“Any film, even the worst, is better than real life.”
The Naked Civil Servant, Quentin Crisp’s autobiography introduced by the man himself, certainly isn’t the worst and it is based on real life; its eminently quotable nature ensures that his recollections of his life link with his introduction which suggests that “films are fantasy”.
Crisp is played by John Hurt who won a BAFTA for Best Actor in 1976 for a stunning and extravagant portrayal of a stunning and extravagant man. Crisp discovered his sexuality in an era when homosexuality was still a crime and notes the prejudice he endured amidst the extreme self-aggrandising as he recalls his life. With a chronological structure, Crisp notes the concern of his parents when they realise that he may not be, shock, heterosexual (his father declared that “Your problem is that you look like a male whore”) before his departure into the big wide world where he lives and thrives amongst a still burgeoning gay community. He wears feminine attire and frequents the Black Cafe where other homosexuals meet at night, despite the occasional (because of repercussions) chagrin of the proprietor. Crisp earns a living by selling himself occasionally, a process he declares, “I abuse them, they defile me”, including a regular partner who must hide his sexuality from society, work and his wife. Crisp’s effeminate persona and gregarious attitude comes at a price as he is frequently accosted, beaten and abused. Indeed, when war beckons he now knows that given his position – “I must admit I am more likely to be killed by the English than the Germans” – he volunteers to go to war but is denied a place in the army as he is deemed to be suffering from perversion. “A man dying his hair is a perversion.” Now everyone, even friends of his homosexual circle know that “You can’t be seen with him, he’s a dead giveaway.” However, Crisp also notes that, “I had a number of normal friends, but what is normal?” Later he becomes an artist’s model posing naked for classes but still desiring his dreams of a dark man and a life which suits his own perception of normality, somewhere between prose and posing.
Excellently constructed and filmed with superb performances throughout, The Naked Civil Servant covers the decades of Crisp’s life in a way that shows both his suffering and his exuberance in equal measure. Helpfully each act is heralded with inter-title cards which reflect both the man and his legacy. The match between his various social acquaintances from his bar group to higher societal gatherings also relates to the man and the myth. This is, naturally, John Hurt’s film as takes on the role of the central character and he performs with aplomb, smart wit against homophobes or posing naked as an art model. The film, with its modest TV budget, does a remarkable job at setting the various eras and this helps place Crisp’s life in context.
Extras on the DVD release include a commentary with John Hurt, Jack Gold and Verity Lambert and also a fascinating contemporary documentary from 1971, Seven Men: Quentin Crisp, for Granada TV which has an interview with Crisp in his London home as well as a later interview in 1989. From a time when television movies on public broadcasting were allowed to be unconventional and eminently discussable at work the following day, The Naked Civil Servant is as watchable and invigorating as it was when it was first broadcast in December 1975.