‘He would [say that], wouldn’t he?” Mandy Rice-Davies’s sparky courtroom response to Lord Astor’s denial of a sexual relationship with her is one of the things most people remember about the Profumo scandal — those who are old enough to, at any rate. In fact, it would seem that the clever quip was never uttered by the young model. We have this on the best authority, from a letter to The Times last Saturday written by Sir Ivan Lawrence QC. As junior counsel, he was present at Marylebone Magistrates Court for the committal proceedings against Stephen Ward, the ‘society osteopath’, as he was always called, on a charge of living off immoral earnings.

Replying to prosecuting counsel James Burge concerning the peer’s denial, Miss Rice-Davies actually said, according to Sir Ivan: “Of course it’s not untrue that I have had relations with Lord Astor. I’m not going to perjure myself in court.”

Sir Ivan added: ”I have before me, as I write, the precise note. With all my imperfections [as a note-taker], I could hardly have avoided recording such a significant and witty statement had it been uttered.”

(As The Oxford Times was going to press, The Times carried a letter from a gentleman in Stratford stating that the newspaper had reported her saying “He would, wouldn’t he?” at a later hearing.) ‘Had relations’ — these were the words that jumped out for me from Mandy’s response. This quaint euphemism for sex was much bandied about at the time of the Profumo affair. Another was ‘intercourse’. I suspect that Philip Larkin probably had the scandal in mind when he wrote his famous line: “Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me).”

The ubiquity of the expression is remarked on by Richard Davenport-Hines in his excellent new book An English Affair; Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, just published by Harper Press at £20.

He writes: “Those who did not live through this period cannot imagine how the words ‘intercourse’ and ‘prostitute’ suddenly entered daily parlance. I recall, as a ten-year-old boy, asking a racy great-aunt, who lived in a flat above the King’s Road, Chelsea, how to pronounce the word which I found on the front pages of the cook’s Daily Express. Pros-ti-tutty was my original shot.”

To digress, for a moment, there is about this remark more than a suggestion of the snootiness that permeates the whole of this book. Why mention where aunty lived? And why specify that it it was the cook’s newspaper?

No matter, for Davenport-Hines is sensible as well as snooty and certainly very fair when he comes to judgments about the principal figures involved in the affair.

Far from being prostitutes, Rice-Davies and her friend Christine Keeler were simply girls who enjoyed having sex, which made them rather rare birds in the unpermissive 1960s.

Davenport-Hines notes astutely: “If Keeler had been born thirty-five years later, she would have starred on Celebrity Big Brother and consulted her publicist every time her footballer boyfriend knocked her about.”

This was a scandal, as he shows, cynically cooked up by opponents of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative Government and their supporters in the press, the best-selling Daily Mirror especially. Together with some very devious lawyers, they hounded poor Stephen Ward to death, supplying proof that such assassinations by newspaper are not an exclusively modern phenomenon.

The language of abuse is sometimes astonishing to read. On August 4, 1963, the day after Ward’s death, The People carried the front-page headline: “Keeler, the shameless slut.” Underneath it, she was called “an empty headed trollop, skilled only at using her body to bewitch or betray”.

A thing I had forgotten about the scandal was that it presented, for us here in Oxford, almost a local story. The man at its centre, the Minister of War John Profumo, was MP for the constituency of South Warwickshire, which included villages very close to Banbury.

A revealing survey carried out by the Banbury Guardian showed that while older people were dismayed by his conduct, the same was not true of the younger people it consulted. “What may have shocked our grandfathers 50 years ago is now accepted — even if it is not condoned. Few of the people questioned were shocked by Mr Profumo’s affair with Keeler. “They agreed that ‘this sort of thing goes on’. As one man put it, ‘Those who are shocked by the affair are obviously out of touch with life in the twentieth century.’”

That Profumo was not entirely the saintly figure that he appeared to be during the rest of his long life is revealed in a story Davenport-Hines tells of his conduct at a dinner party where he was seated between The Queen Mother and a 17-year-old Guinness heiress. “Ever been f***ed by a seventy-year-old?” he asked the latter. No? You should try it.”

An interesting development in the career of Mandy Rice-Davies, post scandal, is that she became an actress. The picture above was taken in 1981 in Oxford when she played Maddie Gotobed in Tom Stoppard’s farce Dirty Linen.

She was a pretty good actress, too. The Oxford Times’s critic Frank Dibb said of her performance: “In the pivotal role of the nubile panties-shedding secretary, Mandy Rice-Davies gives a neat, briskly projected and lively performance.”