Politicians today are mistrusted and reviled, seen as corrupt buffoons. Be it Ireland, the UK or the US, they are far from idolised. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, however, things were different. Politicians were a class of elite thinkers and proper people. They deserved respect and gravitas – so their persona portrayed, anyway.
Then, several events happened that were to change the UK public’s perception of the political class forever. They weren’t elites at all, they were just average dumb like everyone else.
In 1962, That Was The Week That Was, or TW3 for short, appeared on UK television, later to be commissioned in the US. It was a pioneering programme on the BBC which would help remove the halo from politicians, reaching an audience of up to 11 million.
It featured satire, interviews and journalism and its host was a relatively unknown figure called David Frost – the man who would go on to interview Richard Nixon in probably the most famous interview in world history.
In something that producers could only dream of today, TW3 frequently ran way over its allotted time. This was basically the first programme in the UK like it. It properly broke new ground. It really, delightfully, angered politicians with sharp, intelligent jokes, combative interviews and well researched pieces. Technically, it was one of the first programmes to show cameras and equipment on screen, giving it a fresh modern feel.
This was a programme that even saw, on live television, one of its presenters punched.
It was ruthless in holding people to account and criticising the powers that be. It rode the wave of new satire in the UK along with Private Eye (a magazine still running today) and relentlessly attacked the Conservative government. They subsequently complained to the BBC and, after just 13 months on air, the show was cancelled.
In fact, Bernard Levin, the man punched live on air, could be so abrasive he once, while interviewing a member of the government (in the 1960s) said “Oh, all right, then. Make your silly point.”
This was a public grilling the type of which politicians were unaccustomed. Maybe these politicos were not so sacred after all?
In 1963, while TW3 was still running, another event was to occur, an event that would bring down the UK government: the Profumo Affair.
John Dennis Profumo, then the UK Secretary of State for War in the Conservative MacMillan government, was a rising star and tipped for future leadership. Rumours began, however, that Profumo was up to no good and that he may be have been embroiled in a sex scandal. TW3 performed a variation of the song “She was Poor but she was Honest”. “She” would be revealed as Christine Keeler. She was introduced to Profumo by a man named Stephen Ward.
Keeler was brought up in a rough area of London, distant from the environment the Conservative Minister was used to. Profumo, of course, denied the affair – and lied to Parliament about it. 10 weeks later he would resign. The big part of the story? Keeler was also sleeping with a Soviet embassy staff member, Eugene Ivanov. This was during the Cold War, remember.
Keeler was friends with Marilyn Rice-Davies, who lived with Stephen Ward. Rice-Davies and Ward were to marry. Upon a trial of Ward, for living off ill-gotten gains , the prosecuting counsel mentioned that Lord Astor (who owned the estate where Keeler and Profumo met) had denied having any affair or having even met Rice-Davies. The working class woman’s reply to this upper class man’s denial? “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” All men are created equal. This marked the end of the sacred politician. They would lie and cheat like everyone else.
A culture of scepticism and suspicion, upper class figures in positions of power reduced to being mere mortals, times were changing and That Was The Week That Was and the Profumo Affair were two of the key elements in that change. TW3 in particular was the forefather of The Daily Show and UK’s 10 O’Clock Live.
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That Was Satire, That Was: Beyond the Fringe, the Establishment Club, “Private Eye” and “That Was the Week That Was”
An Affair of State: The Profumo Case and the Framing of Stephen Ward