Tillerscast 11: Scandal


Time for some fun, in the form of scandal: sex, class, spies… and more sex. It’s what being British is all about!

Scandal: the Episodes, the Castlist

Episode One: John Vassall (Monmouth School; rejected by Keble College, Oxford). RAF in the war. Civil Service


Episode Two: the Cambridge Spies

  • Guy Burgess (Eton; Trinity College, Cambridge; history, First)
  • Kim Philby, OBE (Westminster; Trinity College, Cambridge)
  • Donald Maclean (Gresham’s. Holt; Trinity Hall, Cambridge; son of Sir Donald Maclean, liberal MP)
  • (Sir) Anthony Blunt (Marlborough College; Trinity College, Cambridge)

Burgess, Philby and the somewhat older Blunt were members of the Cambridge Apostles, sharing a intellectual élan, penchant for hard drinking and flamboyant homosexuality: by 1933, that included communism. In 1934, Burgess and Philby were recruited by the NKVD (the Soviet secret police. Blunt and Maclean followed. John Cairncross was neither public school nor Oxbridge, nor was he homosexual, but he had been to communist meeting; he had also come top of his year in the civil service exams of 1936. The following year, he was recruited at Burgess and Blunt’s suggestion.

In 1935, Maclean entered the Foreign Office. In December 1938, Burgess had joined MI6; he would make sure Philby was recruited in 1940. It was also in 1940 that Blunt was recruited by M15. And these men mattered. In the United States, Maclean had access to nuclear secrets. Cairncross had access to cabinet papers until he was posted to Bletchley Park, 1943.

Things first unravelled in 1951, as American evidence mounted and Burgees’ dissolute behaviour in Washington saw him sent home. Fearing exposure, Burgess and Maclean defected to Moscow. Philby, who had also been based in Washington in 1951, was summoned home and interrogated. MI5 were convinced of his guilt, but couldn’t prove it. Instead, he was allowed to resign. In 1955, as minister of defence, Macmillan reassured the Commons that Philby had never been a Russian spy.

Philby was in Lebanon by the time he was confronted again: a Soviet defector had filled in the gaps. He was offered immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession (and saving Macmillan’s blushes). He indicated that he would confess, but slipped out of Beirut and was next seen in Moscow: the Third Man.

Following Philby’s defection, the hunt was on. In 1951, papers found in Burgess’s flat implicated Cairncross. He had claimed he had been careless rather than treasonous, and was allowed to resign form the civil service the following year. He became a successful journalist and author. In 1964, he confessed to MI5, at least part of the truth; he was allowed to continue his career.


By the ‘sixties, Sir Anthony Blunt was director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, professor of the history of art in the University of London and surveyor of the Queen’s pictures. In fact, he had been interrogated more than once. In 1964, the FBI had the evidence. In return for immunity, Blunt confessed.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher publicly confirmed that Blunt had been a traitor. Not long after, Cairncross was exposed, though whether he was the real fifth Man, or another, will probably never be known.

Episode Three: the Headless Man

The couple:

  • The 11th Duke of Argyll (Christ Church, Oxford)
  • Margaret, the Duchess of Argyll


The Headless Man?


  • Duncan Sandys (Eton; Magdalen College, Oxford; above), secretary of state for the colonies, former minister of defence and Churchill’s son-in-law, who had an affair with the duchess
  • Douglas Fairbanks, Jnr, movie star and war hero
  • Bill Lyons, sales director of Pan-American Airways; the duchess’s daughter-in-law claimed it was Lyons

The judges

  • Lord Wheatley (Scottish son of an Irish immigrant), known for his Roman Catholic puritanism
  • Lord Denning (see below), whose report failed to identify the headless man. Denning he believed there to be two; Sandys and Fairbanks jnr


