“From the start it sounded like a fascinating thing to do. It was a well-written, interesting script, and I met Crisp and found him original and outspoken. He’s not just a martyr and an exhibitionist, he’s a very intelligent man. He’s not just ‘one of those’.”
That was the late Sir John Hurt, speaking to Dave Lanning of the TV Times in the week The Naked Civil Servant (Philip Mackie’s adaptation of Quentin Crisp’s autobiography) was transmitted under the umbrella of The Wednesday Special on 17 December 1975. Jack Gold’s film made Crisp a phenomenon overnight and provided Hurt with one of his most memorable and singular roles. Aged 13, I vividly recall watching the film with my parents. My father was angry and outraged, while my mother was deeply sympathetic. Just like many other teenagers who’d inadvertently been exposed to this play, I realised that I, too, was ‘one of those’, and such feelings had not been beamed at me from outer space.
Crisp’s book was published in 1968, a year after the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised consensual sexual acts between men ‘in private’ and aged 21 or over. By then Crisp had already been tilting at the windmills of society’s attitudes to gay people, and especially those who openly declared their preferences. He had first-hand experience of being bombarded by homophobic violence and language as many other gay men had before, and would after Crisp’s declaration of being an effeminate homosexual.
Crisp was also shunned by many for being such a stereotype. As he declared in 1999: “I am a stereotype. I am an effeminate man. And when I was young, I and the whole world thought that all homosexuals were effeminate. And of course they’re not. You can just see which people are effeminate; that’s the only difference. So, I became a prototype of the effeminate man, because I was conspicuously effeminate. But camp is not something I do, it’s something I am.”
To be a camp and effeminate homosexual in 1975 was still letting the side down, according to some gay men in the Gay Liberation movement. However, Crisp had always been letting the side down, as covered in a glorious scene in Jack Gold’s film, since he was tempted into The Black Cat cafe in Old Compton Street by its queer clientele to spend “night after loveless night… buying each other cups of tea, combing each other’s hair and trying on each other’s lipsticks”. So began a rough, seedy existence, joining other male prostitutes on the street and eking out a threadbare existence. He was often the target of violence and would sometimes wake up in the street having been beaten unconscious by men who took great affront at his appearance and manner.
It’s this peripatetic life that writer Philip Mackie and director Jack Gold traced in The Naked Civil Servant. However, this was not Crisp’s first media appearance. He had ventured over the battlements prior to Mackie’s adaptation of his memoir. Crisp had always been a witty raconteur, developing a homespun philosophy that covered all manner of social protocols, everything from house cleaning to dealing with being followed in the street. While he was working as an artists’ model in the early 1960s, he was interviewed by his friend Philip O’Connor for a series he was doing on British eccentrics for BBC Radio.
Broadcast in 1964 as A Male Artist’s Model, it interested several publishers enough to approach him about writing his memoirs. One of these, William Kimber, received a 2,000-word synopsis but turned it down out of fear of libel. After regaling several train passengers with his woes, one of them introduced Crisp to literary agent Donald Carroll. It was Carroll who eventually secured a contract with Jonathan Cape in 1965. For an advance of £100, he was asked to complete his memoir. He worked with the editorial team at Cape putting the finishing touches to what Crisp wanted to call My Reign In Hell until 1967.
It finally saw publication as The Naked Civil Servant in January 1968 and received a very mixed reception. To promote the book, Crisp reluctantly agreed to hold an evening event at Schmidt’s restaurant in Charlotte Street. A television producer was in attendance, promised to see what he could do, and within the month Crisp was sitting with Fanny Cradock as one of the guests on BBC’s Late Night Line-up. “What mattered was that another chunk of the wall against which I had for so long been leaning had given way. Through the aperture thus created I could now see a tantalising corner of the area I longed to enter,” he reflected several years later in the second volume of his memoirs How To Be a Virgin.
