What Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ Leaves Out: British Spies Protected Prince Philip’s Secret Life

In the juiciest of British scandals he’s never quite caught in the act, and innuendo isn’t evidence. But, as I found out, MI5 was eager to keep him out of the story.

Robert Viglasky / Netflix

The Netflix drama The Crown has done a great job in throwing light on the darkest corners of life with the Windsors, a family with a lot of baggage.

From the ex-monarch the Duke of Windsor being exposed as a willing dupe of the Nazis to the Queen being anguished by years of philandering by Prince Philip, the second season has given an unusual glimpse into a series of scandals that were mostly suppressed at the time.

Indeed, Peter Morgan, the writer, has acted like a diligent archivist by hunting down and exposing a lot stuff once thought far too dangerous to the security of the monarchy if it ever became publicly known. As a result, his narrative also reveals how politicians and the monarchy colluded in a series of cover-ups.

Sometimes – as in the case of the Duke of Windsor – the evidential trail was buried deep and took decades to find light. In others, like the long and sad dissipated descent of Princess Margaret, the truth slowly accumulated over the years in a series of public revelations.

But before The Crown no single reporter or historian had assembled all the scandals as a continual and fateful family drama, a largely-hidden swirling, toxic undercurrent beneath the young Queen’s gritty public composure. And for sure, the royal story has never before received the kind of blockbuster international exposure provided by Netflix.

When Philip was being vetted as a future husband for Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, her father, George VI, was informed that he ‘was unlikely to be faithful.’

The trouble is that in some cases the Morgan version of history can’t be verified, while in others the circumstantial evidence is strong but not definitive. This is particularly true in the case of Prince Philip.

Morgan takes a gumshoe’s approach to Philip’s secret life, never quite catching the Prince in the act, always just a bedroom door or curtain short of the compromising position. Indeed, early in the second series dramatic license slides too easily into innuendo. The villain of the first crisis of the royal marriage is not actually Philip himself but his Australian private secretary and long-time confederate in laddish behavior, Lieutenant Commander Michael Parker.

It is true that Philip and Parker set up a private dive for kindred spirits called the Thursday Club. Such clubs had been a fixture in London since the 18th century. They are not to be confused with the more august men’s clubs where aristocrats, politicians, military chiefs, judges and clergy comingled to exert invisible influence on the nation’s affairs. They were formed by small cliques of men drawn from a broader social base with common sophomoric lusts that had to be kept out of sight of their families.

But there was never any proof that Philip used the Thursday Club to brag about sexual conquests in the way that Parker and others are seen doing in The Crown.

Morgan is suggesting guilt by association, but Philip didn’t need the help of clubmates for his wandering eye. Before his marriage he moved in a world of minor European royalty where discreet affairs were as customary as visits to a tailor. When Philip was being vetted as a future husband for Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, her father, George VI, was informed that he “was unlikely to be faithful,” according to the diary of Winston Churchill’s secretary, Sir John Colville.

In this world discretion was as much valued as marital fidelity. Philip was expected to understand the rules: this kind of discretion came as an obligation in exchange for his package of royal entitlements. But Philip never respected this deal. He was never quite discreet enough or careful enough in the company he kept. Perhaps that was because he assumed that the palace’s considerable powers to suppress public scandal would protect him.

As I discovered for myself, he may have been right.

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The season finale of The Crown brings us to the juiciest of all British sex scandals, the Profumo Affair of 1963. Morgan seeks to show that Philip was in the middle of the action.

In reality, the action was of manifold complexity, involving debauchery in many overlapping layers of British life. The single magnetic figure at the center of those layers was the young woman who became the most famous femme fatale of the time, Christine Keeler.

As Keeler began to savor the rewards of notoriety she posed for a portrait that became iconic and transfixed the world. She sits, naked, astride a knockoff copy of a plywood Arne Jacobsen chair, reversed so that its kidney-shaped back provides just enough modesty. Her elbows rest on the chair back; her forearms cover her breasts, her chin sits in cupped hands. She stares impudently at the camera, knowingly carnal and although she is young there is a hint of coarseness as she plays the vamp.