Episode Four: the Profumo Affair


  • John Profumo, fourth baron Profumo of the kingdom of Italy (Harrow; Brasenose College, Oxford); in the war, mentioned in dispatches, American bronze star and military OBE. Secretary of state for war
  • Valerie Hobson, film star; married Profumo
  • Bill Astor, third Viscount Astor (Eton; New College, Oxford); conservative peer, owner of Cliveden House
  • Stephen Ward (Canford School): society osteopath, panderer and scapegoat
  • Christine Keeler, age 20, former topless model.
  • Mandy Rice-Davies, 18, dancer
  • Peter Rachman. Polish-born. Started as a slum-landlord in Notting Hill, becoming notorious for the exploitation and intimidation of his tenants. From there, became a property developer. Rachmanism entered the English language
  • Yevgeny Ivanov, Soviet naval attaché (spy)
  • Sir Norman Brook (Wolverhampton grammar School; Wadham College, Oxford), cabinet secretary
  • Lucky Gordon, jazz singer (originally from Jamaica)
  • Johnny Edgecombe, jazz promoter (originally from Antigua), former henchman of Rachman’s
  • The Daily Mirror, Britain’s biggest selling Daily paper
  • The News of the World, Britain’s biggest selling newspaper whose Sunday morning diet of sex and scandal was a winning formula
  • Private Eye, satirical organ (see Tillerscast 10)
  • George Wigg, Labour MP (left school at 14 because of his family’s poverty)
  • Sir Henry Brooke (Marlborough; Balliol College, Oxford), home secretary
  • Mervyn Griffith-Jones, MC (Eton; Trinity Hall, Cambridge), prosecuting barrister in the Lady Chatterley case, and that of Stephen Ward
  • Sir Archie Marshall (Truro School; Gonville and Caius, Cambridge), high court judge in the Stephen Ward case
  • Sir Anthony Hawke (Charterhouse; Magdalen College, Oxford), recorder of London (judge) in the Christine Keeler case
  • Lord Denning (Andover Grammar School; Magdalen college, Oxford, on a scholarship): master of the rolls (presiding judge of the court of Appeals)
  • Bob Boothby, Baron Boothby (Eton; Magdalen College, Oxford): Conservative peer, and Dorothy Macmillan’s lover (see Tillerscast 9)
  • Dorothy Macmillan: Harold Macmillan’s wife; daughter of the ninth duke of Devonshire (see both Tillerscast 9 and 10)
  • The Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie: notorious east End gangsters and soacialites


Christine Keeler came to London, looking to get away from Essex and an abusive stepfather, and to have a good time. She worked as a topless showgirl in a Soho club. There, she met Stephen Ward, and moved in with him on a platonic basis. At that time she met Mandy Rice-Davies (who dance at the same club Keller had worked at); both had affairs with Peter Rachman. Keleer moved in and out of Ward’s house on Wimpole Mews, and with or without Rice-Davis, for the next couple of years.


Ward was a society osteopath, and artist, whose immense charm won him a way in to the affection of many, notably a patient, Lord Astor. The Astor family seat was Cliveden: ward rented a cottage, where he often took friends, including Keeler (with Ward, below). Bill Astor and his fellow conservative, John Profumo, were friends and allies.


Ward was also friendly with Yvegeny Ivanov. Ward came to the attention of M15, who hoped to get Ivanov to defect.

It was at party at Cliveden where Profumo famously meet Keeler, emerging naked from the swimming pool. The next day she met Ivanov. She would later claim to have had sex with Ivanov the next morning, back at Ward’s house. She certainly had an affair with Profumo.

This was dangerous territory, so much so that Sir Norman Brook warned Profumo to keep away from Ward and company: Profumo eventually broke off the affair.

Back in 1961, Keeler had had a relationship with Lucky Gordon, a man given to jealousy and violence. In 1962, she begun an affair with Johnny Edgecombe, who was similarly inclined: the two men came to blows, and in Edgecombe’s case, a knife, over her. A few weeks later, Edgecombe came to Wimpole Mews, demanding to see Keeler, and opening fire: he got seven years. Keeler began to talk, and decided to try and sell her story to the papers: the Mirror and the News of the World were now taking an interest, Private Eye were running thinly disguised parodies of the story.

