‘The Naked Civil Servant’ (DVD/Blu-Ray) reviewed

❉ An exceptional piece of drama that brought queer culture into the mainstream.

The cheap corrosive cliches of PR tends to herald high budget dramas as landmarks: the television landscape now has so many landmarks that even the Everests of the pasts are in danger of being reduced to mere molehills.

In truth it’s becoming more difficult than ever to produce something genuinely bold and popular: the fragmented nature of the modern media landscape simply provides too many distractions and dramas that might have been national talking points before the satellite TV revolution of the 1990s, such as Murdered by My Boyfriend, sneak out on channels with a relatively low reach.

The other factor is it’s far harder to shock audiences than it was when Mary Whitehouse could be relied upon for a puritanical quote on the evils of television. The mores of society have changed: what was once taboo is now acceptably mainstream. Society, as Quentin Crisp observes in a 1989 interview included on this DVD, was becoming more permissive.

The reputation of Hurt’s performance has only grown over the years and justly so: it’s extraordinary, particularly given that playing a gay role was seen as a career risk.

It’d be making too bold a claim to ascribe a great degree of credit for this to the adaptation of Crisp’s most famous work, but it’d also be wrong not to acknowledge how it played a part, bringing queer culture to the mainstream, much as glam rock was on Top of the Pops. Where glam was mainly flaunting cheap thrills for shock value The Naked Civil Servant documents how we came to the point where the previously illicit became merely the provocative. Homosexuality had been decriminalised only eight years before its broadcast and in its own way it’s every bit as provocative as Bowie draping his arm round Ronson

Boldly for a biographical drama it’s introduced by its subject. While it might look like a mark of absolute confidence in John Hurt’s performance the excellent commentary makes it clear that it was actually an insurance policy, there to reassure viewers that the outlandishness and flamboyance of Hurt’s performance  was entirely deliberate. More than forty years on it looks almost unnecessary, a touch of style. The reputation of Hurt’s performance has only grown over the years and justly so: it’s extraordinary, particularly given that playing a gay role was seen as a career risk.

Visually it’s an absolute delight, the sharpness of the blu-ray presentation fully bringing out the striking colours and contrasts of Mike Fash’s cinematography and Jack Gold’s eye for a beautifully framed shot.

Crisp would become almost caricatured as a modern Wilde: all aphorisms and aesthetics. Hurt absolutely embraces the role and turns it into the performance it needs to be. Every gesture is a precise, almost balletic expression of personality, every line is delivered as if it should be eternally memorable. And yet it’s never close to going over the top and grounds Philip Mackie’s perfectly formed script. The style is there in the words and enhanced by performance. Hurt’s reputation would be built on finding the humanity in outcasts: most famously the psychotic emperor Caligula and physical freak John Merrick. Here he burrows beneath the henna, mascara and gold eyeshadow to bring out a pathos that pulls against the façade of wit and glamour. He’s ably supported by an exceptional cast, particularly Stanley Lebor and a free spirited Patricia Hodge.

Visually it’s an absolute delight, the sharpness of the blu-ray presentation fully bringing out the striking colours and contrasts of Mike Fash’s cinematography and Jack Gold’s eye for a beautifully framed shot. Its evocation of England either side of the Second World War feels every bit as theatrical as the flashbacks of Pennies from Heaven or The Singing Detective: entirely appropriate given the subject at the film’s heart. You might even see this as a slightly tawdrier (and less musical) version of Cabaret. Mackie’s sharp, witty dialogue allies with Gold’s knack of extracting beauty from mundanity to turn the style of the film into crucial biographical detail.

An audience coming to The Naked Civil Servant today come to it largely without the ingrained prejudices of the generations who originally saw it. What might have been a shock to viewers of the time whose idea of a gay man stretched to that nice Mr Humphreys from Are You Being Served? might merely seem theatrical to our eyes.

Whilst the DVD commentary isn’t essential (it varies between insightful and indulgent) it’s worth listening to if only for the pleasure of the company of three key figures who’ve all since passed away: Hurt, Gold and Verity Lambert. The pride in their achievement is touching and clear even decades later. There’s also a World in Action documentary on Crisp and a 1989 interview between Crisp and Mavis Nicholson in which it’s clear that he hasn’t changed, his style and often  acute powers of observation undiminished by time and the misfortune of being eulogised by Sting.

Landmarks can often fail to live up to their reputations: their majesty diminished by a thousand anecdotes and unrealistic expectations. An audience coming to The Naked Civil Servant today come to it largely without the ingrained prejudices of the generations who originally saw it. What might have been a shock to viewers of the time whose idea of a gay man stretched to that nice Mr Humphreys from Are You Being Served? might merely seem theatrical to our eyes. What remains isn’t the ruin of one of England’s stately homos but an exceptional piece which uses the comedy of wit to cover the essential tragedy of a time when homosexuality was illegal. Even when the process of inclusion it was seeking to nudge along has come so far it remains one of the finest eighty minutes produced by British television.

DVD/Blu-Ray Extras include:

❉ Commentary With John Hurt, Verity Lambert and Jack Gold; ‘Making Of’ documentary; ‘Seven Men: Quentin Crisp a Granada TV profile from 1971; Mavis Catches Up With Quentin Crisp – interview from 1979; image gallery; Philip Mackie’s script (PDF).


❉ ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ was released by Network Distribution on Blu-Ray/DVD on 5 June 2017, RRP £14.99/£12.99. 

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