Jimi Hendrix fed a delusion that I was a film producer. I left my cushy job at Warner Brothers and ploughed producer royalties from Midnight At The Oasis into optioning literary properties and commissioning scripts – a fatal way to spend hard-earned money. Don Simpson joined me in a production office in Hollywood.
With his brilliant myopia, Don put his finger squarely on the likelihood of my success in Hollywood. On our way back from a meeting in Century City, Don ran in to get a programme as we passed the Schubert Center where the Los Angeles International Film Festival was about to start. As we crawled through the late afternoon traffic, he read out some of the blurbs, including a paragraph about Jacques Rivette’s Celine And Julie Go Boating. “Yeah, check that one, it sounds interesting”, I said. There was a long pause.
“Joe, do you know anything about this film other than what I just read?” I said I didn’t. “OK, so let me get this straight. On the basis of this description, you actually want to see this film.” I grunted in the affirmative.
Don threw the booklet on the floor. “Joe, this is hopeless. You are poisoned by your European sensibility. You will NEVER make a commercial film for the American market!”
A month later, he was equally perplexed by my recommendation of a BBC comedy calledMonty Python, making its debut on US Public Television. He stayed home to watch it, then stormed into the office the next morning, furious at me for wasting his time with such a foolish and un-funny show.
Soon afterwards, Don suffered two of the worst calamities that can befall a tyro producer in Hollywood: he crashed his car (with no collision insurance), and hit the limit on his credit card. His friends came up with loans, but things were so dire we feared he might end up back in Valdez, Alaska, the town he fled as a teenager. He borrowed a car and a clean jacket for an interview with Dick Sylbert, a Production VP at Paramount. A $300 a week assistant’s job got him back on his feet.
I used to meet him for midnight Mexican feasts at Lucy’s El Adobe opposite the studio lot: he spent every evening at the office reading the files, film by film. When the regime changed, the staff were summoned for meetings with the new President, Michael Eisner. Most were let go, but Eisner was amazed at Simpson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of every deal. “Get that guy an office next to mine”, he told his secretary when Simpson left. A year later, Eisner made him Head of Production. (One of Don’s biggest successes in that role was Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)
Prior to his elevation, I joined Don for dinner with Howard Rosenman one evening at La Scala in Beverly Hills. Howard is a central figure in what Mike Ovitz recently asserted was a ‘gay mafia’, but which we referred to in those days as the ‘homintern’. Howard was – and still is, thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a producer with development deals all over town, a witty charlatan whom I was always happy to join for social occasions. We squeezed into a small table next to the dessert trolley, surrounded by the full banquettes of a busy Saturday night. Our fellow diners included Kirk Douglas to our left, Joan Didion at the next booth with Julia Phillips, then Stanley Jaffe and finally a group including Ray Stark and David Merrick.
As Don and I were taking our seats, Howard worked the room, greeting and air kissing. After industry gossip over the hors d’oeuvres, our subject shifted to the recent violence in the Middle East. I made a comment about how Israel would probably be safer if it stopped violating UN resolutions about illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Howard erupted, accusing me of anti-Semitism and every other calumny he could think of. When I tried to defend myself, Don kicked me under the table; all other conversation in the small restaurant had ceased. We moved on to more agreeable topics and the other diners returned to their conversations. After we paid our bill and rose to leave, Howard did another tour of the room. I could hear hushed voices asking “who is that asshole?”
As we stood on the pavement awaiting the car valets, Howard clapped his hand on my shoulder and said jovially “well Joe, I guess you’ll never work in Hollywood again!” Nor did I. Nor, for that matter, did I ever manage to see Celine et Julie Vont En Bateau. I did, however, eventually produce a dramatic feature film. And it did take $10 million at the American box office. And it was, inevitably, about the Sixties.
