The Naked Civil Servant
Review by Dan Phillips (@DirectorDan86)
In 1999, one of the most controversially influential gay icons died at the age of 90 after a lifetime of going against the trend, whilst I, a closeted teenager, was struggling to figure out who I really was, rather less controversially. Years later, I remember picking up a copy of The Naked Civil Servant written by Crisp in 1968, looking back at 30 years of being a naked life drawing model in a world that not only looked down on his sexuality but criminalised it, and for the first time I felt political about my sexuality. Here was a book that spoke bluntly about gay liberation and homophobia and shared experience after experience of what it was like to be an outcast in the 30s and 40s and upon writing how far the world had come, I was looking at the new millennium and how far it had to go. For a man who spoke so openly against the gay liberation movement it is hard not to feel the pull of the political when his younger days were spent so outrageously and confidently ‘queer’ he was even an outsider to the outsiders.
It wasn’t until 1975, when his book made it to the small screen that he even started the journey to becoming accepted by the society that had for so long, shunned him. And on this screen, it was to be the, then unknown, late great John Hurt that portrayed him. Directed by John Gold, the screen adaptation was to thrust both Crisp and Hurt into stardom.
Beginning with the real Crisp was Gold’s first stroke of genius. For the untrained eye, Hurt’s performance could easily be mistaken as a caricature, playing over the top for laughs but having seen Crisp in all his effeminate campness, you are able to admire Hurt’s delicate performance. It also allows the tone to be set, which, let’s be honest, in the 1970s was a tone not often seen on the screen, little or large. The second great device, is the regular insertion of title cards in the style of early silent movies which the fictional Crisp then reads aloud, which not only add a level of humour, but also cleverly remind us that this is a man that could not be silenced.
The real star of the show however is Hurt. At 35, he plays ten years his younger with a natural youthful charm but still manages to show the maturity of a young Crisp with ease, moving through the ages effortlessly. The dialogue, coming predominantly from Crisp himself, is witty throughout with Wilde-esque craftsmanship and although filmed in a very old fashioned televisual style, Gold manages to keep the action moving and interesting from one scene to the next which stands up even today.
Now, fifty years on, the film remains as important as it must have felt then. One might argue that with the ever-growing distance between the equality we enjoy today and the life of the criminalised homosexual, it is more important than ever that society remember, and it seems society is now more open to do so. In March of 2017, the National Archive and the National Trust came together for the first time to recreate a 1933 underground queer club called Caravan, (A place where Crisp himself was rumoured to frequent) which worked as a museum in the day and at night exploded into life with performers and drinks and sold out before it even had time to open. One of the Trust’s most talked about and successful events. Society is ready to remember, and is ready to open their minds to lives and experiences they would not have known about before and The Naked Civil Servant stands tall as one of the most important LGBTQ pieces of cinema we have ever made and in this anniversary, should be regarded as such.
The Naked Civil Servant is released by Network, fully restored and in HD.
Available on BluRay/ DVD on 5th June RRP £14.99/£12.99