He was gradually invited to give talks at art schools, and to gay and lesbian groups. This was shortly after the bill including the Sexual Offences Act had scraped through its final stages in the House of Commons. It had taken 10 years since the original recommendation of the Wolfenden Report to get this far, and it was a very small step towards equalising the legal status of heterosexuals and homosexuals. Despite this, thousands of men were arrested after the Act was made law, with 30,000 convictions made between 1967 and 2003.
Crisp was always something of a paradox. In a 1976 edition of Gay News, a letter in response to the broadcast of The Naked Civil Servant, reflected the perspective of some gay men: “As far as I am concerned being ‘gay’ means that I am perfectly normal, with one slight difference — I prefer to see another man. There is no need to slap us and the hets in the face with ‘high camp’… Quentin, keep it to your self. No need to write books about it, have it on the box. Who wants to know?” The equating of effeminacy and ‘high camp’ within gay culture and identities was a long running antagonism for the younger gay activists who saw it as a weakness, played out through many comic figures in the TV sitcoms and variety shows of the period, that held back equality. Gay rights protestors (members of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality) picketed John Inman’s show at the Corn Exchange in Brighton in October 1977 to make the point that most homosexuals didn’t behave like his Are You Being Served? character Mr Humphries and that Inman was contributing to television’s distortion of their image.
Even in 2009 Peter Tatchell offered a reminder that, although Crisp was incredibly brave to suffer violent and verbal abuse for being out and proud as a gay man in 1930s/40s London, by the time he was living in New York he had become a reactionary figure who “disparaged homosexuality as an illness, affliction, burden, curse and abnormality” and who was, in the 1980s, rightly castigated for his view that AIDS was a “fad”.
This does not negate the fact that The Naked Civil Servant was a landmark piece of television about a brave if fatalistic individual who felt the world had to understand that “people like me had to go on living, that they had to take their laundry to the laundry, that they had to eat their meals in restaurants, they had to go to work and they had to come back. This is what people had to learn.” The Naked Civil Servant clearly showed that this was Crisp’s mission in life.
It was a mission first taken up by broadcaster Denis Mitchell and, later, by writer Philip Mackie. Mitchell met Crisp in a Soho restaurant to chat about a film he wanted to make about the history of Soho and its various denizens. Documentary maker Mitchell had joined Granada Television in 1964 after a very successful stint as a film maker at the BBC. He was an independent producer, working in partnership with Norman Swallow, and his forte was using 16mm film with unsynchronised sound to capture community life.
After many conversations, the film Mitchell was planning underwent a metamorphosis and the subject became Quentin Crisp. Mitchell and his crew turned up at Crisp’s home in October 1968, squeezing themselves into his tiny accommodations to film him talking about himself over a period of 4 days. The resulting documentary, the first Mitchell shot in colour, presents Crisp in all his witty and tatty glory, ensconced in his dusty bedsit and pontificating on what he saw as a life that was virtually over. Granada eventually transmitted the film as one of a series of intimate portraits called Seven Men in 1970 as part of their World in Action strand. It and Crisp’s book also caught the attention of John Haggarty.
Haggarty had first met Crisp in 1945 and they had struck up a friendship that lasted some years among the Fitzrovia set. By the end of the 1940s Haggarty had made a career as a screenwriter and film maker and frequently left Crisp’s circle of friends to make films overseas. In October 1970 Haggarty called the publishers Jonathan Cape and enquired about purchasing the film rights to The Naked Civil Servant and went to visit Crisp at his Beaufort Street bedsit. He also introduced him to Philip Mackie.
Mackie was another Granada alumnus and was their first Head of Drama in the 1960s and responsible for producing and writing some striking plays and series. These included Saki (1962), a collection of H.H Munro short story adaptations; The Victorians (1963), productions of eight plays first produced during the 19th-century; Maupassant (1963), thirteen plays adapted from the French writer’s short stories, and the six Georges Feydeau farces presented in Paris 1900 (1964). Perhaps one his greatest triumphs was as producer and writer of the six-hour series The Caesars (1968), a powerful drama depicting the lives of the emperors of Ancient Rome that pre-dated the BBC’s I, Claudius by many years. Oddly enough, Mackie’s original title for his adaptation of Crisp’s book was I, Quentin.