In 1977, Chris Blackwell asked me to finish an LP (“Reggae Got Soul”) by Toots and The Maytals. Toots was in London with rhythm tracks he had cut in Kingston and Bob Marley was in Nassau, demanding Blackwell’s attention. I couldn’t have been happier – the tracks were great and Toots was a hero of mine. (The record turned out very well, I thought, with the exception of the cheesy overdubs on the title song Blackwell insisted on adding before he decamped to Nassau. He was paying me, so I couldn’t erase them.)
I settled into a routine of work at Island’s Basing Street Studios, arriving mid-afternoon and working late into the night. A crowd of local Rastafarians hung out in the control room giving advice, rolling spliffs and eating the Ital food the studio provided every day. My only tricky moment came when a take-out delivery man arrived and enquired who ordered the pork kebab. “Over here”, I yelled, and it was like one of those Bateman cartoons in Punch where some duffer confesses to voting Labour and pipes fly out of mouths, wigs sail skyward, retired Colonels are knocked back on their heels and the elk heads on the wall of the Gentlemen’s club raise their eyebrows. The Rastas eventually got over the shock and I learned to enjoy the vegetarian Ital diet.
The man who cooked the nightly feast would arrive mid-evening carrying shopping bags filled with mysterious Caribbean tubers. His name was Lucky and he wore a beret and a floor-length leather overcoat and kept his hair short. The names he dropped were characters from the ‘50s jazz scene in Soho such as Ronnie Scott and Annie Ross. I was driving away as the sun was coming up over Portobello Road one morning when I spotted Lucky standing forlornly on the corner. “Been let down for my ride, man” he said. I drove him home, then accepted his offer of a cup of tea. His small front room was unexceptional, save for the startling décor on one wall: it was covered in clippings from early ‘60s tabloid newspapers with headlines full of the Profumo Scandal and Christine Keeler. The penny dropped: “you must be Lucky Gordon!”
Over PG Tips, Lucky delivered a rambling, barely coherent account of the notorious events from his point of view as Keeler’s West Indian lover whose knife fight over her triggered the chain of events that brought down the Tory Government in 1963. The Profumo Affair intrigued me even before I arrived in London. It seemed to combine the colour and conflict of the early Sixties in a uniquely English way. I stayed until 9 in the morning, fascinated.
Michael Thomas, an Australian screenwriter I first met when he did a story on the Incredible String Band for Eye magazine in 1968, had also met Lucky. We had worked together on some screenplays with Simpson in the mid-‘70s and decided this was a story the English should see. It took a few years, but we eventually secured the rights to Christine Keeler’s and Mandy Rice-Davies’ life stories. Before signing the contracts and paying over the fees, we had not been permitted to meet either of them. As the ink dried, we booked dinners, first with Mandy at the Dorchester Grill, then with Christine the following night in a little Italian restaurant near her council flat at the wrong end of Chelsea.
Since the affair’s climax in 1963, their lives had diverged widely. Mandy fled to Israel, married an El-Al pilot, converted to Judaism and opened a discotheque in Tel Aviv. She was now (1982) married to a waste disposal millionaire, a close friend of Denis Thatcher. She turned up a few fashionable minutes late, looking immaculate. She was funny and perceptive, and we chatted easily. Over coffee, Michael asked her about Stephen Ward’s trial. On the witness stand, she was told that Lord Astor denied ever having sex with her. Her response – “Well, he would wouldn’t he?” – is now in the Oxford Book of Quotations. In the newsreels, Mandy arrives smiling and waving at the crowds, who gather round for autographs. When Christine steps from her taxi, her sad, beautiful face shrouded in a dark kerchief, the crowd throw things, call her “whore” and “witch” and she needs a police escort to reach the door of the court. Why, we wanted to know, the different responses?
“Well, I grew up around animals. Lived near them all my life.” We stared at her uncomprehendingly. After a pause, she explained that as a young girl from a lower-middle-class family in the Midlands, she always aspired to higher things. She spent hours at the stables, learning how to ride but never owning a horse. She would feed them and calm the most skittish of animals. In a nearby field, she could approach a bull and pat the beast on its nose, never feeling in danger. Walking into a crowd was like walking into that field; she never doubted her ability to have them eating out of her hand.
