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You’d be the worst spy in the world. You can’t keep your mouth shut for five minutes.




Scandal at least has a point of view; Dr Stephen Ward, as played by John Hurt, was done a terrible wrong when he was scapegoated and hung out to dry. Unfortunately, like most of debut-director Michael Caton-Jones’ subsequent films, it desperately lacks dramatic tension. The picture, an early collaboration between Palace and Miramax, had all the makings of a major hit, and the publicity and controversy surrounding it suggested such success would be a fait accompli. Scandal did decent business, but not event movie business; this was no Chariots of Fire or even the same year’s Shirley Valentine. In most audiences’ minds it rather fizzled, pulling its punches and settling for mild titillation and stodgy respectability.

Scandal was first conceived as a BBC serial, which might sound tepid, but I expect a BBC version during this period would have resisted the film’s kid gloves, regularly provoking controversy as their prestige dramas did (The Singing Detective, Tumbledown, The Monocled Mutineer, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil). The script from Michael Thomas (The Hunger, Ladyhawke, and later Backbeat) was reduced in size and detail when it transferred to the big screen. Palace Pictures, high off The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa – and less so from Absolute Beginners and High Spirits – went in with some little US outfit called Miramax on the financing.

The consequence, inevitably with hindsight, was that the movie’s reputation preceded its content (there was already visible nervousness thanks to the subject matter, with politicians requesting John Hurt and Ian McKellen turn down their roles; David Suchet, for whatever reason, did say no to playing John Profumo). No publicity was going to be bad publicity. As Down and Dirty Pictures told it “Harvey insisted that Powell and Woolley deliver Scandal as an X” and pressured Caton-Jones for more flesh: “Michael, you gotta get her to take her clothes off”.

Her being Joanne Whalley-Kilmer. Then-hubby Val didn’t want her to do the skinny-dipping scene. Devious Harvey had hired a body double in anticipation, which led to the actress doing it herself: “Boy, that girl’s got a big ass! I can’t let her do that”. I doubt she’d have put it quite like that (“Oh my God, that fat cow has an enormous arse” would surely have been closer).

That there was even quibbling over a scene as discreet in its nudity as that one tells you something about how far this movie wasn’t willing to go. Ken Russell’s Scandal it was not (I’m baffled the movie is still an 18). When it came to a Stateside version, Harvey demanded a recut for American audiences to provide more information upfront. And when it duly received an X “the board was just playing into Harvey’s hands, because by the time he caved, the fight had generated a bounty of free publicity”. It went on to make $8.8m in the US and Weinstein’s savvy was seen as having paid off (it would pay off again, to even great dividends, at the end of the year with My Left Foot). Scandal also proved a hit in the UK, where it was the fourteenth biggest film of the year (if you exclude Bond, it was second biggest homegrown movie after Shirley Valentine).

I wanted to like the movie. The subject matter was interesting, the cast was good. But there was a massive disconnect between the column inches devoted to it and the actually quite coy end result. I didn’t dislike it, but even to one unversed in the Profumo Scandal (as I was at the time, other than the pieces I’d read relating to the movie), I felt it was lacking something.

Revisiting Scandal, that comes into even greater focus. It’s barely about John Profumo at all, and when it comes to the titular activities, we’re subjected to the most tasteful orgies ever (during which Christine and Bridget Fonda’s Mandy Rice-Davies remain resolutely robed). The tack of the hung-out-to-dry Ward as pure victim seems to be enacted with an inappropriately straight face too; it’s one thing to highlight the hypocrisy of the establishment, but quite another to attempt to portray him as harmlessly louche fellow, whose procurement of girls for high society was nothing but innocent debauchery, roguish naughtiness.

Likewise, the emphasis on the bond between Stephen and Christine is one we want to believe, but it fails to take a convincing root. Both say one thing and do another, and her “I love Stephen. He’s the only man I ever loved” while selling stories that ensure his destruction fails to compute. His – a little silly, but reliably delivered – plea “This is not fair! Beg your pardon, my lord. But this is not fair” in response to Christine being pilloried on the stand only doubles down on the wronged, sensitive man, thinking more about others than himself (except when he threw Christine out, of course).

Nevertheless, Hurt gives a commendably wounded performance as Stephen Ward – as Time Out’s Steve Grant suggested, a “riveting jumble of weakness, seediness, vanity and kindness”. Whalley-Kilmer is astonishingly pretty and therefore easy to see – easier than the actual Keeler – as un object d’amour, but she remains remote. In visible contrast to Fonda’s Mandy – a role earmarked for Emily Lloyd, who dropped out – who is given significantly less screen time. Fonda ensures her character is brazen, playful and cheeky, offering a very welcome spark and slap in the face to the otherwise staid, diligent and respectful film.

McKellen doesn’t get much chance to do much of anything beyond causing you to ponder his obviously shaved head and whether it was such a good idea. The extended cast just about keeps the interest up when Caton-Jones isn’t doing nearly enough. Jeroen Krabbé’s Ivanov, a key to the scandal by degrees of non-separation from whom he’s been sleeping with who has been sleeping with Profumo, is ever good value. Roland Gift, having an exceptional year with Fine Young Cannibals, is Christine’s incensed ex (whose actions provoke one of the funnier lines in the picture, a neighbour reporting “Dr Ward? I just thought you should know. There’s a black man shooting at your front door”). My first thought seeing Gift in the part now is that Craig Charles also went up for Johnnie and believed he’d have wiped the floor with Gift (performance wise).