Haggarty and Mackie continued to renew the option on the book over a number of years, and Crisp regularly met with them at Mackie’s flat during the script’s development. As Tim Fountain recalled, “Mackie spent hours taping conversations with Quentin, many of which centred on his sex life and his treatment on the streets of London.” The intention was to sell the completed script as a film project. In 1972, with script finished and doing the rounds of Wardour Street, one film executive offered to produce it but only on the condition it became a star vehicle for Danny La Rue. Quentin suggested it was transformed into a musical. Not surprisingly, Mackie turned this down.
For four long years, his faith in the script undeterred, Mackie pursued other avenues to get the script into production. The BBC allegedly rejected it on three occasions, leaving Mackie completely at the end of his tether. Producer Mark Shivas and Head of Plays Christopher Morahan at the BBC tried to persuade the powers that be to make the film but as soon as they mentioned the subject matter Morahan was told, “No, you can’t do it.” Fortunately, producer Verity Lambert had become Head of Drama at Thames Television by 1974 and her agent Clive Goodwin, who also represented Mackie and director Jack Gold, sent the script onto her.
Lambert immediately spotted the potential and convinced Director of Programmes Jeremy Isaacs to stump up the budget of £110,000. Mackie had already brought on board Gold and actor John Hurt. Hurt was already willing to play the part of Crisp but knew the pitfalls and told the TV Times he “was well aware that, in the past, playing homosexuals had not helped actors much. Peter Finch did Oscar Wilde and didn’t work for a while afterwards. But then I thought that Victim hadn’t harmed Dirk Bogarde. I felt I was perhaps looking for excuses.” Gold understood precisely what attracted Hurt to the role, despite Hurt’s agent warning him not to take the part, and told Tim Fountain: “He’s an actor. I think he recognised a cracking good part in a terrific screenplay. It was the best screenplay I ever received.”
Shot entirely on location in 21 days, The Naked Civil Servant visualises Quentin Crisp’s journey from effete middle class teenager, a thorn in the side of his perplexed parents, to flame haired effeminate gay provocateur as a series of vignettes, punctuated with a number of on-screen title cards declaring witty and ironic bon mots, all beautifully scored by Carl Davis. These give the film a heightened sense of reality, presenting Crisp’s story as an extended, often baroque silent screen melodrama. Yet, the immaculate period production and costume designs root it in reality and Hurt’s performance, capturing Crisp as an inevitably tragic figure, fulfils his promise upon meeting Crisp at Teddington Studios in April 1975: “I have no intention of giving a vaudeville imitation of Mr. Crisp.” Indeed, Jack Gold believed Hurt had revealed and played a man “who had no hypocrisy, no deception, no pretence.”
Deemed Crisp’s “representative on earth”, Hurt dined with Crisp after their first meeting and a life long friendship blossomed. He offered Hurt no clues on how to play him and Hurt turned to the tapes Mackie had recorded to attempt to capture something of his vocal inflections. Crisp was photographed by the costume and art departments and taken to a wig maker in Burlington Street in order to create a replica of his hair and a series of five wigs were produced to allow Hurt to progress from “innocence to senility.” On location Crisp’s only concern was how to advise Hurt to play the scene where Crisp becomes an art school model. However, Hurt had previously been an art student and, unaware of Crisp’s reputation at the time, had actually painted him during one of Crisp’s life modelling sessions. He knew how to play these scenes instinctively.