Charming as she was, we never lost sight of the fact that she could be ‘economical’ with the truth, painting everything in a rosy hue. She had loved slumlord Peter Rachman, even as he made her fuck him facing away while he lay on his back and insisted that she constantly brush her teeth and never kiss him on the mouth. She never forgot that he had done latrine duty in Buchenwald. She had never, she claimed, had sex for money. As we delved into the story, the most difficult thing to grasp was that they were children of fifteen (Mandy) and sixteen (Christine) when the chain of events began that altered British history.
The following night couldn’t have been more different. Christine retained her ‘Cherokee’ cheekbones, but she looked ravaged. Some of her teeth were rotten and her eyes spoke volumes about the different destinies of the two women. She was anxious to tell a frank story, sparing neither herself nor others. Yes, she had been a hooker, but Stephen Ward was never a pimp, despite the trial verdict that drove him to suicide.
Her biggest blind spot involved race. For Lucky, she was the love of his life. If only she had stayed with him, everything would have been fine. To Christine, the affair began with a rape and was never anything but rape. She denied ever having voluntary sex with a black man. Her relationship with Johnny Edgecombe, whom she described as a pimp, was an attempt to escape the violent Lucky. That led to the fight between the two men at the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street, which led in turn to Johnny looking for her at Stephen Ward’s Harley Street flat gun in hand, and shooting at the door while a taxi waited. Police and press arrived, the story broke and someone (Ward was an incurable gossip around journalists) leaked an account of her affair with the Minister for War while she was also having sex with both Lucky and the Russian ‘Naval Attache’ Yevgeny Ivanov. The notion of old-Harrovian Jack Profumo – married to the sainted Pygmalion actress Valerie Hobson – sharing a girl with ‘a Commie and a Nigger’ was too much for the British psyche to bear – to say nothing of the Cold War security implications!
Christine had met Ward when she and Mandy were showgirls at Murray’s Club in Mayfair. He didn’t want to fuck her, he liked her too much. He would crawl into her bed after having sex (usually with a prostitute) in the next room. He loved having her on his arm so he could watch the havoc she wreaked among his grand friends. At an orgy once, she looked down between her legs and discovered Stephen’s head expertly buried in her crotch. He never told her if he had known whose pussy he was eating.
He introduced her to Lucky on a pot-buying expedition to Westbourne Park Road in the summer of 1962. The café where they met was around the corner from the site of the first Pink Floyd shows. In the four years between those events, England and the world had changed beyond recognition. Dope was an exotic rarity then, used only by West Indians and a few hipsters. The Cuban missile crisis was looming when Christine took shelter with Johnny Edgecombe. While the rivals fought it out in Soho, Russian ships carrying nuclear missiles were steaming towards Havana, shadowed by American fighters and submarines. As Johnny’s knife slashed Lucky’s face, “Kruschev blinked” and the boats turned back. It could be argued that of the two events, the knife fight in London had the greater effect on British political history. Without it, Labour was unlikely to have gained power at the next election. The only way we could do justice to this coincidence in the film was by playing a ska record, Please Mr Kruschev (don’t drop that bomb),under the dancing prior to the fight scene. Eighteen months later, The Flamingo Club where they fought would host the first gig of John Lee Hooker’s UK tour, the night after his elegant bow at the Hammersmith Odeon. (White Bicycles ch 8)
Michael and I – and our partners Steve Woolley and Nik Powell at Palace Pictures – planned Scandal as a three-night mini-series. It was perfect TV: the myriad story lines with characters from the lowest to the highest reaches of English society converging on the final evening as Profumo first denies, then is forced to admit his affair with Christine and in so doing brings down Harold MacMillan’s government. At Ward’s trial on procurement charges, the English establishment vented its fury on this ‘jumped-up son of a vicar’. Ward was a successful osteopath with no need to make money pimping and he would have died rather than charge friends like Prince Phillip for introducing them to girls. But like most strivers, he underestimated the cruelty of the ruling classes. His pal Lord Astor, to whom he had provided girls by the Bentley-full, to say nothing of introducing him to his wife Bronwen, left the country rather than be called to testify in his defense.
