of the establishment and the old boy's network. In September, Lord Denning's report on the Profumo affair provided yet more juicy detail about improprieties riddling the system.

The problem was not that the press and police colluded - no matter how shocking their behaviour still seems. The establishment was more sinning than sinned against; for all the hype and circus, ministers and MPs whose authority rested on a gentlemanly traditions of paternalism were caught living a lie. Davenport-Hines says the scandal dogged the Tories until the late 70s and the Margaret Thatcher becoming leader, but I don't think the lessons were learnt. As the Tory Government of the 1980s and 90s made public pronouncements on single mothers, gay people and the way we all live our lives, MPs and ministers kept being caught out in affairs and sex scandals - undermining the rhetoric.

That's the real result of Profumo: a loss of deference to authority not because of who exposed it, but because the exposure showed it wasn't deserved. If we learnt not to trust politicians, it's because of their own actions.

I said I read the book looking for context on the origins of Doctor Who. Davenport-Hines' final paragraph neatly sums up the effect of the scandal, but might also be a mission statement for the BBC's new show:
"People's visions were distorted forever by the outlandish novelties of the summer of 1963. Afterwards everything still looked reassuringly familiar, but was weirdly twisted."
Ibid., p. 345.

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