When playing self-professed ‘effeminate homosexual’ Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, John Hurt ignored warnings that the contentious role would ruin his career. Transmitted in late 1975, the film would go on to win the 1976 Prix Italia and would also earn Hurt a BAFTA as Best Actor. This summer, the critically acclaimed television movie is released for the first time in high definition, digitally remastered from the best existing film elements.
Quentin Crisp became a celebrity following the transmission of The Naked Civil Servant, a Thames TV production adapted from his 1968 autobiography. A bold and unfettered depiction of Crisp’s life and lovers, the film is punctuated with social observations which resonate as clearly today as they did forty years ago.
Philip Mackie’s screen adaptation offers a fast-paced distillation of the book, written into quirky vignettes which trace Crisp’s earliest childhood to the present of 1975. It is a tale of discovery, as Crisp learns of his sexuality whilst experimenting in a subculture of late night cafes and prostitution. In a sequence of life lessons which bisect the Second World War, he attempts to forge a comfortable life for himself, sampling numerous jobs before securing a position as an artist’s model – a naked civil servant.
The tone of the movie is cheerfully ironic, bridged with silent movie intertitles to give the drama a playful, pantomime feel. Crisp’s distinctive, measured and intellectual narration which is lifted from the book, also lends the piece a Shakespearean flavour, with two-handed conversations often shifting into theatrical monologue: “You are a woman, you speak a language I do not understand,” Crisp projects across an echoing dance studio. “If love exists, which is something I wouldn’t know, then love is never closing my hand, not even to the unloveable.”
By its nature, The Naked Civil Servant is a self-reflective story which centres on Crisp’s particularly eccentric worldview. Exchanging plot for a sideways odyssey into an unknown world, the film demonstrates the importance of tolerance, social mobility and free speech, coupled with a childhood coming-of-age story which evolves into a looming fear of ageing. Crisp’s dogmatic voice is resolute and self-assured throughout the movie, and whilst many will disagree with his perspective on sexuality, the story nevertheless provides an admirable insight into his crusade for liberty, equality and social justice. Whether Crisp succeeds in changing the views of those around him, or simply reinforces old stereotypes, is a wholly subjective matter. The point is, Crisp was fearless at refusing to conform to a standard model of man.
A self-assured, well-reasoned and rational character, Crisp would be considered as something of a Shoreditch hipster today; an eccentric man a la mode who shuns regular comforts, existing in a filthy flat full of books whilst subsisting on breakfast cereal. He is the definitive alternative, a crusading exhibitionist; cruising on the edge of society – rarely accepted nor tolerated – yet is exactingly perceptive in his observations on everyday life.
In a poignant montage, Crisp is repeatedly attacked by the public due to his feminine appearance and colourful attire. Later he enters the refuge of a gay club and is ejected for fear of exposing the clients’ secret lives. Tragically, Crisp realises he exists between worlds; he does not attract his ideal ‘tall dark man’ as he is neither a masculine homosexual nor the complete woman. There is, however, a celebratory feel to the tale as it reaches its climax of the liberal 1970s. The wide collars, overstyled hair, flared cuffs and loose slacks which were Crisp’s trademark have become the uniform of the new generation. In his crusade to be noticed and accepted, he has become absorbed by the changing world around him.
Quite wisely, the film begins with an introduction from Quentin Crisp himself, establishing the man’s poise, manner of speech and flamboyant love of language. The short prelude provides a foundation for John Hurt’s central performance and without it, audiences would be forgiven for thinking Hurt was overacting. In a masterful study, Hurt provides an outrageous portrayal of an outrageous man. The airy speech patterns verge on the lyrical, whilst his poise and affectations are almost balletic. Crisp was naturally flamboyant and theatrical, and Hurt manages to recreate his camp manner with an impulsive realism and honesty. Most importantly, Crisp comes across as likeable and noble, fragile yet firm, sensitive and sharp. It is, without doubt, a stunning portrayal worthy of great acclaim and remains one of Hurt’s finest performances.
Doggedly pushed into production by the unstoppable Verity Lambert – the originating producer of Doctor Who – The Naked Civil Servant stands as one of the great totems of British television production. It boasts an impressive cast of familiar faces, including Patricia Hodge, Roger Lloyd Pack, Dennis Chinnery and Jan Chappell. Eagle eyes may also spot a young yet instantly recognisable Phil Daniels in a short cameo.
Clocking just under 78 minutes, the film is also one of the healthier-resourced TV productions of its day, benefitting from being shot entirely on location with 16mm film. Jack Gold’s direction is ambitious and inventive, often shooting low to demonstrate a real sense of location in interior scenes. A wealth of exterior tracking shots and movie-style lighting further demonstrate how much investment was made in securing a cinematic feel to the photography. Carl Davies’ score also capitalises on the silent movie tableaux, evoking upbeat jazz brass and a celebratory marching band ensemble, often counterpointing scenes of violence and tragedy with a bombastic optimism. Aptly, Davies would go on to successfully score numerous Chaplin short films in the same vein.
Network’s latest release on Blu-ray is an astonishing transfer from the original elements, which have been digitally restored offering a previously unseen clarity and richness of colour. Originally shot in 1:33:1 on 16mm, Network have drawn an incredible amount of detail from the archive holdings and this presentation is testament to the clarity which can be recovered from a 16mm source. The new transfer showcases Gold’s direction and photography, whilst the original mono soundtrack is crisp, clean and clear.
Bonus features on the disc include a commentary track from John Hurt, Verity Lambert and Jack Gold – three great creative talents who are no longer with us. The commentary reveals the difficulties of production and the creative choices made in bringing the movie to the screen. Seven Men is a 25 minute World in Action feature filmed in 1968 from Crisp’s very dusty flat. A candid insight into the man’s life present and past, the documentary evidences the impeccable accuracy of The Naked Civil Servant’s production design in capturing Crisp’s unconventional housekeeping.
Mavis Catches Up With Quentin Crisp offers a 1989 interview intercut with a mid-Seventies retrospective. Eloquent and interesting, Mavis Nicholson is a conscientious interviewer who draws fascinating answers from Crisp. It is clear they are fond of each other’s company and this well-produced programme serves to highlight the true lack of quality interviews on television today.
A welcome addition is a 16:9 widescreen version of the film, which will fill viewers’ screens at the expense of cropping the top and bottom of the original frame. Whilst the theatrical cut is judiciously achieved, there is no doubt that the full frame 1:33:1 version is the superior of the two and presents the play as originally intended. A gallery with unseen production and promotional stills, including a PDF of the script, compliments the main content.
The Naked Civil Servant is a landmark piece of television drama which became a cultural event. It is rightly cited as a turning point; a creative force which permanently altered public perceptions. A seminal production for the small screen, the film remains timelessly effective in its message of liberty and pride, and it has never looked better in a restoration worthy of big-screen presentation. Poignant, tragic, intelligent, witty and often hilarious, The Naked Civil Servant is a must-see*, must-own jewel of drama and cultural history.
Cast: John Hurt, Liz Gebhardt, Patricia Hodge, Stanley Lebor, Katherine Schofield, Colin Higgins, Roger Lloyd Pack, Dennis Chinnery, Jan Chappell, Phil Daniels. Director:
Jack Gold Writer: Philip Mackie Released by: Network Certificate: 15 Duration: 77 minutes Release Date: 5th June 2017
*The Naked Civil Servant is receiving a special cinema screening on 28th May
at a number of selected venues nationwide part of Picturehouse Cinemas’
Criminal Acts season.