Rumours circled, and were beginning to be taken up by some Labour MPs, notably George Wigg. Profumo tried to cover the matter up, suing an Italian magazine and making a personal statement in the House. He lied, and when the truth looked likely to come out, Profumo admitted the fact and resigned.

Keeler had been attacked, she claimed by Lucky Gordon. Largely on her evidence, he was given three years. Meanwhile, the authorities’ ire was now tuned on Ward. To say the national atmosphere was hysterical is an understatement, as it indulged in the much beloved national pastime of salacious self-righteousness. The press, and a number of Conservative MPs depicted Ward as a sexual predator and a Soviet stooge. Keller was portrayed as a prostitute. Mandy Rice-Davis was reported seeing a naked man acting as a waiter at a sex party.

Wild rumours circulated. Was that man a cabinet minister? Or a member of the royal family? Stories did the rounds of homosexual practices and sexual excess among politicians, military officers and members of parliament. Prince Phillip’s name was mentioned. The death of the upper classes was openly talked about.


Rumours of their death were, of course, premature. Not so Stephen Ward. Ward was put on trial for living off immoral earnings. The case was, of course, a sensation. When Mandy-Rice Davis claimed to have had sex with Lord Astor, the prosecuting counsel pointed out that Astor denied that fact. To laughter, she quipped, ‘Well he would, wouldn’t he?’

None of Ward’s erstwhile friends supported him; MI5 hung Ward out to dry. The trial was also a miscarriage of justice. The police case was trumped up, under political pressure from the home secretary. The prosecution played the self-righteous hysteria card for all it was worth; the judge was openly hostile. Ward took his own life. Even after his death, the Denning Report defended the establishment men and made Ward the scapegoat.

Subsequently, Keeler was, correctly, found guilty of perjury in Lucky Gordon’s trial. The prison sentence was as much about who she was as it was about the offence; nor did it take into account the police’s role in persuading her to lie. Her life thereafter was unhappy, and her subsequent versions of the story never quite rang true. Mandy Rice-Davis had a rather happier time.


If the chaps got off, they did suffer some collateral damage. Profumo devoted himself to charity work, his political career over. Bill Astor (left) found himself shunned by high society: Cliveden was sold. Rachman’s true nature was exposed. The subsequent Denning Report was a low point in the career of one of Britain’s greatest judges. Likewise, Sir Norman Brook is still regarded as one of the great cabinet secretaries.

The Metropolitan Police were not damaged at the time, but the Ward investigation would highlight some of the faults systemic in the British police service, and the Met in particular, that would lead to reform in the ‘eighties. The security services had sustained far worse damage over Philby, but when their role came out years later it too helped build the case for reform.


That the Profumo affair damaged Macmillan is undeniable. It was not the reason for his departure in 1963 (see Tillerscast 12), but it one of the events that left him holed below the water line. In part, it exposed what were increasingly seen as the failures in the old guard: the closed circle of clubbable chaps seemed a pretty rum lot, and Macmillan seemed weak and gullible. In truth, they were a rum lot, and worse stories came out.


We might even call this one Episode Five: The Kray Connection. Among Rachman’s connections were the notorious East End gangsters, the Kray twins; among Ronnie Kray’s lovers could be named the Conservative peer, Bob Boothby, Dorothy Macmillan’s erstwhile lover. In 1964, the Daily Mirror broke the story, and were successfully sued by Boothby. Boothby had lied. He is pictured with Ronnie Kray:


The stench of hypocrisy beneath the moralising veneer was all too evident. The chaps didn’t go away. But the chaps had betrayed their country, lied through their teeth, covered up for one another and hung the plebs out to dry in the process. Metaphorically, and actually, they were caught with their trousers down, or covering the fact up. In the words of Private Eye, having ‘had it so often’ they would never have it so good again.


You can read more about those years and these scandals here, and hear more in Tillerscast 11.

The best book on Profumo is:


There is also a movie (trailer here):

And an excellent BBC series on IPlayer here:


The story of those iconic photographs of Christine Keeler is told by the V & A here.



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