Leslie Phillips, the acting world’s ultimate louche fellow, is Lord Astor (he of Mandy’s famous response to the question: “Are you aware that Lord Astor has denied impropriety in his relationship with you?”: “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”) Britt Ekland gamely shows much more flesh than either of the leads half her age. Ralph Brown, Keith Allen, Ken Campbell and Iain Cuthbertson (as Lord Hailsham) all play small roles. As does Trevor Eve as, effectively, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Alex Norton is the Nasty McBastard face of the Bill (Paul Brooke the understanding side). But again, such staples rather underline that the picture has no strong ideas regarding the ramifications of the events themselves. And when Ward tells Christine he “could do wonders with you” and “shock the world”, you sense Thomas is in the grip of retrospective qualifiers of his characters.

The Film Yearbook Volume 8’s Trevor Willsmer, under one of the collection’s entries in “Dog of the Year”, offered a succession of devastating put downs, and if I can’t concur with the degree of condemnation, I can see exactly where he was coming from. Scandal is “shot like a Sunday evening TV show and paced like a House of Lords debate. As political cinema, it’s a non-starter. As drama, it’s pedestrian. As black comedy, it’s painfully unfunny. As sexploitation, it’s limp”. He singles out the failure to identify the players on the scene, such as Peter Rachman (Johnny Shannon): “What? You didn’t know he was the most notorious slum landlord of the 1960s? Don’t worry, we won’t let on”. And summing up the generally indifferent approach: “The lights go down and everyone leaves the cinema, nodding sagely that the story should be told and pretending not to mind that the nude scenes really were tastefully done”.

If much of that is fair, if harsh, comment, I’d dispute his dig at the Pet Shop Boys/Dusty Springfield single playing over the end credits. He suggests the effect of Ward’s slo-mo cigarette drop is “dissipated” by the “irrelevant” song piping up, but that would suggest he’d been engrossed by the movie for any duration. Added to which, the single has a much more cogent overview of Scandal’s events across four-and-a-half minutes than the movie does over almost two hours.

Pauline Kael called the movie “intellectually mediocre” and questioned its depiction of Ward as the underdog (“the girls he supplied to the wealthy and powerful were his ticket into society”). She also suspected the picture’s hands were tied – “No doubt Profumo’s lines had to be written with care that he would have no grounds for a lawsuit” – but rated Fonda (“her gamine crispness makes you aware of how sickly-holy the film’s point of view is”).

One might have expected Henry Makow to the get in line with the naysayers; in contrast, he generously commented “Scandal” is a great movie but the story is fictitious”. Makow has it that real version is very much in line with the overall trajectory of global events, and cites several sources, including Keeler (“I’m sorry, but that film was just a snapshot of what really went on… The surface has barely been rippled”).

Per Makow, Ward was KGB/ GRU (the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union), while one of his sources goes further, calling him a “Black magickian“: “The scandal was designed to replace the Macmillan government with one more receptive to the globalist agenda. The ‘Profumo Affair’ was staged by the KGB, along with the MI-6, CIA and Mossad, the operating arms of the Illuminati”.

It’s suggested Ward was also involved in getting the goods on JFK, in concert with film producer Harry Towers (perhaps explaining the latter’s complete lack of interest in quality movies). Towers was “a mysterious and sinister figure”, a “sadomasochist and friend of Stephen Ward”. While there’s debate over the specifics – they were variously actually working for Lyndon B Johnson’s office, the KGB and MI5 (Makow evidently has Ward and Towers as KGB) – in the unfiltered conception of events, everything ties together at the top. And as we know from recent history, stories don’t just appear in the media; if a scandal is going to break, it’s either been allowed to do so or explicitly engineered, just as one will be suppressed if it doesn’t align with TPTB.

Makow is willing to conclude only that Ward “supposedly committed suicide while on trial”, while his Satanist source advises that Ward utilised the Vama-marga practice to gain influence amongst the influential, ultimately allowing “Harold Wilson and Edward Heath to become Prime Ministers of the UK”. The Man in the Mask orgy – also called Feast of Peacocks on account of serving peacock, and badger – is referenced in the movie, although hostess Mariella/Maria Novotny is not. Makow’s site avers that Ward’s “most enduring legacy was the 9th of December 1961 Feast of the Peacocks, [a sex orgy] because that helped the Alpha Lodge keep a number of British Commonwealth countries in a constitutional no man’s land, via the man in the mask, [Sec State of Colonies] Duncan Sandys”.

If that seems wild, well the Denning Inquiry files remain a closed shop until 2048 (and just look at the JFK case for how that can get kicked down the road). Makow sees communism as the creation of the masonic elite/Illuminati, quoting Keeler that “Stephen knew all the Masonic handshakes and he said that at some of the parties the girls would just wear Masonic aprons”. She also commented that Clivenden, scene of many of the “crimes” and home of the Astor family (Illuminati bigwigs, so it goes) had a witch circle in the wood. Clivenden is claimed to have been built in 1666 – well, of course it was!

None of which needs to have been intimated for Scandal to have been a classic or even just a memorable one. Within a couple of years of its release, a couple of pictures from directors at the peak of their powers – JFK and Goodfellas – showed what could be done with recent historical subject matter in order to make it vital, compelling and provocative. Scandal’s none of those things. It was sold extremely well, though. We have to give it that much.

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