This weekend, part of my TV viewing revolved around Channel 4’s Gay Season. In 1967, the Homosexual Reform Act was passed, decriminalising homosexual acts in private between two adult men aged 21 and over in England and Wales. To mark the 40th anniversary, dramas and documentaries revolving around gay issues are being screened.
A Very British Sex Scandal kicked off the season, and what a moving viewing experience this turned out to be. In January 1954, Peter Wildeblood, the newly-appointed diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail, was arrested for homosexual offences. His crime? Having consensual sex with an adult male. Back then, it was against the law. Alongside him in the dock were Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, a 28-year-old aristocratic socialite, and Michael Pitt-Rivers. All three ended up serving time in prison. Set against the backdrop of the famous Wolfenden Committee (their resulting Report paved the way for decriminalisation), this high society court case scandalised and electrified the nation, but it also changed the course of British history.
Using a combination of period dramatisation and real-life testimony from gay men who lived through that era, the film graphically conveyed the reality and consequences of being gay at a time when it was illegal and, in addition, believed to be a contagious disease or a perversion that could be cured with electric shock treatment or a lobotomy. Wildeblood’s story was sympathetically recounted, but it was the little everyday details from the contributors that struck home more powerfully: anonymous sex (no names given) to avoid blackmail and reduce the risk of getting caught; burning mementoes and love letters so that they wouldn’t be found by family or the police; getting snared by ‘agents provocateurs’, undercover officers acting as gay men; the joy (still so apparent after all these years) one couple felt at an aspect of the Act’s passing; they could finally throw out their single beds and buy a double one together. Very poignant.
Conversely, Clapham Junction was a mixed experience. A much-hyped drama from writer Kevin Elyot, it’s the centrepiece of Channel 4’s Gay Season. A one-off contemporary drama of interweaving stories involving several gay men, it depicted the closet, discrimination, prejudice and violence. We all know that there are still gay men struggling with their identity, gay men who get assaulted, gay men who constantly have to deal with homophobia, but where were the positive gay stories? Even one would’ve been welcome. And considering that this was called ‘Clapham Junction’ and not ‘Isle Of Skye’ – where were all the ethnic minorities?
Despite impressive performances from a sterling cast (including former EastEnder Paul Nicholls and Maurice stars James Wilby and Rupert Graves), the writing was clichéd and weak in places. Some of the characters sorely lacked depth, consequently, not all the elements worked. It made for disjointed, frustrating viewing. What’s more, it put me in mind me of a 1970s ‘BBC Play For Today’ rather than a dynamic Channel 4 noughties offering. Above the stereotypical ‘gays as sexual predators’ and ‘gays as hedonistic druggies’, two strands stood out: the queer basher played by Paul Nicholls (was he a self-loathing gay man?) and the 14-year-old boy who seduced his 29-year-old neighbour (was he a convicted paedophile?). Both of these elements were graphic, disturbing and thought-provoking. Shame about the rest of it.
Finally, something that made my mouth drop so far on the floor, my tongue could’ve vacuumed the carpet. Jean Genet‘s 1950 film Un Chant d’Amour is only 26 minutes long. While Hollywood was making Father Of The Bride with Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracy, Genet told an erotic story about a voyeuristic, sadistic prison guard who spies on his sexually frustrated inmates, even when they masturbate. Amongst them, two men unable to consummate their love who express it via other means: sharing cigarette smoke via a straw poked through a hole, knocking on the wall to each other etc. Unbelievably beautiful imagery.
Talking of which, we’re so used to the camera lingering on women’s breasts and hips that Un Chant d’Amour’s celebration of the male body and male sexuality is an eye-opener: stroked and fondled semi erect penises, ripped torsos, bulging biceps all filmed in stunning close-ups and soft lighting. A silent film made in black and white, it was so far ahead of its time that it still has the power to astound today. Poetic, lyrical and unforgettable.
Today I am mostly lovin’ – Corrie legend Vera Duckworth. I’ll cherish every appearance until she goes.
Today I am mostly hatin’ – The fact that I didn’t win the lottery.