Peter Fincham finds virtue and vice in two real life mysteries
Factual-based dramas are all the rage these days and our two main channels, BBC One and ITV, have recently unveiled their offerings to get us through the cold winter nights. What an instructive contrast they make. Set twenty years apart, The Trial of Christine Keeler (BBC) and White House Farm (ITV) both tackle cases that generated prodigious amounts of tabloid interest at the time. Over the years vastly more has been written about the Profumo affair, in which married men have sex with women they’re not married to, than the Jeremy Bamber murders, in which the adopted son of a middle-class couple in Essex slaughters three generations of his family. Odd, you might think – but to be fair, the Profumo affair helped bring down a government.
The Trial of Christine Keeler exists in that almost-forgotten era that Larkin defined elsewhere as ‘between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP’, the pre-dawn of the modern world. The artless, more sinned against that sinning Keeler is a quintessentially 60s figure. She rejects the stultifying net-curtained world of her timid, 1950s-style parents and makes no secret of enjoying what a prosecuting barrister droolingly pronounces as ‘seck-sue-all intercourse’. In other words, she is a harbinger of everything that made the 1960s such a transformative and – depending on your point of view – exciting decade. Within a few years, she would have fitted in seamlessly. She’s a relative, you might say, of the daughter in “She’s Leaving Home” – side 1, track 6, Beatles’ sixth LP – who slips out of the family home to meet a man from the motor trade. ‘She is having fun’, the parents lament in their bewildered way. But why not? In the 1960s fun was all the rage – it just came a bit too late for Christine Keeler. Soon, she’d have been described as a ‘free spirit’; here she’s dismissed as a tart.
The 1960s begat the 1970s (that’s when I grew up and yes, it felt as if it was a perfectly decent decade but we could never quite forget that it wasn’t as exciting as the 1960s) and the 1970s begat the selfish, venal, Thatcher-dominated 1980s. And Jeremy Bamber, who murders his family simply to lay his hands on his inheritance – and appears to stand for nothing other than avarice – is a quintessentially 1980s figure. There were plenty of Bamber types about, men (mostly) who seemed to have forgotten the idealism of the earlier decade entirely and focused their energies unembarrassedly on making as much dosh as they could. Greed was good, money was cool. If he’d been brighter and harder-working, Bamber might have aspired to become one of Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. Instead he resorts to multiple murder, amateurishly trying to frame his troubled ex-model sister Bambi (she has what we would now call mental health issues; in the unreconstructed jargon of 1980s detectives, she’s a nutjob).
In common with modern trends, and the dream of the box-viewing binge watch, both dramas favour length over brevity. The Profumo affair has of course previously been covered in the (1980s) movie Scandal which clocks in at slightly under two hours. Each of these series takes six hour-long episodes. Disclosure: I used to be Director of Television at ITV, and I once suggested to Jeff Pope (ITV’s doyen of factual drama) that he tackle the Bamber murders. I was assuming that, bearing in mind that the police in the 1980s weren’t known for their rigorous crime scene discipline, there remained a tiny chance that Bamber was the victim of a monstrous miscarriage of justice. Bamber himself has always maintained his innocence, and I felt that a drama that left the question hanging in the air could be provocative and compelling. Jeff Pope turned me down, taking the view that Bamber was guilty as charged. He was surely right.
White House Farm has no truck with the miscarriage of justice theory, and if Bamber has been watching it in his cell it will have given him no comfort at all. The drama comes from watching the net gradually tighten around him. There’s an excellent performance as Bamber from Freddie “don’t mistake-me-for-my-cousin-Lawrence” Fox, previously blonde and hilarious in Channel 4’s The Year of Rabbit, dark-haired and dead-eyed here. The tension builds slowly and expertly. It’s directed in a deliberately unsensationalist way by Paul Whittington, with haunting images of the limitless wheat fields of the Essex countryside. The outstanding performance arguably is from Mark Addy as a dishevelled cop who appears to have eaten all the pies but doggedly persists in trying to convince his blinkered and short-tempered boss (Stephen Graham, usually so consistent but slightly one-note here) that Bamber’s sister didn’t do it.
The Trial of Christine Keeler starts from the admirable position of saying “let’s tell this story from the point of view of the woman at the heart of it”. This is surely the right way to breathe new life into a familiar tale, but snags up against the inconvenient truth that Christine Keeler wasn’t as interesting as the things that happened to her. She is played by lookalike and relative unknown Sophie Cookson who is about a decade older than Keeler was at the time the scandal took place, which serves to undermine the grubbiness of Profumo’s behaviour. Sophie Cookson does her best to bring Keeler to life but the best lines go to the other players – Ellie Bamber (no relation, I assume) as the witty and worldly Mandy Rice-Davies, and James Bond contender James Norton as by far the most interesting character, Stephen Ward. There’s a strong performance by Emilia Fox (also not be confused with Lawrence) who perfectly captures the steely anger of Profumo’s wife.
Like all great stories, the Profumo affair bears retelling and as the net tightens around Ward and Keeler (just as it does around Bamber) we are struck by how the punishments inflicted on Christine Keeler and her associates are out of all proportion to the crimes. There the comparison with White House Farm breaks down. Nothing, including the passage of time, mitigates the horror of Bamber’s actions.
All period drama tells us as much about the era it’s made in as the era it’s about. Both these stories are now told in their respective and excellent dramas through what I suppose we should now be calling a 2020s lens. As a new decade begins, each previous era shuffles back in the queue. Extraordinary to think that since the 1960s no fewer than five decades have been and gone. It’s hardly surprising that it’s not just the costumes that look strange.
In 20 years’ time, such is our love of revisionism, maybe we’ll look into the prism of these stories and see something else again. Easy to imagine with the Profumo affair, harder with Bamber. Christine Keeler remains a source of fascination and, mostly, pity. The anger displayed by crowds who spat at her taxi as she arrived at the Old Bailey has long evaporated. By contrast, no tears need be shed for the unrepentant Bamber as he sees out the rest of his ‘full life’ sentence. He did it, m’lud.