❉ Nick Campbell pays a visit to Sir John’s Trouser Bar. Come for the trousers, stay for the tears. Mind the flesh-eating zombies on the way.
For about seven years, Boys On Film has offered an insight into contemporary gay short film-making with a spoonful of sexy sugar (just look at name of the series) and its fifteenth volume is another dolly mixture of studies in gay identity, cute guys getting their tops off and the obligatory drama of sexual awakening. This collection is especially notable for the inclusion of ‘Trouser Bar’, a star-studded tribute to another era of gay men’s shorts, not to mention their corduroy flares. Kristen Bjorn’s soft porn pastiche provides a happy finish to a series of movies about sex and secrets.
The disc opener, ‘Closets’, features Tommy Knight as Henry; familiar to certain viewers as the on-screen son of one Sarah Jane Smith, his movie has something of Doctor Who about it. Henry’s having a hard time in 1986, for him a world of shame and fear. When he time travels to the bedroom of Ben (Ceallach Spellman), what common ground will they have? Ben’s got a Mum who understands and wants to talk, not to mention a Tom Daley calendar on his wall, but is his life really so different to than Henry’s? The common ground turns out to be the closet. Hiding out there, Ben and Henry’s healing conversation across the generations is a fantasy version of what queer community could be and do.
‘Closets’ ends with a clear statement on the difficulties faced by LGBT teenagers, particularly the spectre of bullying in schools, and is perhaps a little heavy-handed with its message. Insofar as it speaks to the gay audience of Boys on Film, however, its fantasy poses some real questions for our sense of community. Is there a possibility of cohesion between generations of gay men whose experience and objectives are so divergent? Queer history isn’t generally taught in school, if anywhere. Leaving to one side the trans-temporal bedroom closet, can that dialogue really only happen in fantasy?
Meanwhile, alienation kills in Tom Frederic’s short, ‘Sauna the Dead’, a fun comedy-horror movie dedicated “to LGBTQ spaces everywhere”. Even more so than ‘Nightstand’, with its chilly Soho locations, ‘Sauna’ suggests that the places which belong to queers can easily be lost, whether through misuse or re-appropriation. When Jacob first arrives in the sauna, snapping selfies in his towel, we watch him turn away, Scrooge-like, from friendly conversation and meaningful glances. Before long, he finds the cruising ground has been overtaken by brainless, shuffling consumers with an insatiable appetite for flesh. ‘The cubicles get so busy these days,’ Kumar Muniandy tells him, shortly before the pair of them are pursued through the showers by a horde of dead-eyed homosexuals.
I’d never realised before how overdue the gay zombie movie is: think of the many demon metaphors waiting to be inverted, from plague-carriers to predators. This movie, though, addresses itself squarely to gay audiences, a virtue of its form and distribution. Despite its comic overtone, it suggests a crisis of identity for a community, not just the individual. It makes an interesting pairing with ‘G O’Clock’, Mitchell Marion’s no-holds-barred fable of chemsex parties and personal responsibility. “Don’t call an ambulance,” says Alex (Philip Weddell), “what do you think will happen to me?”
How would Tommy Knight have managed if his closet had taken him back thirty years instead of forward? A real highlight of this collection is the briefest of park bench conversations, Fairbairn and Eccleston’s six-minute ‘Putting On The Dish’. Difficult to eavesdrop on this chat unless you have a good ear for polari, and more gay slang of 1962 besides, but the rewards are certainly promising: “She’s been a right bonaroba. Blowing the groundsels, ling grappling dilly boys, trolling the backslums. She had to be Battersea’d twice last month…” Echoes of Ramsey, Jacob and Alex’s better nights here, but ultimately, the colourful language returns us to the fact of lives lived in fear and suspicion. It’s a perfectly performed, illuminating exchange that bears repeated viewing.
Many will seek out this volume of Boys On Film for its concluding short, a tribute to the Grandfather of gay porn, Peter de Rome, and his world. Famously (or perhaps infamously), this vibrant exposé of the backroom antics of a gentleman’s outfitters derives from a script originally written for de Rome by a close friend, corduroy fetishist and legendary British actor. Sir John’s Trouser Bar is recreated in fervid authenticity, according to the tastes and enthusiasms of its author, a man so venerable he cannot be named. Once in the closet, it seems, always in the closet. (The significance of this should not be underestimated in the wake of recent press stories about the ex-Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee.) If the closet is a changing room, however, there are no bars on what a man can get away with. Behind the Atomic Orange-coloured curtain, Denholm Spurr and Zac Renfree take more than just their customer’s inside leg measurements.
It is somewhat fitting that a fantasy version of what is (or certainly was) conventional sexual adventure for gay men, behind closed doors and in the peripheries of respectable society, should be condemned, disowned and rendered distasteful by the keepers of its author’s legacy. The outrage over this unattributed script becomes absurd when it actually plays out, however. The fashions are perfect, the glances exchanged are rather sexy, the driving soundtrack is sublime, but the soft-core sex is a world away from the electrical authenticity of Peter de Rome’s work. You’d have to get your steadycam out in a real gentleman’s outfitters to invoke the spirit of something like ‘Underground’ (1972): perhaps you’d need to travel back to 1976 itself. The sex in ‘Trouser Bar’, though performed by professional pornographers and extremely diverting, is coyly simulated and implied, many miles away from the stuff of ‘G O’Clock’ or ‘Nightstand’. Hans Berlin looks the most comfortable, I think, probably because he’s the only one not in a wig (one of the production’s only drawbacks).
But perhaps it’s more accurate to say, it’s one generation away. This view of de Rome’s erotica is affectionate and sexy, but it’s also shot through a lens of British sex comedy, visual innuendo and suggestion (‘Ground floor, stationery, perfumery and leather-goods’ would complement it very well). It’s entirely appropriate that the audience of window-gawpers, as the action really gets going, include Barry Cryer and Julian Clary, as well as Nigel Havers, looking stylishly sexy but slightly disapproving of the whole thing.
It is, in fact, an acknowledgement that what constitutes queer heritage is a sense of legacy and inheritance, not direct continuity. ‘Trouser Bar’ is a joyful, sexy but ultimately playful approach to such legacies: an exchanged glance between the viewer and the author. It’s another piece of evidence for cinema as the access point to queer identity, whether in dialogue with the present or the past. One of the biggest British movies of recent years has been an account of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners campaign. Meanwhile, arty clubber collective Duckie ran courses and exhibitions of queer heritage at Bishopsgate Institute this year, and Historic England (once English Heritage) now run an interactive map of LGBTQ history, Pride of Place. Boys On Film 15 suggests that a sense of history is fundamental to queer identity, and should be fun too – if you can circumvent the zombies, that is.
‘Boys on Film 15: Time & Tied’ is available now from Peccadillo Pictures.