Film - The Naked Civil Servant


As part of a season showcasing the work of creative genius, Jack Gold, the BFI screened the controversial and groundbreaking biopic on the life of Quentin Crisp. We sent VentSpleen along to watch The Naked Civil Servant...

"I seem to have done something to upset you"

I was going to start this review by saying that it is amazing that so much controversy was caused by a film documenting the life and times of Quentin Crisp, self styled "stately homo of England". I was going to say that hatred of an individual because of their sexuality or ignorance of who they are is something we now do not have to endure. I am sure that Crisp, himself, would have been delighted at the freedom of expression that has been nurtured but I also think he would be disappointed. We have still a long way to travel and I believe we should have made further progress than we have.

For those of you who don't even know who Quentin Crisp is, shame on you, but I shall indulge your accidental ignorance and introduce you to the man who embodied campery. Denis Charles Pratt always knew he was different and, whilst anyone else would have done everything in their power to hide this difference, Pratt celebrated it. The fact that Crisp changed his name from Pratt says all you need to know and, coupled with the fact that young Crisp enjoyed painting his nails and wearing make up, needs no further comment. Crisp was always effeminate and his unashamed acceptance of who he was made him the object of teasing and bullying. It was during his time at Regent Street Polytechnic,where he studied art, that Crisp finally found a place where he belonged. That place was The Black Cat, Old Compton and the reason wasn't down to the amazing coffee or sandwiches. This was a cafe where other homosexual men and rent boys gathered. For the first time in his life Crisp wasn't isolated and he wasn't strange, it was a liberating experience. He went on to become one of the most celebrated and well known names in literary circles and could be considered as the first person to be famous for being famous. Crisp could constantly be found headline stealing with at least the impression of enjoying every second of it.

The Naked Civil Servant is a TV film, broadcast in 1975 and based on the book by Crisp. It took three years to develop as director Jack Gold couldn't find a single studio to produce it. The BBC turned it down twice and it took the enthusiastic support of Verity Lambert to attract the interest of Thames Television. The Naked Civil Servant is a dramatisation of Crisp's early life and rise to fame and, as a result of this, many of the events feel exaggerated for effect. Whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong with this and it certainly does not detract from the power of the film, viewers should be aware of the fact that this is very much events as Crisp, himself, recalls them. Any film that starts with an introduction by the subject himself and featuring such telling comments as "well yes, you must get an actor to play me. I have spent my entire life trying to be me and I have failed" will be an experience that will live long in your memory. In terms of quality of production The Naked Civil Servant does look dated. After all, it was made at a time when television budgets were a fraction of the size that are enjoyed today. Size, as they say, isn't everything though and what the film lacks in polish it more than makes up for in performance and a script that is expertly edited.

The casting of John Hurt as Quentin Crisp was a stroke of genius and his ability to accurately portray Crisp as confident but at the same time vulnerable is wonderful to behold. Hurt has revealed in the past that the producers initially wanted Danny La Rue in the role and, had that occurred, the film would have been a complete disaster. What is needed to accurately portray the complexities of Crisp is far more than a cabaret act, it required an actor who knew how to bring out an emotional yet intelligent performance. Take as an example the scenes where Crisp is being beaten to a pulp by a gang of "Roughs". Hurt portrays Crisp as fearing for his own safety yet, at the same time, resigned to the inevitable beating as something that has to be endured. The heart wrenching search for Crisp's mysterious "great dark man" and his realisation that such a figure does not exist serves as a metaphor for Crisp's search for love and for acceptance, both for him and for others. There is an overwhelming feeling that understanding is unobtainable in a society that views him as beneath contempt. Crisp met with Hurt on set only a handful of times and yet his portrayal of a man who his hugely complicated seems both accurate and entertaining. Jack Gold was clear that his screen play was not to dumb down or distort Crisp but to provide a realistic view of his struggles and passions. Hurt was awarded a BAFTA for Best Actor in 1976 and he was to return to the role in 2009 with An Englishman In New York, a film that documented Crisp's later life.

Hurt is well served by a talented supporting cast with Patricia Hodge as a Ballet Teacher who represents one of Crisp's small circle of friends. The late, great Roger Lloyd Pack is amusing as Liz and, whilst it could be said he would never win any awards as most convincing female impersonator, he provides a welcome support role. The Naked Civil Servant is not an ensemble piece and rightly so, Crisp would not willingly share the limelight with anyone. This is accentuated when you realise that few of the supporting cast are ever attributed names, they are either labelled as "Ballet teacher" or nicknamed as "Barndoor" or "Thumbnails". Crisp is the star and Hurt ensures he receives every moment of the limelight.

Sitting in a screening room at the BFI in 2016 I found myself feeling that the message conveyed both through the film and in Crisp's life itself should have had more of a lasting effect in our society. It is true to say that, as a whole, we seem to have become more accepting of difference. Then again, judging by recent events and the horrific eruption of violence and hatred, perhaps not. What seems to have happened is that those who refuse to accept difference in people and resort to abuse have just simply become more underhand and subtle. I feel that The Naked Civil Servant has still got a message for us today and it has never been more important that it is heard loudly.

Image - IMDb