Prostitutes, Profumo, and the Pleasure Girls
This article originally appeared on Diabolique, March 21, 2019.
It seemed innocuous enough. A throw-away line in a review of The Pleasure Girls (1965): “Nikko, we hear, is a slum landlord (clearly based on Peter Rachman, who had died only three years before the film came out, and whose unsavoury activities were mainly revealed after his death).” Curiosity demanded a bit of research on Rachman, which opened up the floodgate of the Profumo affair. Before long, what was meant to be a simple essay about a good-natured entry in the “Swinging London” film cycle was awash in shady doctors, saucy showgirls, Soviet spies, sexy pool parties, British lords, government officials, sleazy nightclubs, jazzmen, and underworld thugs. Which just goes to show you: always do the research, because it can lead to strange and amazing places.
One of the subgenres swirling in the shadow of the British New Wave was the “Swinging London” cycle. Many of the Swinging London pictures were cautionary tales, pretending to teach us that, while we may revel in the wild times, when the storm clouds gather, the kids always come back home to mom and dad—back home to proper, well-behaved British culture. This has always been the case with exploitation, be it because of an earnest belief on the part of a filmmaker or, more often, as a defense against censorship and moral watchdoggery. You can wallow in filth and sleaze and sex and violence as long as, in the end, the wicked are either punished for or learn the error of their wanton ways. “But we’re teaching a moral lesson!” has been the hilariously disingenuous defense of salacious material for about as long as people have been writing down stories.
Which is good and bad. On the one hand, it creates a schizophrenic attitude toward sex. We, as a species, seem pretty keen on seeing one another naked and doin’ it. But we also feel the need to punish ourselves. Sexually explicit films in which people are miserable are considered art, while sexually explicit films in which people bang and have fun are considered pornography. Catering to that twisted attitude toward sex and pleasure might be a way for films to get away with showing saucier material, but it also reinforces the damaging sense of self-loathing so much of human society seems to harbor over having a good time.
On the other hand, it does enable movies to get away with a lot more than they would otherwise.
Every now and then, though, a filmmaker slips one through that doesn’t kowtow to the need to have everyone punished for having sex or a nip of booze. Such is the case with The Pleasure Girls. In this slice-of-life story of young women trying to make it in the big city, there are prices to be paid for certain actions, but rather than scurrying home in defeat, humbled and having learned their lesson, the women tough it out, accepting whatever injury they may acquire along the way but determined to make it on their own and on their own terms.
Sally Feathers (Francesca Annis, Lady Jessica from David Lynch’s Dune) is a small-town girl who comes to London to make it as a modeling. She moves into a flat with two friends, Angela (Anneke Wills, Doctor Who and Strange Report) and Marion (Rosemary Nichols, Department S). Also kicking about the building are Dee (Suzanna Leigh, Paradise Hawaiian Style), Cobber (Colleen Fitzpatrick), and Cobber’s gay roommate, Paddy (Tony Tanner). Drifting into the lives of one or other of the residents are shady (but somehow not murderous) landlord Nikko (Klaus Kinski) and horny photographer Keith (Ian McShane), a David Bailey stand-in who takes a liking to Sally, herself a version of model Jean Shrimpton.
The film dips in and out of the lives of each of the residents in a series of sub- and side plots that never quite form a primary plot. It maintains a breezy atmosphere even when it tackles heavy subjects. Ironically, Sally has the least going on. Keith wants to have sex with her, and she’s not into it, even though he’s young Ian McShane. Nothing much comes of that. The bulk of the film’s drama comes from her flatmates Dee and Marion. Marion is saddled with a deadbeat gambling addict boyfriend who squeezes her for cash, pawns her heirlooms, and knocks her up. Dee is involved with Kinski’s Nikko, who seems set up purely on the power of being Klaus Kinski to be a villain.
Certainly, Nikko is no angel. In one scene, Dee goes on his rent collection rounds and witnesses what garbage flats he owns and how hated he is by the tenants. At the same time, he’s not an irredeemable monster. He is kind to Dee. For her, he represents, at least initially, a sophisticated, adult world far away from the more youthful, impoverished world she knows. But the “adult” world is, in the end, just another bunch of people struggling along as best they can. They are neither better nor worse, no more or less accomplished than the girls of No. 48 Tudor Court, W8. The Pleasure Girls treats every character not as black or white, but as the varying shades of grey people tend to be.
Another of the film’s interesting choices is the relatively sympathetic depiction of a gay man. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain, punishable by jail time. It was a law that gave rise to extortion rackets, something explored in Basil Deardon’s Victim (1961), about a gay man who is blackmailed and, rather than give in, decides to risk prison in order to expose the blackmailers. The Pleasure Girls doesn’t boast the potency of Victim, but tackling the subject in a less politicized, more “homey” way makes it, in a way, more relatable and human.
