| 8.6°C Belfast

The day Mrs Profumo returned home to Northern Ireland at the height of the scandal... and the UTV interviewer who was ordered not to ask her a single question about it

New BBC drama The Trial Of Christine Keeler retells the famous saga of the affair that rocked the British Government, but less well-known is that John Profumo's wife was Valerie Hobson, a famous actress from Larne. Don Anderson reveals why she was not quizzed about the story everyone was talking about

Close

John Profumo, then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and his wife, former actress Valerie Hobson

John Profumo, then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and his wife, former actress Valerie Hobson

PA

Ben Miles as John Profumo and Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler

Ben Miles as John Profumo and Sophie Cookson as Christine Keeler

BBC/Ecosse Films/Ben Blackall

John Profumo, then Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, and his wife, former actress Valerie Hobson

One day in 1963, a UTV broadcaster was dispatched with instructions not to mention to the interviewee near the heart of a national scandal the very event that was on everyone's lips at the time. The Profumo sex-spy-highlife affair politically damaged Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and he resigned as Prime Minister on health grounds in October 1963. The Conservative Party itself was rocked and this may have contributed to its narrow defeat in the general election the following year.

Jimmy Greene, then a prominent face on UTV's popular Roundabout teatime programme, was told that the wife of the recently disgraced Secretary of State for War John Profumo was to visit Northern Ireland and he was to interview her. However, there was to be one very big proviso. Jimmy Greene was not under any circumstances to refer to - or to raise even obliquely - the Profumo affair, which was still absorbing the nation.

The order came from Brum Henderson, UTV's managing director. Jimmy Greene, who's substantive job was continuity announcer, dutifully obeyed and that is how the interview proceeded. Important to note that the woman was not involved herself, but she was closest to the man who was at the epicentre.

The reason this could happen without raising too many eyebrows is the tale of a different time with its reverential values. It was also because Mrs Profumo was famous in her own right and, importantly, a Larne woman and therefore one of our own. Furthermore, she was well-connected.

Before her marriage Mrs Profumo was famous as Valerie Hobson and initially probably better known than her politician husband. She had starred in a West End production of The King And I, in the 1935 film Bride Of Frankenstein and in the rather good 1949 comedy film, Kind Hearts And Coronets, a frolicsome tale of a minor aristocrat manoeuvring himself to a full title by murdering all the prior claimants. The authoritative online film database IMDB declares her to be a very underrated talent, "a truly natural beauty. This woman had class, or was great in faking it if she didn't. Much too little known".

Actually, she wasn't faking and really did have "class". Born in 1917, she was the daughter of a naval captain, obviously well off, since she was educated at St Augustine's Priory, London. She was stage-struck from a very young age - and was lucky. She and her nanny attended a Cochran audition they had read about in a theatrical paper. Sir Charles Blake Cochran, known as CB Cochran, was a London theatrical manager and impresario, who produced very successful musicals and plays of the 1920s and 1930s, becoming associated with Noël Coward and his works.

He, no less, advised that this young lady from Northern Ireland should enrol at RADA. With this provenance she was catapulted into a theatrical life, assisted of course by her considerable ability and beauty. She originally wanted to be a dancer, but illness forced a change of direction, perhaps fortunately. She might never have reached the height of fame as a dancer as she did as an actress.

Close

Valerie at Dublin Airport in the late Fifties

Valerie at Dublin Airport in the late Fifties

Valerie at Dublin Airport in the late Fifties

She went on to marry producer Anthony Havelock-Allan and appeared in many of his films. They divorced in 1952. She then married politician and subsequently notorious John Profumo and, just as Meghan Markle did when she married Prince Harry to become Duchess of Sussex, Valerie gave up her acting career.

