Today the world mourns two of its unlikely icons – overnight the deaths were announced of Christine Keeler, the girl at the centre of the infamous 1960s British sex scandal known as the Profumo Affair, and the legendary French ‘bad boy’ pop idol Johnny Hallyday at the ages of 75 and 74 respectively.
Sadly I was personally slightly too young to be fully aware of the extent and ramifications of the 1963 Profumo scandal which ended with the suicide of the somewhat shady Stephen Ward and the resignation of John Profumo, then the Tory Government’s Secretary of State for War, officially for lying to the House of Commons but in reality for ‘being caught’ at a time when the patrician-like but long-suffering rather asexual figure of Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister (I use the word ‘asexual’ advisedly in the context that Macmillan’s wife had been having an affair for decades with the decadent bisexual Lod Boothby).
The truth is that – as a boarding prep school boy serving his time in an establishment in Seaford, East Sussex who was eleven years of age for ten months of that seminal year – I was rather more preoccupied with the utterly compelling sporting saga that was the West Indies cricket tour of the UK in 1963.
In order to evoke the era in the minds of people of my vintage I would only have to list that oh-so-formidable West Indies squad:
Frank Worrell (captain), Conrad Hunte, Easton McMorris, Seymour Nurse, Basil Butcher, Joe Solomon, Gary Sobers, David Allan, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Alfred Valentine, Deryck Murray, Joey Carew, Willie Rodriguez, Lester King, Lance Gibbs and Rohan Kanhai.
Nobody who was privileged enough to have seen it will ever forget the sight of the great Colin Cowdrey coming out to bat, his broken arm set in plaster, with England 228-9, just six runs short of victory.
Luckily for both him and us, he didn’t have to face either of the last two balls of the final over before stumps were drawn.
Meanwhile, in the adult world for which I had as yet neither qualification nor admission, Britain was still struggling to come to terms with its post-War attitude towards sex.
Let us not forget that 1963 was the year that Mrs Mary Whitehouse began her crusade against the BBC and what became called ‘the Permissive Society’; that the D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial had only occurred in 1960; that the contraceptive pill had only become available for the first time on the NHS in Britain on 4th December 1961; that the Abortion Act and the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual behaviour, were not to be passed until 1967; and that the requirement to get your UK theatrical show licensed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was not discarded until the Theatre Act of 1968.
Never mind the 20/20 vision happily provided by hindsight which has long identified the 1960s as the great decade of British – and then the world’s – sexual revolution, the simple and incontrovertible fact is that poet Philip Larkin got it about right in his poem Annus Mirabilis when he wrote:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
There is not a little irony, as today we bathe in the warm glow of accusations running to double figures in number of sundry male MPs allegedly abusing their positions of power via their boorish, sexist, juvenile – if not pathetic – behaviour towards young women (and in some cases men), in being reminded of the Profumo Affair of fifty-four years ago.
Some might say “what goes around, comes around”.
And let’s be frank about what the ‘revolution’ actually was.
There’d always been sexual hanky-panky – cue the famous joke about the Yank soldiers being ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here …’ during WW2 – it was just that nobody really talked or wrote about it in polite society or public. Certainly the tabloid press (such as it was) didn’t.
The revolution was simply that people began to talk openly and honestly about sex and relationships. Sex became part of the mainstream in an all-pervading way that it had never been before, despite all the inevitable allusions to it in fashion, art, music, movies and television and literature down the ages.
The switch was that hitherto in Britain anyone who – for whatever reason – chose to ignore it, or simply wished not to be confronted by it, could do so. From 1963 onwards they couldn’t.
Christine Keeler’s reputation, fairly or not, was that of a ‘tart with a heart’ – at least, an unashamed one. Later in life she sometimes protested about this, probably with justification.
Ironically, of course, it was Mandy Rice-Davies who caught the mood of the moment perfectly during her testimony at the trial of Stephen Ward when – his counsel having pointed out that Lord Astor denied having met, still less having an affair, with her – she replied “Well … [giggle] … he would, wouldn’t he?”
Anyway, today let us salute Christine Keeler and her part in British history.
I have a little less to say about French legend Johnny Hallyday. I’m afraid that for me (as a Brit) he always presented a prime example of a somewhat baffling aspect of French – and indeed, European – culture generally (perhaps with the single exception of Abba).
It is that, try as they might to look and sound like pop stars, continental Europeans are completely incapable of composing, playing or performing rock and pop music with an ounce of either authenticity and credibility.
Fair play to Hallyday, though – he somehow managed to make a career out of it.