The film takes us on a pre-war voyage of self-discovery, shifting from Crisp’s own suggestion of his childhood as an image of himself dancing before a mirror to a thrilling discovery that “sexual intercourse is a poor substitute for masturbation”, and his first tentative steps into the Black Cat cafe and initiation into the world of queers and roughs. The title card declaring his thoughts on masturbation was one of the initial casualties of the broadcast edit when the IBA board got into a flap about the film when Lambert and Gold first presented it to them. This and a later scene where Crisp attempts to enlist into the army and is subjected to a humiliating anal examination were altered or cut. The original edit has since been restored.
The Black Cat cafe sequence is lovely. Shane Briant, Roger Lloyd Pack, and Adrian Shergold as Norma, Liz and Gloria synthesise this pre-war world of queer life to camp and tragic perfection. Gold captures a kind of faded glamour in what Crisp and his friends endured in their search for love, money and a dream of Hollywood over tea and lipstick. It also touches on the theme of appearances being deceptive as Crisp discovers that the roughs who enjoy a bit of queer bashing might possibly be projecting their own closeted queerness. Hurt’s performance, his voice over and the pithy caption cards really fuse together the underlying threat of violence with a death-defying sense of humour about the fluidity of desire. After all, “some roughs are really queer and, of course, some queers are really rough.”
He leaves home in 1930 and moves in with a young man, ‘Thumbnails’ (Colin Higgins). As he forces scarlet hair in, he ponders on his mission of making his homosexuality “abundantly clear” to everyone. Gold constructs a wonderful scene of Crisp walking down the streets, in open toed sandals and done up to the nines, to the tune of ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’. This joyous moment of exhibitionism is again countered with violence and abuse. He’s almost crippled at a bus stop and slapped in the face as he arrives at an office for an interview.
He cultivates a group of friends — the Art Student (Liz Gebhardt), the Ballet Teacher (Patricia Hodge), Lord Alcohol (Anthony Howard), and Mrs Pole (Katharine Schofield) acting as the film’s Greek chorus — and while he enjoys a social life it is out on the streets where he’s vulnerable. The key scene that shifts Mackie’s script from amusing biography to something far more disturbing is the one where Crisp attempts to escape a bunch of threatening men by hailing a taxi. Not only does the taxi driver (John Malcolm) throw Crisp out of the cab but the gang of men then take the opportunity to beat the living daylights out of him. It’s still a sickening moment. No amount of hair dye and lipstick can shield him from other men whose ignorance knows no bounds. The scene ends with a bruised Crisp looking into a mirror and wondering if his crusade “to make them understand” is really worth it.
Crisp’s defiant flamboyance also finds him ostracised from ‘respectable’ gentleman’s clubs where his membership is “spoiling it for the others”. Not only is part of the film’s subtext about ‘normalising’ homosexuality but it also underlines the film’s themes about the relationship between conservative Englishness and rebellious queerness, of Crisp’s glamour in domestic settings crystallised in his relationship with a bowler hatted man from the ministry (John Forbes-Robertson). Their scenes in bed together were also another cause for alarm when the script was being offered to the BBC. The irony is that in the film Crisp is interviewed by the police, who have received complaints from the neighbours, and the civil servant, horrified that he may have been seen by the twitching curtain brigade, promptly ends the relationship.
The drama then takes us into the Second World War and beyond (“on the day war was declared I went out and bought two pounds of henna!”), and during the Blitz we see him traversing the “playground” of London in the blackout, picking up American G.I’s, as his English attitudes collide with a live and let live philosophy from the Yanks. These differences are underlined in the aforementioned scene where he attempts to enlist. Mackie nails the conservatism precisely as Crisp, bending down for an anal exam in front of a recruiting poster proclaiming ‘Snap into it’, declares he very rarely goes in for sodomy if that’s what they were looking for. Under questioning from the army psychiatrist (a befuddled and amused John Cater), he sets out to explain his philosophy on the matter and concludes: “I must admit I’m more likely to be killed by the English than by the Germans but I’ve taken that risk for years now.”