The marriage to Profumo added further class that IMDB thought could be faked, because Brigadier Profumo was the son of the 4th Baron Profumo, a diplomat and lawyer of Italian origin, who died in 1940. Young Profumo attended Harrow School and Oxford, where he read law and was a member of the exclusive, snobbish and boisterously disreputable Bullingdon dining club for students. In 2007 a photograph of the Bullingdon Club members taken in 1987 was discovered and became headline news. Two were Boris Johnson and David Cameron. It was a club for Oxbridge toffs.

The scene was thus set for a TV interview that avoided the huge elephant in the room. Valerie was not just a lingeringly famous actress from Co Antrim, she was a toff. Enter UTV boss Brum Henderson, son of Commander Oscar Henderson, former private secretary and comptroller general to the James Hamilton, 3rd Duke of Abercorn, the first Governor of Northern Ireland.

Close

The young actress

The young actress

Getty Images

The young actress

Brum was therefore raised in Hillsborough Castle, so emphatically was a toff too. And as if that wasn't enough to squash any whiff of the scandal in the broadcast, Valerie, now wife of the 5th Baron Profumo - though he did not use the title - was in Northern Ireland at Glenarm Castle as a guest of Lord Antrim who, guess what, was the chairman of the UTV board of the time.

There was yet another reason. UTV was only a few years old and, uniquely, was the only ITV station without a news service. The regulating body at the time, the ITA, was willing to tolerate local programming pared to a magazine of 20 minutes each weekday simply to get UTV, then the smallest TV station in the system, off the slipway. The ITA admitted that it was pioneering this truncated local soft programming without news to demonstrate an incubation model for succeeding small stations. It worked. UTV survived and prospered, eventually establishing a highly professional news gathering operation - under the aegis of the same ebullient Brum Henderson. But that day had not yet arrived, so Valerie talked about her acting, full stop. Journalistic rigour was absent.

She would not have spoken about the scandal anyway. She never, ever spoke about it and stood by Profumo throughout that distressing humiliation. Later she applied herself to her charity work with children with mental disabilities and lepers, so her own reputation remained high. As for John Profumo, he too kept quiet about the affair for the rest of his life. He also devoted himself to charity work and for that was rehabilitated, being appointed CBE in 1975. Mrs Thatcher invited him to her 70th birthday celebration, where he sat next to the Queen. Small compensation for a man who had once been a rising star and possibly a Conservative Prime Minister.

Close

The young actress

The young actress

The young actress

Valerie Hobson died in 1998, her husband in 2006. The BBC drama takes a new look at the episode by concentrating upon the story of Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. They were vilified at the time, notwithstanding the plain fact that they fell under the spell of much older men who used them. Neither of them was able to escape fully from under the cloud of scandal that shrouded them for the rest of their lives. A reassessment of the role of all the women, Valerie Hobson/Profumo included, particularly in the light of the MeToo movement. A revisionist history probably needed to wait until all the main players had died, though it appears that Christine Keeler did know that this drama was on the cards and raised no objection. Christine Keeler, died in 2017; Mandy Rice-Davies in 2014 after a reasonably successful life which she represented as her "slow descent into respectability". A stoic silence was one way of dealing with the mess. A sense of humour another.

Don Anderson is the author of 50 Years Of Ulster Television, published by Gill and Macmillan 200

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Close

Emilia Fox as Valerie Hobson and Rosalind Halsread as Bronwen Astor in The Trial Of Christine Keeler

Emilia Fox as Valerie Hobson and Rosalind Halsread as Bronwen Astor in The Trial Of Christine Keeler

BBC/Ecosse Films/James Pardon

Emilia Fox as Valerie Hobson and Rosalind Halsread as Bronwen Astor in The Trial Of Christine Keeler

Close

Christine Keeler, right, and Mandy Rice-Davies, both key figures in the Profumo affair

Christine Keeler, right, and Mandy Rice-Davies, both key figures in the Profumo affair

Christine Keeler, right, and Mandy Rice-Davies, both key figures in the Profumo affair

Belfast Telegraph