The prime minister at the time, Harold Macmillan said, “I will not be brought down by that tart.” But he was – for having been too lax in his handling of the man who gave his name to the scandal, John Profumo, the minister of defense.

On the face of it, Profumo was disgraced because he lied not just to Macmillan but to the whole House of Commons when he made a speech in which he claimed slight acquaintance with Keeler and that there had been “no impropriety whatsoever.”

The prime minister at the time, Harold Macmillan said, ‘I will not be brought down by that tart.’

In fact, the scandal was far more serious than a sex romp. It ran deep into Cold War intrigues. Profumo had simultaneously enjoyed the pleasures of Keeler with a Soviet spy, Eugene Ivanov, who operated in London under the cover of naval attaché but can be more aptly described as the bedroom attaché: In a memoir Keeler spoke of Ivanov’s virility in a way she never did of Profumo: “he was a man.”

I believe that Philip’s connection to the scandal was peripheral, even though the affair was so toxic that the periphery was a dangerous place to be found for a man of his position. That was because he was a friend of the only participant who ended up dead, by his own hand: an osteopath named Stephen Ward.

Ward’s misfortune was that he knew too many people who, when the scandal broke, bolted for cover and in the course of doing so dumped him. Ward had had a creepy, avuncular relationship with Keeler, introducing her to Profumo and tutoring her in the ways of the priapic men of wealth and power who were his professional clients.

In The Crown we see Philip visiting Ward (who was a member of the Thursday Club) for physical therapy. While waiting he spies a picture of Keeler, together with others, and appraises it. The rest is left to the imagination. Later we are told that Ward, an amateur portraitist, had made a portrait of Prince Philip, which is scripted to sound incriminating. It wasn’t. Ward had been assigned by a magazine draw a series of portraits of famous people of whom Philip was one (Princess Margaret was another).   

When the scandal broke I led a team from the Insight investigative unit at the London Sunday Times. For many weeks we had been trying to make sense of the labyrinth of interests trapped in the affair, reaching from picaresque Soho to the upper reaches of the security services.

One of our reporters discovered that Ward and other members of the Thursday Club had another favorite place for carousing, the studios of a professional portrait artist named Felix Topolski. Topolski was gregarious and famous for ripe gossip and, he told our reporter, he was happy to talk – in fact, he wanted to brag about knowing many of the people in Ward’s orbit. With one exception: “I can’t discuss Prince Philip.”

Naturally, we got interested in Philip. But nobody else was talking about him, either, and since our focus was mainly political, pursuing a widespread cover-up to establish what Macmillan knew and when he knew it, we dropped that titillating strand of the story.

However, somebody knew we had talked to Topolski. I had a phone call from a “Mr. Shaw.” He explained that he worked for MI5 and said he would be obliged if, together with two colleagues, I could meet him the following day at a hotel near the St. James’s Park Tube station. Nothing to be alarmed about, just a matter of courtesy.

Shaw was a man in his mid-50s, with a mandarin’s economy of language. He was flanked by two much younger men. It was soon clear that they knew about more or less every interview we had conducted, but they were really curious about only one of them, with Topolski and, specifically, what he had told us about Prince Philip.

I said we had no interest in Philip. He was irrelevant.

Irrelevant?” spluttered one of the sidekicks, clearly not convinced.

I had a phone call from a ‘Mr. Shaw.’ He explained that he worked for MI5 and said he would be obliged if I could meet him the following day at a hotel near the St. James’s Park Tube station.

I explained that on the following day we were due to have an interview at 10 Downing Street with a close aide of the prime minister and that whatever part Philip had in Ward’s circle, if any, it was of no consequence to the very serious political issues involved.

They seemed relieved. The location of the hotel was a lot closer to Buckingham Palace than it was to the offices of MI5. They were clearly more concerned about the occupants of the palace than of Downing Street. We suspected, but were never able to prove, that Shaw and his colleagues were a special detail from MI5 assigned to make sure that the royal family’s interests overrode everything else in the cover-up.

