Thursday, 12 November 2015

No.97. Sexual Boundaries - THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT (1975)


“I am an effeminate homosexual…a minority within a majority”

With refreshing candour such as this, Quentin Crisp wafted through life - scarved, hatted and coiffeured, scattering witty and incisive bon mots like elegant flower petals – a latter-day Oscar Wilde for the Ovaltine generation. In this charming TV film from 1975, John Hurt masterfully captured the life of an eccentric aesthete whose flamboyantly effeminate dress and behaviour caused amusement, bemusement and physical persecution yet concealed a brave soul within who became a sought-after and highly quotable style maven.

Based on his autobiography, THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT opens with something of an endorsement by the man himself, the real Quentin speaking to the audience from the bedsit where he spent much of his later years. He’s a unique and contradictory personality; hermet-like in private but an exhibitionist in public. Although he leads an ascetic life of monastic absence of sex, money or music, happy to let dust accumulate for years untouched in his home, he is still seduced by romantic glamour. Upon hearing of a film to be made of his life, he recalls being excited as he’d spent his life trying to escape into the fantasy world of the silver screen. When told the aim is to be a realistic depiction, he stifles disappointment by venturing to suggest an idealised preferred opening scene to temper the intrusive desire for unwanted grittiness. We then segue into Quentin the child lost in a swaying reverie in Edwardian female clothing before the mirror, morphing into the young 1920s adult embodied by John Hurt, setting a tone of elegant bewitching playfulness.

The film spans the period from the ‘20s to 1975, focusing mainly on the more challenging formative years that shaped Quentin’s personality. Born into a typically repressed, suburban middle-class family in High Wycombe as the prosaic ‘Dennis Pratt’, Quentin is shown as the product of an unsympathetic solicitor father and an unassuming but usefully well-connected mother. His private dreams and tentative steps as a gay man are cautious in a society still decades away from the legalisation of homosexuality. One evening, a chance doorway encounter with a similar cross-dressing but far more worldly-wise chap leads him into a nocturnal world of kindred souls. He finds himself accepted into a late-night ‘cafĂ© society’ of camp and fearless male prostitutes. (The actors in these scenes are clearly having a ball, including a young Roger Lloyd-Pack). Through the security of their camaraderie Quentin grows in confidence and begins to build the beguiling armour that has to deflect violence from men and at one point even a sudden slap from a woman on the street, offended by his appearance. It is here in his twenties that he changes his name to Quentin Crisp, a pseudonym more befitting his demeanour.

Populating the colourful world of Quentin’s friends and lovers are future notable TV and film actors. Operatic Welsh character actor John Rhys-Davies, most famous as Gimli in LORD OF THE RINGS, is a lovable childlike boyfriend, and Patricia Hodge belies the period drama ice-maidens she often played on screen as a fey, effusive dance teacher.

The pre-war period setting of the early scenes is nicely achieved within the obvious limits of a TV drama budget, neatly aided by amusing silent movie-style dialogue cards that frame some of Quentin’s more sensational pronouncements such as “Sexual intercourse is a poor substitute for masturbation” and his defining observation that “Exhibitionism is a drug – you get hooked!” .

Our curiosity as to how such a person would get by in society is answered as we see Quentin move from rent-boy through professional commercial artistry. Before settling into a lucrative career as an artist’s model, or as he calls it: “A naked civil servant. My vocation in life”, his search for how to make a living is interrupted by World War Two. For me, one of the two fascinating key scenes in the film is his interview by the Army Medical Board. Here, we could understand or predict a plot device of attempting to dodge conscription by using his sexual orientation, but no, he earns our sympathy even more by the unexpected desire of actually wanting to enlist, albeit due to the pragmatism of getting three square meals a day. Bravely, he doesn’t deceive them about his sexuality and when asked what such an unlikely soul could contribute to the army, replies with disarming logic: “Well, anyone can get killed…” His steely practicality is admirably at odds with our perceived stereotype of him at this point.

There is no sense of Quentin trying to harangue or embarrass the ‘normal’ people around him with militant shock tactics to extort acceptance. Although his appearance brazenly stands out as a challenge, his code of behaviour toward others is discreet and respectful, a model for how he simply wishes to be treated in return. The other stand-out sequence that beautifully illustrates this is when he is in the dock defending himself on a police fit-up charge of soliciting. With enormously persuasive dignity and feeling, Quentin calmly explains that in order to survive he could not possibly afford to prostitute himself so publicly. Moreover, out of respect (and fear of reprisals): “I do not approach or speak to anyone unless spoken to, or look at anyone unless they demand that I look at them”. It is a greatly affecting scene by Hurt, one of the finest I’ve ever seen him play. Quentin’s subsequent acquittal due to ‘insufficient evidence’ is hardly a consolation for being forced to justify his lifestyle in court so painfully.

Happily, as the decades rolled by, Quentin becomes a kind of icon in demand, a personality that embodies the counter-culture of the 1960s and beyond. His later lease of life is as a quotable and entertaining raconteur who ultimately never moved with the times, but let the times catch up with him. He sums himself up self-deprecatingly amid the flower-power youths: “I am not merely a stopped clock. I am a stopped grandfather clock”.
At the close, he fends off the weak harassment of teenage toughs (spot a very young Phil Daniels here) and intones as narrator: “I am one of the stately homos of England…” - a winningly wry and dignified ending.

Hurt is wonderful in the central role, richly deserving his BAFTA award for it. Externally he fully commits to the feminisation of clothing, hair, make-up and physicality, but without ever seeming a distancing, ‘pantomime dame’ caricature of women. You feel this is a man whose true nature is revealed, not disguised, by assuming a woman’s appearance - and it’s a harmless, utterly likeable one. There is none of that cynical hard edge that male drag queens sometimes give off in their posturing - (maybe that’s why I’ve always found them so irritating?).  Watching source interviews with the real Quentin (such as the engrossing ‘World in Action’ one filmed in his flat in 1968), you can also see how successfully Hurt alters his distinctive gravelly tones to reproduce that gentle velvety voice and upward speech inflection.

I remember Hurt once memorably describing himself as ‘the official victim figure of the British film industry’. It’s an insightful label and amongst his illustrious CV, a direct parallel can be drawn between his playing of Quentin Crisp and another real-world ‘outcast’ – John Merrick in THE ELEPHANT MAN. Both men suffered greatly from the inhuman cruelty of others, persecuted by those who feared as well as underestimated them for the way they looked.  Tragically for Merrick, human understanding came all too late for him, compared to Quentin’s triumph of living long enough for his look and original wit to be celebrated more than discriminated against. In both cases, Hurt’s talent and sensitivity goes to great lengths to represent these people fully on screen.

Hurt also made a welcome return as Quentin in 2009’s AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK which documented his years living in the more tolerant world of New York.

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