thu 05/12/2019

An Englishman in New York, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

An Englishman in New York, ITV1

An Englishman in New York, ITV1

John Hurt minces back as Quentin Crisp 34 years on

'The more English you sound the more likely you are to be believed': John Hurt as Quentin Crisp

There was something very postmodern about the resumption of Quentin Crisp’s story. To recap, in case you missed episode one back in 1975, The Naked Civil Servant has been turned into a successful television drama, and its subject into a celebrity. The script doesn’t go quite so far as to name the actor who impersonates Crisp, but here is John Hurt playing Quentin Crisp being interviewed on television the night after a drama is broadcast in which Quentin Crisp is played by John Hurt.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Hurt returned to a role which, more than any other, crystallised his instinctive understanding for society’s outsiders. Crisp is much better known to most of us as the dowager duchess who minced around Manhattan’s sidewalks than a creature of exotic plumage who walked these shores in the pre-legal days. His extraordinary longevity – he kept on getting noticed right up to his death at the age of 91 – merited a second look. Has any sequel ever bided its time with quite such patience? And has the wait been worth it?

In the intervening decades Hurt’s face has acquired the look of the sodden paper bag, all folds and creases and scraggy gizzards. His larynx has also rusted up attractively. And all these years on he can still project that air of proud vulnerability, now augmented by decrepitude.

This was a story of a man who, at the age of 73, miraculously began his life again. As distilled here, Crisp was reborn when The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast in America. Summoned to speak in public about his struggle, he was absorbed into a society more eager to have the debate with itself about freedom of self-expression.

So An Englishman in New York wasn’t quite Henry IV Part II. In New York Crisp found instant acceptance, as a wise old survivor of the trenches and a homosexual whose time had very belatedly come. What that meant in dramatic terms was that blessedly little happened. In The Naked Civil Servant the narrative was about a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis about half a century ahead of schedule. The results were brutal. Crisp was a pacifist in lipstick who stopped short of retaliation, as he said here, in order to prevent his tormentors going the whole hog and killing him. Now the Red Sea had parted and no one was wielding a fist. (Not in that or any other way.) Even immigration let him in as a resident alien with barely a growl. The battle-scarred old homo’s dreams had hardened into fact, in the shape of nightclubs heaving with near-naked men dressed as construction workers.

The pathos was that, as a historical curiosity, Crisp was too old to enjoy the fruits of victory. Reduced to an observer of fast-changing homosexual mores, he toured the lecture circuit and society parties scattering carefully modulated bon mots about the nature of love and living in truth. At times it felt like watching a biopic of Oscar Wilde, not so much for the obvious thing they share as the tendency of Oscar’s scriptwriters to plunder the printed word for dialogue. However succulently Hurt delivered them, Brian Fillis’s script came at you like a long string of pearls from Crisp’s writings. “On no account learn the language: the more English you sound the more likely you are to be believed.” “My body and I divorced years ago but we’re still forced to live together.”

Opposition, when it came, was from a more politicised branch of the tribe who objected when Crisp dismissed the disease that killed homosexuals as a "fad". There was one scene in which several muscle-bound gays encountered Crisp in a dark alley and challenged him to retract, but they weren’t exactly wielding baseball bats. So began his long but at the same time hurriedly narrated retreat from public life until, several scenes later, he was back performing as part of a cabaret show, then playing Good Queen Bess in Orlando, then finally giving an uplifting talk in a club in Florida. Cue applause, cue credits.

Yes, An Englishman in New York spared Crisp the indignity of death. How you face the end with style, mooted here as a question that haunted him in his final years, was something the drama never required him to answer. An afterword merely noted, without a trace of a chortle, that the man who finally found himself in Manhattan ended his life on the outskirts of Manchester in somewhere called Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

Watch a clip from The Naked Civil Servant:

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