That encounter, as strange as it was, quickly faded in light of what we learned at Downing Street. We presented a timeline we had assembled showing which government officials had interrogated Profumo and when, asked why it had taken 123 days for Ivanov’s role to be revealed to Downing Street by the police and security services, and- the final puzzle - why the prime minister himself had never interrogated Profumo.

The explanation we got for Macmillan’s indifference, which amounted to dereliction, was given on the basis that we could never print it.

Macmillan, we were told, had old-fashioned views about political integrity. He regarded Profumo as a decent, “clubbable” chap and members of Macmillan’s clubs never lied. It had all been a profound shock to him, a personal betrayal. Moreover, sex was a demon in the prime minister’s private life. For 30 years his wife, Lady Dorothy, had been having an affair with an infamous bad boy of the Tory Party, the bisexual Robert Boothby, and there had been a daughter from the union.

When we told the story in print we honored the request not to reveal this Freudian explanation, even though it was unconvincing. Instead, we summed up Macmillan’s behavior as “willful amnesia.” The evidence for his laxity was damning enough. A few months later Macmillan resigned.

The Crown’s version of this odd ménage a trois portrays the matronly Lady Dorothy as sexually fixated on Boothby and cruelly dismissive of her husband’s physical appeal. The casting of Anton Lesser as Macmillan is one of the few missteps in the series: as written he comes across as flaccid and colorless whereas Macmillan was famously droll and imperturbable and, in public, so con brio that he was given the moniker of Supermac.

He was a very effective statesman, more adroit at handling the volatile Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev than President Kennedy in brokering an historic agreement with Moscow to limit nuclear tests – something you would never know from watching The Crown.

Macmillan’s was a kinder fate than Ward’s, who was put on trial on outrageously trumped-up evidence by the police as a pimp who lived off the illegal earnings of prostitutes. Before the judge (who, it was disclosed years later in An Affair of State by ex-Insight reporter Philip Knightley, had obeyed instructions to punish Ward as the fall guy) could pass sentence Ward committed suicide, taking 25 grains of Nembutal, enough to kill a horse.

Ward had ingratiated his way into the heart of political and aristocratic life not by pimping but by being useful as an agent in the kind of sexual bourse in which women of lower rank were picked up, swapped and traded between men in a system that was held to be consensual and never regarded as prostitution. In Ward’s trial Keeler had loudly protested: “I would like to say I am not a prostitute and never have been.”

A year after the Profumo scandal we reported a more sordid footnote: Robert Boothby was keeping the company of two psychopathic gangsters, the Kray brothers, who – in return for Boothby introducing them to a higher social network where they were treated as sinister curiosities – had provided him with rent boys.

As for Prince Philip, the worst thing that our reporters were ever able to convey about him in print was an unfailing ability to commit gaffes, as when he made an official visit to Paraguay, then ruled by the dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and announced: “It’s a pleasant change to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its people.”

I think Philip should be seen as a typical product of his class and time who was too fond of the company of pals with smutty tastes, an atmosphere in which he could enjoy himself vicariously – a small part of his old life that he wistfully wished he had not left. In that sense he was a wayward husband until, with age, he grew up and has now become, in the Queen’s words, “my strength and stay all these years.”

It could be said that after showing all the rotten apples in the royal family the second season of The Crown actually ends up being the ultimate public cleansing of the Windsor legacy, providing a public relations catharsis they could never themselves offer. It leaves the still-young monarch standing tall and resolute above a string of failed prime ministers and all the others who at various points jeopardized her reign.

This is Claire Foy’s swansong in the role. She is replaced in the next season, as the older Queen, by Olivia Colman. Foy’s performance has been so astonishingly pitch-perfect that we feel we can, at last, understand who this Queen, now 91 years old, really is: a woman who turned what is, in constitutional theory, the role of a powerless head of state into a sustained mastery of a series of the nation’s statesmen who were often less than honest with her. We shall never see her equal again. Long Live The Queen!