John Hurt played Quentin Crisp in this subversive 1975 made-for-TV biopic. Steph Green argues its case as an underseen queer classic
In Unsung Masterpieces, writers wax lyrical about the great films they think have been unduly ignored, are due for reappraisal, or have slipped beneath the radar.
These days, the announcement of a biopic is often accompanied by a collective weary sigh denouncing yet another formulaic look at a very famous person, where the narrative structure essentially mimics the subject’s Wikipedia page. When the subject is still alive or – worse – involved in the making of their own biopic, there’s also the risk of undue influence. No disrespect to Rocketman, a film I like, but I’m sure Elton had no qualms with his husband producing and listing all their noble joint charity work as the credits rolled.
Enter The Naked Civil Servant, a rare example of a biopic that is both narratively and thematically radical. Released in 1975, it acquainted audiences with Quentin Crisp – raconteur, artist, and self-confessed “effeminate homosexual” – who introduces the film himself before John Hurt takes over in the starring role. “Films are fantasies. Films are magical illusions,” he declares, theatrically. “You can make my life a fantasy as I have tried but failed to make… I have spent 66 years on this earth painfully attempting to play the part of Quentin Crisp.” The film’s depiction of Crisp as a man whose life was a performance only adds to the biopic’s narrative tricks. Told with episodic inventiveness, it holds itself with the same level of wry, whiplash charm as the subject himself, while probing the very idea of a biopic’s so-called “realness.”
You can’t help but admire the way Quentin Crisp tells his own story, thank you very much, in a time where everyone was trying to construct his narrative for him. Born in Surrey in 1908, by the late 1920s he was hanging out with bohemians and sex workers in London. In the film, we see Crisp assemble his own colourful chorus of acquaintances: people he christens with nicknames like “Bermondsey Liz,” “Thumbnails” (“not dirty, just the wrong shape”), and “Barndoor” (a joyous little cameo from John Rhys-Davies). Unapologetically flamboyant, Crisp was rejected by the majority of his fellow gay men; one scene sees Crisp being asked to leave an undercover gay bar, as his dyed hair and make-up would blow their cover: he was “ruining it for the others.”
In his later life, perhaps jaded by these experiences and set irretrievably in his role as an outré martyr, Crisp would disparage the gay rights movement and call AIDS “a fad.” One can only picture Crisp saying these things with a wicked gleam in his eye, adoring the resulting furore – indeed, he secretly donated much of his money to AIDS charities – but what do you expect from a man whose literal profession it became to performatively say outrageous things?
Many gay activists dismiss Crisp as a man full of hot air and feeding off public attention. In The Naked Civil Servant, there’s no heroism to be found either; simply a fascinating film about a man who lived life by his own rules, for better or worse. Adapted from Crisp’s own memoir, each line of quick-witted repartee makes you want to finger-snap furiously at the screen. John Hurt delivers many lines that skirt the edges of humour and bad taste with a knowing look and dandyish delivery; lines such as “I should explain that Poland is not so much as country, as a disturbed state of mind.” Director Jack Gold intersperses the story with inter-titles bearing some of Crisp’s aphorisms, striking the audience squarely with his solid-gold wit and adorning the film with an unmistakably literary flair.
Simply everything about this biopic’s existence fascinates. It premiered on ITV – then one of three available channels in the UK – just eight years after the legalisation of homosexuality. Sure, there were other queer films being made at the time in Britain, but you didn’t see Derek Jarman flicks premiering to the masses on primetime television. I picture an unsuspecting blue-collar worker sat on the sofa with his wife, watching John Hurt cavort naked with dyed red hair and painted fingernails, saying things like “suffering from sexual perversion? It is quite true that I am a sexual pervert, but I’ve never been so sure about the term suffering,” and it fills me with glee.
Of course, the film isn’t all bon mots and camp cavorting. Crisp is beaten by strangers and, by his own admission, is rarely, truly, happy. We see his time working as a “rent boy,” which he deems to be the only way he can get what he wants: sexual relations with “enormously strong, enormously virile” men. He isn’t angry at the thugs, policemen and politicians who look down upon him; he simply, politely, tactfully says things like “people hate what they don’t understand.” Underneath its fortress of witticism The Naked Civil Servant is obviously tinged with a quiet tragedy, but Crisp’s ability to find joy in his existence, to spin a tale, to recount his history with charm and grace, ensures this is a biopic with real bite.
John Hurt won the BAFTA for Best Actor at the television awards that year, and the film places 4th on the BFI TV 100 – a list of 100 TV programmes or series compiled in 2000. The film was single-handedly responsible for making Crisp a public figure, and it launched Hurt’s long and starry career. Despite these accolades, it’s curiously absent from more contemporary lists that look back at British queer cinema. It has a measly 1000 watched logs on Letterboxd, and only 1,600 ratings on IMDb. Perhaps its status as a “TV film” has something to do with this.
In my book, though, the film deserves to sit among the hallowed halls of British queer cinema alongside Victim, Caravaggio, My Beautiful Laundrette and Maurice. As a shaggily constructed caper, it may not immediately fit in with the polish, prestige and emotional weight of those features. Then again, comedies often have to fight twice as hard to be taken as seriously as the masterworks.
The Naked Civil Servant is streaming on Amazon Prime.