Above all that, however, The Pleasure Girls is a film that respects and celebrates its core of young women. Even in “liberated” New Wave cinema, women were often objects. How many of those high-profile films boil down to “a guy tries to get laid”? It’s a reflection of the sexual revolution’s double standard that celebrated free love, demanded women make themselves available, then degraded them when they did. It was OK for men to sleep around—that was fun and adventurous and modern—but women who did the same? Less so, especially if she didn’t do it with you. In many a film where women did get to live free and easy, they often ended up punished for it. Not so in The Pleasure Girls. Yes, there is an unexpected pregnancy, but the women handle it. They take their lumps, like everyone in life. But no vengeance is visited upon them. No stern moral judgment. The movie never tut-tuts their wanting to be young and free. It’s the men of the film who are the loads: a deadbeat, a crook, a hound dog. The women may argue, but in the end, they stick together and are stronger for their experiences. They are sympathetic. They are the good eggs. The men treat them like sex conquests, like bank accounts, and in the case of Nikko’s treatment of Dee, a symbol of redemption. Never, though, as people. Free from the egos, demands, and deceit of the men in their lives, the girls would all be much happier.
You can watch The Pleasure Girls, know nothing about the Profumo affair, and lose nothing. Other than a couple characters broadly based on real-life corollaries, the scandal and the movie have nothing to do with one another. But, honestly…
As mentioned, just as Ian McShane’s Keith is a reflection of photographer David Bailey and Francesca Annis’s Sally is inspired by Jean Shrimpton, Nikko is based on slumlord Peter Rachman, and Dee is broadly analogous to aspiring model Mandy Rice-Davies. Both of them gained notoriety for their involvement in a scandal known as the Profumo affair. Rachman was an landlord who preyed on immigrants (West Indian, primarily), manipulating property to avoid rent control and employing underworld heavies to squeeze money from his tenants. He also owned some nice places, one of which he rented to osteopath Stephen Ward.
Rice-Davies was a Welsh model and showgirl who counted among her close friends Christine Keeler, a fellow dancer at a seedy Soho joint called Murray’s Cabaret Club. It was while dancing at Murray’s that Keeler introduced Rice-Davies to a former lover, Peter Rachman. Rachman set Mandy up in a swank flat, one where he’d previously housed Keeler and which belonged to Stephen Ward—doctor, possibly a pimp, and another patron of Murray’s. Ward had friends in very high places. Rachman had them in very low places.
One night while the two young women — and they were young; Keeler was around 19, and Rice-Davies was three years her junior—were at this location, one of Keeler’s jealous boy toys, John Edgecombe, dropped by. Edgecombe was a jazz promoter, pimp (this story has a lot of pimps), thief, dope dealer, and all-around grim sort of chap. He was already in trouble for knifing Lucky Gordon, a jazz singer and rival suitor for Keeler’s affection. When Keeler accused Gordon of roughing her up, Edgecombe left not-so-Lucky Gordon needing a faceful of stitches. He then beseeched Keeler to help him find a good lawyer. Keeler blew him off. He responded by threatening to give her one stitch for every two hed given Lucky Gordon. She, in turn, threatened to go to the cops.
Wanting, surely, to discuss the matter like two reasonable adults, Edgecombe showed up with a gun at Ward’s Marleybone flat, currently occupied by Rice-Davies and where Keeler had fled to hide out. When the women wouldn’t, for some crazy reason, let Edgecombe in, he took a few shots at the door. That might have passed unnoticed in one of Rachman’s slums, but in the upscale Marleybone neighborhood, it attracted the police. As improbable as it may seem, the arrest of this street-level criminal set into motion events that shook the highest level of British government.
Because, it was revealed, Christine Keeler was carrying on an affair with one of Stephen Ward’s many associates: John Profumo, 5th Baron Profumo, and then the Secretary of State for War. Keeler and he had met at a ritzy pool party thrown by another of Ward’s high society friends: William Waldorf Astor II, 3rd Viscount Astor, rumored to be quite the fan of sleazy Soho strip clubs and who, by coincidence was carrying on an affair with Mandy Rice-Davies. During Edgecombe’s trial, sordid details spilled forth. Profumo denied the affair, and his fellows in the conservative government rallied to his defense. Eventually, and even though Christine Keeler proved to be something of an unreliable witness, the evidence was too much. Profumo had to come clean about being dirty.