Practically the only person left in London capable of modelling at art schools, Crisp discovers his true vocation as “exhibitionist and martyr!” Hurt, drawing on his art school experience, is featured in a series of poses during a brief montage, culminating in a request for the tutor to pose as if he’s waiting for a bus. He duly does this and informs the students, “a number 11 to be precise.” Gold and Mackie intersperse these witty, beautifully choreographed and performed sequences with some heart rending explorations of mental illness as one of Crisp’s friends, Mr. Pole (a very moving performance from Stanley Lebor) succumbs to paranoia and is institutionalised. It also suggests a fate that might have been befallen Crisp if he’d been born in less fortunate circumstances.
Crisp is arrested for soliciting and his court appearance is deemed “the long awaited situation that would need all my powers of survival” as he persuades the judge, with a string of character witnesses, that the police made a genuine mistake. It’s a triumphant moment of public vindication, ushering in Crisp’s transition between the hedonism of youth and the respectability of maturity. Hurt apparently had to perform this important scene in-between interruptions from aircraft flying over the location but he’s utterly compelling throughout.
After a three year long relationship with ‘Barndoor’ (John Rhys-Davies) — “a great dark thing from outer space” — the film ends with the mauve-coiffured Crisp in the present day (then 1975) declaring himself to be one of the untouchable “stately homos of England” to a bunch of abusive teenagers who try to blackmail him as a paedophile. He walks away, head held high.
Gold inserts a dream sequence, a memory of when Crisp felt totally happy where for once he wasn’t the subject of violence and threats when surrounded by a group of men. A gorgeous hyper real fantasy where he flirts with sailors on leave in Portsmouth, it is a testament to tolerance, acceptance and desire. “It was the first, last and only time that I have ever been in a crowd of people where I was the centre of attention without feeling that I was in danger,” Hurt’s voice intones over the sequence. I think we were all striving for that as gay teenagers in the 1970s and even today it’s still a resonant coda to a remarkable, beautifully performed and directed television film.
The high-definition presentation on Network’s new Blu-ray release is excellent, and demonstrates that 16mm can yield plenty of detail, colour, and contrast. The film looks fresh and clear and shows off the superb cinematography of Mike Fash, a documentarian who worked with Gold to create “a precise, sharply drawn, etchings-like quality to the film to reflect its homosexual theme.”
The special features include: a commentary with Hurt, Gold and Lambert that initially provides much background detail but then does tend to tail off into periods of silence; Denis Mitchell’s documentary on Crisp from the Seven Men strand; a follow up 1989 Crisp interview with Mavis Nicholson in Mavis Catches Up With Quentin Crisp which features clips of her first interview conducted immediately after the transmission of the play. It’s a shame the original 1975 interview isn’t on the disc too as apparently it’s very good indeed. An image gallery of monochrome and colour images completes the set.
Cast & Crew
director: Jack Gold.
writer: Philip Mackie (based on the autobiography by Quentin Crisp).
starring: John Hurt, Patricia Hodge, Stanley Lebor, Colin Higgins, John Rhys-Davies, Roger Lloyd Pack, Stephen Johnstone, Lloyd Lamble, Frank Forsyth, Adrian Shergold & Derek West.
As ever I am indebted to a number of resources for this review:
- The Naked Truth About Quentin Crisp, interview with John Hurt, Dave Lanning TV Times, 13–19 December 1975.
- Taking a Camera Among the Bullets, interview with Mike Fash, Yvonne Roberts TV Times, 7–13 February 1976.
- The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp (Jonathan Cape, 1968).
- How To Become A Virgin, Quentin Crisp (Fontana, 1981).
- Quentin Crisp — The Profession of Being, Nigel Kelly (McFarland, 2011).
- Quentin and Philip — A Double Portrait, Andrew Barrow (Pan Macmillan 2004).
- Quentin Crisp (Outlines), Tim Fountain (Absolute Press, 2000).
- Drama and Delight — The Life of Verity Lambert, Richard Marson (Miwk, 2015)