Director: Jack Gold
Screenplay: Philip Mackie
Based on the autobiography by: Quentin Crisp, Liz Gebhardt, Patricia Hodge, Stanley Lebor
Producers: Barry Hanson
Starring: John Hurt
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 77 mins
As a lover of British TV drama of the 70s and 80s, The Naked Civil Servant has long been on my to-watch list. Controversial but immediately successful upon its original broadcast in the mid-70s, The Naked Civil Servant tells the true story of writer and raconteur Quentin Crisp whose refusal to hide his obvious homosexuality during decades when gays were not only reviled but actually forbidden by law to be sexually active (and, while we all know this, I still regularly have to check this fact because any sense of logic or decency continues to make it incomprehensible to me) lead to a life of constant opposition and cruelty at the hands of oppressors. Such a subject could well make for a very gloomy and potentially savage drama and yet, while it is by no means an out-and-out comedy, Crisp’s natural flair for wit, as filtered through Philip Mackie’s script and John Hurt’s elegant and perfect performance, mean the film is consistently funny. It doesn’t flinch from portraying the difficulties faced by gay men in the decades leading up to homosexuality’s decriminalisation (checks facts, shakes head despairingly) but it presents them in keeping with the style of Crisp’s own colourful storytelling. The most brutal scene, in which Crisp is beaten up by a large group of men, is presented as a sort of Bash Street scuffle and it is testament to the adventurousness of TV from this era that the contrast makes a potentially numbing scene considerably more powerful.
Although the one-liners of the script and Crisp’s own fascinating character make it special, the key to The Naked Civil Servant’s success is John Hurt’s astonishingly well-judged performance in the lead role. Depictions of gay characters on screen have often proved to be a double-edged sword, with sympathetic attitudes frequently tainted by a tendency to play up stereotypes for cheap and often quite scathing laughs. While neither Hurt’s performance nor Mackie’s script shy away from Crisp’s self-proclaimed exhibitionism, he is not portrayed as being in any way ludicrous. Hurt plays Crisp as he comes across in person, with a sense of control, a keen survival instinct, a resignation to certain unalterable facts of his lifestyle and a fierce dedication to refuse to hide it even in the face of danger. It would have been easy, and on some level satisfying, to watch a series of scenes in which Crisp’s tormentors are put in their place by a barbed put-down but The Naked Civil Servant offers a sense of emotional realism within its melancholic comic approach. In one memorable moment Crisp’s mere appearance strikes a women dumb for a few long seconds, before she in turn strikes Crisp across the face. Though the audience may cry out for Crisp to strike back in some way, this momentary satisfaction is forsaken for a longer term sense of fulfilment.
Another trap that The Naked Civil Servant deftly avoids falling into is making Crisp a symbol for gay men or the gay experience in general. While the film has great historical relevance for the gay community and played a significant part in encouraging discourse at a time when homosexuality had not even yet been legal for a decade, The Naked Civil Servant is at great pains to emphasise the fact that this is Crisp’s own story, not the story of all homosexuals. One scene in particular highlights this fact with the delicacy that characterises the whole production. When Crisp enters a discrete gay bar in which men in suits are dancing with each other, he is avoided by the patrons and ejected by the owner who consider him “a dead giveaway” and a risk to their safety if they are raided. The inhabitants of the bar are not judged as cowardly for this precaution and Crisp is characterised as both admirable for his defiance and slightly naive for putting others at risk. No-one is definitively in the right or wrong, except for the society that forces people to behave in this way.
Though it largely avoids Wildean bon mots or self-conscious narrative flourishes, Mackie’s wilfully episodic script is peppered with stand-out scenes, most famously Crisp’s self-defence in the witness box at a court case based on an obviously discriminatory charge of soliciting. Particularly superb is a scene in which Crisp attempts to join the army “to avoid starvation”. His carefully phrased, polite responses to the incredulous officers he encounters are not designed to wither or humiliate but do so anyway by way of their barefaced logic and superior lucidity in the face of institutionalised idiocy. The reactions Crisp inadvertently and satisfyingly provokes range from an initial hot-headed fury to a dumbstruck sense of defeat. No-one acknowledges that the figure before them has made any dent in their learned and staunchly-defended prejudices but Crisp undoubtedly leave a mark, as he did on the conservative TV audiences of 1975.
If The Naked Civil Servant has any real flaws they would all relate to the era of its production. As a lover of vintage TV drama, I found the occasionally stagy sets and broad performances in some minor roles to be endearing but those more used to the slick production values of modern TV may find them distracting (although the eloquent and bold script perhaps more readily differentiates the film from the blander crop of British detective shows and medical dramas that eventually usurped such progressive and unpatronising television in the schedules). The muted colour pallet may also put some off, giving the film a dank, gritty undertone. But while this can partially be attributed to the age of the production, it is also clearly an artistic choice, highlighting the constant sense of alienation and sadness that lies beneath the frequent laughs, even as it also helps to highlight Hurt’s hennaed hair as the beacon of individuality in a buttoned-up 20th century Britain. Finally, it has been suggested by some that, while The Naked Civil Servant was shocking and important in its time, its power has diminished in a more liberal and forward-thinking society. I only wish this were the case but the truth is, while we have come on some significant way since 1975 in attitudes towards homosexuality, a man walking down the street looking like Quentin Crisp would still barely get a couple of metres before being accosted, harassed, mocked or brutalised. Particularly at the time of writing, when Britain seems in many ways to be more right-wing than we’ve ever been, the re-release of The Naked Civil Servant is a timely move and the film, with its accessible, sympathetic and nonjudgemental approach, still has the power to change minds, even if it may be harder to get people to watch it than it was in the three channel year of its inception.
The Naked Civil Servant is released by Network on Blu-Ray and DVD on 5th June 2017 with special cinema screenings nationwide on 28th May 2017. Extras include:
– Commentary with John Hurt, director Jack Gold and executive producer Verity Lambert
– Seven Men: Quentin Crisp – a Granada profile from 1971
– Mavis Catches Up with Quentin Crisp – an interview from 1989
– Image gallery
– Philip Mackie’s original script [PDF]