We made a development deal with the BBC, but as soon as the Board of Governors heard about it, the option was dropped. Channel Four, the supposedly adventurous new channel, turned us down flat, finding the subject “in the worst possible taste”. No TV executive, it seemed, wanted to blow a knighthood on our project. Steve Woolley finally convinced the rest of us that a feature film was our only option. We cast John Hurt as Stephen Ward, Joanne Whalley as Christine, and, in Steve’s brilliant stroke, Bridget Fonda as Mandy. Michael and I spent a drunken afternoon removing page after page of our beloved four and a half hour script and throwing them into the fireplace.
The genteel image of the Royal Family and the aristocracy had acted for decades as a form of social control. Teenagers had rebelled in the ‘50s, but England’s image of itself as a respectable, well-behaved country was so all-pervasive that not much really changed. The early Sixties brought the Lady Chatterly’s Lover obscenity trial, where the prosecuting barrister asked the jury: “Ladies and Gentlemen, be honest with yourselves. Would youreally want your maidservant or wife to read this book?” Next came the Duchess of Argyll’s divorce, where a photograph was entered as evidence but hidden from the public’s innocent eyes. It became notorious as the ‘headless man’ photo and everyone knew what it showed: the Duchess giving a blow-job.
Then Christine, Mandy, Stephen and Lucky arrived to not only put the final nail in the coffin of upper-class respectability, but to bring down the complacent Tory Government. Labour ruled for most of the next fifteen years and it took Mrs Thatcher and some dubious manoeuvers by right-wing elements in MI5 to get rid of them. It seemed clear from our research that MI5 had known about the Profumo-Keeler-Ivanov triangle and tried to use it, J Edgar Hoover-like, to threaten the Government over the deeply resented policy of ‘giving away the Empire’. The story blew up in their faces when it broke in the tabloids, and they probably felt obliged to work against the Labourites their miscalculation had allowed in the front door of Downing Street.
I wondered what the Sixties in Britain would have looked like under the Tories. The police may have been busting people right and left in the summer of ‘67, but there was a vague feeling that Harold Wilson and his ministers were not entirely on the opposite side. I felt we owed a lot to Christine and the martyred Stephen Ward. Researching Scandal, I better understood the country in which I landed in the spring of 1964. It helped explain the sense of adventure and excitement – in a restrained English sort of way – I found in so many people. It was as if a great weight had been lifted off their shoulders. Twenty years later, I discovered who had done much of the shifting.
As the release of Scandal approached, I prayed for ‘questions being asked in the House’. I dreamed of a phalanx of Tory grandees joining in condemnation of ‘this disreputable film’. But what actually happened was far more indicative of the English class disease. The attacks came, but not from the right. Jo Grimond, retired leader of the Liberal Party, savaged us in print as did former Labour minister Roy Hattersley. The piece de resistance was a dinner party reported in Private Eye where Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser were entertaining a gathering of the Great and Good of the Left wing of the English Establishment. When someone mentioned that they had seen and enjoyed Scandal, a furious Pinter reportedly locked himself in his study, refusing to emerge until the offending party (Penny Mortimer, who later confirmed the story to me) had left the house. The terror of the arrivistesat offending hereditary privilege strikes me as somehow related to the English loathing of their own folk music, but that is probably too arcane an argument to go into here.
Few things have given me greater satisfaction than the success of Scandal. Before the film, much of the British public would have summarized the affair as “Profumo was unlucky, Ward was a chancer who got what he deserved and Christine was a whore”. Now, I think the views have shifted towards “Ward was framed, Profumo got what he deserved and Christine was exploited.” Thanks to John Hurt’s sympathetic performance and Michael’s great script, we managed to re-draft a bit of British history.