When Politics Went Tabloid

Scandal, Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

Although Michael Caton-Jones’ 1989 film Scandal is set in the early 1960s, it now feels more like a prescient commentary about its own time.

John Profumo, Tory heartthrob.

Unfortunately, the feature’s limited availability – no streaming platforms are carrying it, currently – has muted its potential impact.

But people who track down a version on DVD or VHS should find it illuminating.

Scandal tells the story of model and showgirl Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley), who carried on simultaneous affairs with the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for War John Profumo and Soviet naval attaché Eugene Ivanov, and Stephen Ward (John Hurt), the osteopath and portrait artist who introduced her into elite society.

Construction of the Berlin Wall and the conflict between East and West in the newly independent nations of the developing world had reminded the public of the high-profile defections of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the USSR in the early 1950s.

The tremendous popularity of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels from the 1950s and the first film adaptations starring Sean Connery also contributed to heightened interest in the sordid intersection of sex and espionage.

Scandal takes some liberties with the historical record in the interest of good storytelling. Interestingly, though, these decisions direct our attention away from spying.

In contrast to the real-life Christine Keeler, who wrote in her memoir that Stephen Ward used his contacts to collect information for the Soviets, her character in the film downplays the seriousness of his actions.

Talking to her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, she attempts to defend him. “Stephen’s not a pimp,” she declares. “He just loves the intrigue. That’s all. He thinks he’s James Bond or something.”

For the film, real-world espionage pales before the excitement of the exaggerated fictional sort.

John Hurt’s brilliant performance also suggests that the scandal was overblown. From the twinkle in his eye, we get the distinct impression that Ward was only interested in secrets for sport.

What matters most for Scandal is not the threat to national security specifically but the broader implications of a society where privacy is being systematically eroded.

More specifically, we see how long-standing barriers meant to protect men of privilege from scrutiny begin to dissolve under relentless pressure from the mass media.

The film begins with a montage of black-and-white newsreel footage and home movies showing happy images of Great Britain under Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who eventually resigned because of the scandal.

Frank Sinatra sings “Witchcraft” over this sequence, imposing the preeminent voice of postwar American music on the images. The lyrics emphasise the power of women to bewitch, foreshadowing the story to follow. So does the fact that this montage is tinted blue.

Nowadays, using this type of sequence as shorthand for historical context has become second nature. At the time of Scandal’s release, however, conjoining documentary footage with popular music was still relatively new.

Two other sequences from later in the film do something similar.

First, we witness Keeler and Ward interacting with the rich and powerful at Lord Astor’s country estate.

As the song “Hazy, Lazy Days of Summer” plays, we see a photographer – perhaps of Indian or Pakistani descent – with a camera, then a series of shots showing various guests through the viewfinder.

Although the party atmosphere communicates a superficial insouciance, the reminder that this activity is being relentlessly documented unsettles us.

At one point, we see Keeler looking on as her two would-be lovers, Profumo and Ivanov, race each other in the pool. Their proximity to each other is triangulated by the woman whose body they will soon share.

This is not what we expect of the Cold War. But we sense that these summery revels will give way to more chilling developments.

Later in the film, Keeler expresses frustration at her relationship with Profumo to Ward, who wants her to continue it to satisfy his voyeuristic desires.

As she storms out of the apartment they share platonically, declaring, “I want to have some fun for a change,” Chubby Checker’s song “The Twist” begins to play.

We then cut to another montage of blue-toned archival footage, interspersed with shots of spiralling newspaper headlines.

Among the subjects featured are American astronaut John Glenn; Fidel Castro wearing fatigues; Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev; John F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King Jr., and The Beatles wearing the custom suits selected by their manager Brian Epstein, all while Checker’s song continues to play.

When this sequence is over, it becomes apparent that it was supposed to signal the passage of time.

But comparing the footage it showcases with the Profumo Affair’s timeline demonstrates that it travels farther into the story’s future than the moment where the narrative resumes at the end of the montage.

The point isn’t to reinforce linear chronology. Instead, this sequence is intended to convey a deliberately inexact early-60s-ness.

By the late 1980s, the concept of postmodernism had migrated from scholarly and art-world circles into general discourse about culture.

Scandal is doubly self-aware about this development.

On the one hand, the montage sequences in the film reflect a popular postmodernism in which history is reduced to a series of overdetermined cultural signifiers.

On the other, the story takes place during the period when trends that would later be described as postmodern were first becoming apparent.

In other words, Scandal is a postmodern film about the origins of postmodernism.

By looking back at the Profumo Affair and the early 1960s more generally in this way, Scandal provided a surreptitious education in discerning what Michel Foucault called an “epistemic break”.

Like other films of its time, but perhaps more than any of them, Scandal now appears to be a very 1989 film in the way it points forward and backwards.

By giving an account of how postmodernism came into being, it helped to prepare audiences to perceive the traces of a new cultural and political era just starting to emerge in the late 1980s.

A story from the height of the Cold War thereby served as a harbinger of the post-Cold War era.

More concretely, Scandal’s depiction of a Conservative Party in crisis drew attention to problems that would soon end Margaret Thatcher’s rule.

Considering the Tories’ prospects after Thursday’s election, insights from these previous inflexion points are particularly valuable.

First and foremost, we must recognise what these three eras – the early 1960s, late 1980s, and post-pandemic 2020s – have in common: the malicious influence of tabloid journalism.

By showing how the press amplified the impact of the Profumo Affair, Scandal implicitly criticised the Rupert Murdoch-dominated media of its time.

While print journalism is far less important today than before the advent of the internet and social media, the impulse to turn news stories into ideologically loaded allegories persists.

Above all else, Scandal wants to show us how thoroughly our perception of historical events is shaped by the frame that renders them legible.

In a sense, we always see through the viewfinder, just as we do during the film’s pool scene. It’s just that now, in contrast to 1989, we encounter the news through our electronic devices.

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Photograph courtesy of Flashbak. Published under a Creative Commons license.