Is it ever too late to clear a loved one’s name? The son of Christine Keeler, the model caught up in the biggest sex scandal of the 20th century, hopes it’s possible to rewrite a small but significant part of British history.
The Soho showgirl has been the subject of plays, movies, songs and a recent six-part BBC drama: The Trial of Christine Keeler.
A 1963 photograph of Keeler, the one in which she appears naked astride a nifty plywood chair, has become as an icon of post-war modernity – a cheeky hint the Sixties were about to swing.
It’s possible Keeler was on the mind of poet Phillip Larkin when he wrote that “sexual intercourse began in 1963”, the year the Profumo scandal reached its frenzied climax.
But Seymour Platt knows Keeler as mum. He thinks the ordeal a young working-class woman from Wraysbury who spent just over four months in jail has been lost in the mythology of the Profumo affair.
Platt believes the time is right to launch a legal bid to get Keeler a posthumous pardon for her perjury conviction. He says last year’s BBC series, which he considers a fair depiction of events, inspired him to act.
“It probably motivated me to think about the case again and start the legal campaign,” he says. “I thought, ‘Maybe we’re finally ready to talk about this fairly’. Because what happened to her was really, really unfair.”
Keeler was once among the most the most notorious people in Britain. At the height of the Cold War, she became sexually involved with the Tory minister for war, John Profumo, at around the same time she slept with a Soviet naval attache.
A shooting incident involving a boyfriend sparked initial press interest in Keeler, which eventually led to the revelation about her affair with Profumo and wild fears her sex life could be threatening the UK’s national security interests.
“She was hated – she had horrible things written about her in newspapers,” says Platt. “She was called all sorts of things, including a prostitute. She was never a prostitute. The sexual politics in 1963 were still quite strange. Men just thought women were property.
“She should never have gone to prison. She shouldn’t have been in court for perjury in the first place. What it all comes down to is they wanted to punish Christine Keeler.”
Who might “they” be, exactly? It’s a hard question to answer without picking apart the messy entanglements which saw Tory politicians mix with high-society fixers, showgirls and nightclub promoters.
The story of Keeler’s life-changing year can be boiled down to four trials. The most high-profile is the legal ordeal of Stephen Ward, the Harley Street osteopath who was convicted of living off immoral earnings (he was widely known at the time as Keeler’s “pimp”), but who committed suicide before he could be sentenced.
Another trial in 1963 saw jazz club promoter Johnny Edgecombe – the enraged boyfriend who shot at the windows of Ward’s flat while Keeler was inside – jailed for seven years for possession of a firearm.
But the most significant case for Keeler was the trial of Lucky Gordon, the jazz singer who was initially found guilty for seriously assaulting her at the home of a friend.
Gordon’s assault conviction was quickly overturned when two missing witnesses to the attack were found and claimed the evidence given by Keeler was false. This led to a perjury trial at the very end of 1963, at which she pleaded guilty.
In December she went to jail for four and a half months. She remained a national pariah in the decades before her death in 2017, haunted by her reputation as the scarlet woman of the Sixties.
“You have to remember she was only 20 or 21 at the time,” says Platt. “By the time of the perjury trial she was absolutely exhausted. She felt she had been wronged, but she just didn’t want to go to court anymore. So she pleaded guilty.”
Her son, who has obtained police records showing Gordon had a history of violence, recounts Keeler’s own version of events on the perjury case. The two missing witnesses to her attack, Rudolph Fenton and Clarence Camacchio, had been in trouble with the police, didn’t want to be involved and so had asked Christine not to tell anyone they saw it.
Newspaper accounts from the period show Fenton and Camacchio did eventually testify that they had indeed witnessed the attack.
Platt and the lawyers who have now taken up the case for a pardon believe Keeler’s statements on her attack at Gordon’s trial – denying Fenton and Camacchio were present – should not have been “material” to her claim of assault.
“There was no malice in what she did,” says her son. “She didn’t try to change the course of a trial. She had proved she was assaulted without their witness accounts.”
Platt is certain the police and prosecution service would not have pursued the perjury case without the feverish scrutiny over everyone connected to the Profumo scandal.
Keeler didn’t live long enough to see the Me Too movement shift attitudes and expectations. Her son believes a pardon would chime with today’s desire to make sure victims of domestic violence and sexual assault get protection under the law.
“A victim of violence should not go to the police and end up being the one going to prison,” he says. “A pardon would send a powerful message that our system doesn’t do that, the system welcomes women coming forward.
“A pardon would be important for our history too,” he adds. “Our history isn’t right. People have been able to say anything they wanted about her because she was found guilty of perjury. So until we exonorate Christine Keeler then we aren’t getting that period of Britain’s history right.”
Although he was happy with last year’s BBC series, Platt suggests the nation still has a tendency to salivate over the Profumo scandal with an unhealthy degree of prurience.
He recalls his disappointment going with his mum to the set of Scandal, the 1989 Miramax-produced movie starring John Hurt as Stephen Ward.
“[The film] was pretty salacious. I remember when we went to the set I was told by one of the actresses that the producer had been wanting the girls to get their clothes off [on camera]. He wanted it to be like a soft porn film. That producer was Harvey Weinstein.
“So the whole thing has always been looked at with a certain amount of salaciousness. Profumo was able to re-establish his reputation over time. But with Christine, it wasn’t really possible to do that. It’s time to forgive her in the way we do Profumo.”
Platt, the second of Keeler’s three children, says she struggled with depression over much of her life. “The damage from what happened to her was immense. A lot of emotional damage.
“Financially she had nothing, so we were very poor when I was growing up. But I’m lucky because I knew she loved me. She said to me she would like the truth to be told about her. So that’s what I’m trying to do, to fulfil her wishes.”
Lawyers acting pro bono for Keeler’s family, convinced of a historic injustice, have taken those wishes and set out the legal case as clearly as possible. They are preparing to submit a formal pardon plea to the government later this month.
Felicity Gerry QC will send the petition of mercy to the lord chancellor, urging he recommend the Queen grants a posthumous pardon.
“To her family it would mean a lot,” says Platt. “A vindication, at last. It would be better, more fitting way to remember her.”