Issuing from a time before gay sexual identities were set in stone, culturally speaking, The Naked Civil Servant’s restrained and nuanced approach to its larger-than-life hero has aged well, offering today a tightly drawn perspective on gay culture back then.
Quentin Crisp was a household name in 70s Britain, on the back of this film. This is all the more surprising given that he was essentially a memoirist, looking back over his own sexual life from the 1930s to the 1960s. He told his life story in a prosaic manner while embodying his own inner martyr, perhaps unconsciously finding himself to be a lifestyle outsider before it became fashionable.
If you’re expecting the late, much-loved John Hurt to pull out all the stops playing Quentin and drown us all in camp, this will be an arresting and disconcerting experience. Everything here has a sharp, formal, clipped tightness to it – even the famous climactic court room scene in which Quentin declares himself to be a “flamboyant homosexual”. It is important, revelatory, but not in the highly emotive way one might expect. That’s probably at least in part due to the work of celebrated TV director Jack Gold.
You have expectations of a revisited TV classic like this, but The Naked Civil Servant is most interesting when it enables you to glimpse something unexpected, like Quentin’s quite conventional approach to sexual roles, or the attitudes of some of his partners to their relationship with Quentin. With 40 years’ hindsight, it would be too easy to call all this ‘denial’ – but the given-ness of the behaviour (even in a tv play) is more fully realised than that discursive explanation, which has itself become a given, a cliché in the years since this was first broadcast.
Then there’s the odd subplot dealing with Quentin’s Polish friend Pole (Lebor) which demonstrates a surprising sense of loyalty as well as the ravages wrought by time to his nearest and dearest.
The extras include an interview with the great man from the 60s, which sees him living in a pretty squalid little bedsit, watching the neighbours. Which just goes to show that ‘la vie boheme’ ain’t all glamour.
The Naked Civil Servant is out on DVD and Bluray on 5 June.