Homosexuality was a criminal offence in the UK until I was nine years old. Attitudes towards gay people remained extremely hostile in much of society even after it was legalised for people over 21 in 1967. At school, I am sorry to say I shared to a large extent in the sneering and intolerant culture that was prevalent at that time.
In an age where there were just three television channels and nobody watched one of them, a new television play was a major event that could reach a mass audience in the way nothing can today. That is partly why Ken Loach had even more political effect with Cathy Come Home than with I, Daniel Blake. I am convinced that John Hurt’s towering performance in The Naked Civil Servant changed society. It brought the individual confrontations Quentin Crisp had engineered his entire life, and expanded them to confront half of the nation with the existence, and right to dignity, of gay people.
Of course Crisp himself was the hero, but John Hurt took a career threatening risk in taking the part and showed great courage and conviction. Hurt’s ability to manipulate the palette of courage, arch wit, and vulnerability that the role required gave the drama its impact, and propelled it with a shocking force I don’t believe any other actor could have managed.
I am not gay, but in a kind of solidarity I immediately adopted as a boy a number of Quentin Crisp’s mannerisms, including the long fingernails, hair and velvet jacket! I persisted with this for a great many years. A group of us at school adopted similar style, though I don’t recall ever discussing the Crisp influence. In 1978 I was delighted to meet Quentin Crisp, still pushing the boundaries by performing to a Dundee pub.
It was always a joy thereafter to see John Hurt appear in anything. We all have to die, and there is no point in getting maudlin about the death of celebrities. But I thought The Naked Civil Servant effect worth recording.