He retired in disgrace, an embarrassment to the upstanding men who had stood by him during the accusations. Edgecombe avoided doing time for knifing Lucky, but he did get hit with a sentence for possession of a weapon and intent to harm. Lucky Gordon had already been jailed for assaulting Keeler, an accusation she later withdrew when witnesses came forth to provide Gordon with an alibi. This earned Keeler a conviction for perjury, for which she was sentenced to nine months. Peter Rachman, despite twice being caught for running brothels out of his properties, escaped the Profumo affair by dying of a heart attack in November of 1962, before it all came to a boil. And then things got crazy.
When he wasn’t a doctor or a pimp or loaning his pad out to the mistresses of government officials, Stephen Ward was an aspiring portrait artist. He’ done portraits of the Royal Family and wanted to do the same for the leaders of the Soviet Union. To facilitate this, he was introduced to a man named Yevgeny Ivanov, a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy. Ward’s social circle being what it was, Ivanov was soon acquainted with Profumo, Rice-Davies, and Keeler, one or both of whom he allegedly had an affair with. He became a regular at Lord Astor’s chaste gatherings that innocently featured naked prostitutes in the pool. The problem there: Yevgeny Ivanov was a Soviet spy.
MI5 knew this, and they hoped to turn him into a double agent. They leaned on Ward but became unsure that Ward, with his access to high-ranking officials attending saucy pool parties, wasn’t already feeding info to the Soviets. Among other claims about the whole insane tangle was that Ward and Ivanov urged Christine Keeler to pump Profumo for information about American missiles in West Germany. When the Edgecombe damn burst and Keeler started telling the story of what went on at Lord Astor’s place, the Soviets recalled Ivanov before he could be fully implicated in the scandal. Most of the claims of clandestine shenanigans were dismissed, but it was enough to move the circus into the houses of Parliament, where both the espionage and erotic aspects of the blunder were debated.
During these hearings, Stephen Ward was transformed from quack doctor and pimp to an agent of the Soviet Union, evidence or not. He was even branded a traitor. Christine Keeler, meanwhile, was described in a gentlemanly and professional fashion by Parliamentarians as a “professional prostitute” (as opposed to an amateur prostitute?), “whore,” “tart,” and “poor little slut.” Before he could be sentenced for facilitating various lewd acts, Ward committed suicide. He was found guilty—posthumously—of “living off the immoral earnings of prostitutes.”
The biggest fish to fry was British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. The affair was paraded through the press as an example of how rotten British politics and the aristocracy had become. Though narrowly avoiding total disaster in parliament, Macmillan found himself forced to resign “for health reasons” in 1963. In the subsequent election, many members of the Conservative government were swept out of office alongside Profumo and Macmillan.
Edgecombe did his five, got out, and achieved success as a promoter, club manager, and extra in film and TV. In 2002, he published an account of the Profumo affair titled Black Scandal. Lucky Gordon did his three for the apparently bogus assault conviction, and then continued his musical career.
Keeler and Rice-Davies, who by some measures had just initiated the downfall of a prime minister, showed acumen in capitalizing on the scandal. In 1963, as the whole thing was blowing up, Keeler posed nude ( artfully obscured) straddling a chair. It became a signature image, so much so that it was recreated for poster when the story was inevitable adapted into a movie (Scandal, 1989, starring Joanne Whalley as Keeler and Bridget Fonda as Rice-Davies). Keeler didn’t escape unscathed, but she parlayed the scandal into a writing career including, a book called, remarkably, Secrets and Lies: Now Profumo is Dead, I Can Finally Reveal the Truth About the Most Shocking Scandal in British Politics. She also wrote the forward for The Naked Spy, Yevgeny Ivanov’s dubious 1992 account of the affair. She even popped up in a Bryan Ferry music video.
Rice-Davies came out of things perhaps best off of all. She became an official part of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations when her response to Lord Astor denying he’d ever met her (“Well, he would, wouldn’t he?”) was included. In 1966, she married an Israeli mogul and opened a string of nightclubs. She wrote. She acted on stage and screen, even making an appearance on Absolutely Fabulous. When Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical about Stephen Ward, Rice-Davies served as consultant. She divorced and married another millionaire, to whom she was married until her death in 2014. She described her incredible, improbable life as “one slow descent into respectability.”
- “Pleasure Girls,” British ’60s Cinema.
- Keeler, Christine. Secrets and Lies: Now Profumo is Dead, I Can Finally Reveal the Truth About the Most Shocking Scandal in British Politics. John Blake, 2014.
- Davies, Caroline. “Christine Keeler, former model at heart of Profumo affair, dies at 75”. The Guardian. Retrieved 5 December 2017.
- Davenport-Hines, Richard. An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo. William Collins, 2013.
- Summers, Anthony; Dorril, Stephen. Honeytrap. Coronet Books, 1989.