50 Years Legal, Gay Essential Talks To Simon Napier-Bell

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the United Kingdom. Director Simon Napier-Bell created a documentary, 50 Years Legal, to coincide with the anniversary. The film is described as an engaging but informative journey through LGBT rights in Britain since 1967, and how changes in politics and social attitudes, for better or worse, have evolved over the subsequent decades.

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Napier-Bell is perhaps best known for his work as a music manager and promoter, having worked with such artists as The Yardbirds, Marc Bolan, and George Michael among others. However, he always loved film and received an early education in cinema from his filmmaker father, who used to take him to the London cinemas where they screened the works of the great international directors and all the classics: “It could be Battleship Potemkin one week and Harold Lloyd the next.”

At age eleven, he discovered jazz and was given a trumpet. Eventually, he traveled to America, where he hoped to become a great professional musician. “Slowly, my ambitions fell apart; I was a pretty good musician, but not a great musician,” he recalls. As a gay man he also noticed that, “by and large, being a professional musician is one of the great straight professions. It’s a bit like football. I have no idea why; it’s just one of those things.” He also realized that life as a professional musician stood in the way of his other interests: “In the course of the year, there was nothing but music, but I was also interested in politics, geography, the arts – everything in the world. I just thought it was too narrow, and the people around me didn’t seem interested in all these other things.”

When he returned to Britain, he landed a job at the bottom end of the film industry as an assistant editor, but his knowledge in music quickly got him promoted. He began working on some prestigious project, including Burt Bacharach’s score for What’s New Pussycat? (1965). However, he was also turned off by the slow pace of the industry, seeing that it would usually take as long as five years to get a film made: “If the film was a failure, the directors would have lost five years of their lives; that’s probably twenty percent of their working life.” On the other hand, the music industry moved much faster, and in the sixties, when albums were recorded live, it could take as little as one afternoon to make one: “You had it out the next week, and if it was a failure, you’d be back in the studio a week later making another one. The difference between two weeks and five years, as a young person, made me think that film was not the business to get into.”

Thus began Napier-Bell’s successful career in music management, which would also serve him well when he eventually decided to return to his ambition of making movies both as a director and as a producer. Though he noticed that the film industry had not gotten any faster, being busy with other projects – such as writing books, and producing Raiding the Rock Vault, the number one music show in Las Vegas – meant that he didn’t have to spend time “sitting around waiting.”

The knowledge he acquired in his many years as a music manager served him well. For instance, he decided to start working on 50 Years Legal a year and a half ahead of time, so that he might be first director to approach people to be in it, knowing that there might be many other documentaries made on the same subject by June 2017. He also had a strategy in mind to approach them: “I started with the politicians,” who “love being connected with pop music because they think it gets them a younger audience.” Given his reputation as a famous pop manager, such people as Lord Browne, Lord Chris Smith, and Matthew Parris agreed to be in the film. Once they were on board, it was easy to get the celebrities: “The funny thing is, people in the entertainment, especially pop musicians but actors too, love being connected with politicians, because they think that if one day they’ve got something they want to get done, now they can get to that politician.”

Despite this, there were still challenges to overcome, especially that of the people’s busy schedules. In some cases, being pushy was enough. Others were simply too busy. However, Napier-Bell claims that “people not being free sometimes caused something better to happen.” such was the case with Elton John and Ian McKellen, who both gave him the rights to use two particularly powerful pieces of archive footage. Nonetheless, overall, the director recorded forty hours of interviews with leading LGBT activists, celebrities, and cultural commentators from across the generations, discussing such topics as homophobia, acceptance, diversity and gender. Edited versions of these interviews will be released in a book “telling the whole story of the fifty years with all the details we couldn’t put into the film.”

Among the celebrities interviewed – such as Stephen Fry, Will Young, and Matt Lucas – are ones that wouldn’t be commonly thought of as activist. “Almost everyone agrees that the only thing you ever have to do when you’re a celebrity is to be out. You don’t have to be an activist; just to be famous and out is already activism.” But once he got them talking, “it was amazing how underneath almost everybody’s outward experience was this sort of anger, a serious passion which you never saw on the surface of their lives.”

This prompted the director to reflect upon his own experiences. “In the sixties, I thought I was out and I was open. But, of course, I realized I wasn’t. I was gay and open among my gay friends.” He wouldn’t tell anybody else he was gay, “because it was illegal, and it’s silly to say that you’re something which is against the law; the police could come any moment and arrest you.” Despite this, “we had this very private community. We all had lunch together and went to clubs where people looked at you through a peephole before they would let you in. I wouldn’t say it was any less good or any less fun a life as it is now – maybe it was more fun! so, when I look back now, I realize we were careful, but that didn’t mean that we weren’t happy.”

50 Years Legal shows that different people had different experiences during those times. For instance, Simon Callow talks about knowing he was gay from an early age and thinking life would be miserable until he joined the theatre; Napier-Bell explains, “if you decided you were gay and you were going to live an outward life, you really only had hairdressing or the theatre to go into … and where you could actually talk about being gay.” On the other hand, Lord Browne talks about how he was frightened to death and never dared tell anyone about being gay: “He had gay sex, but he never made gay friends; it was too risky to have gay friends.”

Things did not change immediately after the 1967 Act was passed, and Napier-Bell claim it was like the police did a trade-off and things got worse instead of better. “It stated that if you were both over the age of twenty-one, and you were consenting adults, and you were in your own home, and your windows were locked, and the blinds were drawn, and the door locked, and there was nobody else in the house – then you could have sex.”

Then, in the eighties, AIDS became the pivotal point which helped acceptance. “Nowadays, everyone has got someone in their family who is gay, but in the eighties, a lot of people didn’t know they even knew anybody who was gay. suddenly, when AIDS came along, you couldn’t hide the fact that you were dying.” Although the response from people worked both ways, “The majority saw what was happening, the horror of it, and it drew the humanity out of them.”

The progress made since the partial decriminalisation of 1967 leads to 2017, when gay marriage was made legal and when transsexual matters are openly discussed. The journey was helped by representations of homosexuality in popular culture, from Dirk Boragde’s turn in the landmark 1961 film, Victim, to Tom Robinson’s passionately angry 1978 gay anthem, “Glad to Be Gay,” and beyond. These and more are examined in 50 Years Legal as important part of the history of LGBT rights. “Life is about experience, and bad experience is just as good as good experience. The idea that there are good and bad experiences is actually during the moment. Probably the bad ones are more interesting; you’re going to remember, you’re going to write books, you’re going to tell stories … And innately, I’m a businessman, but I’m also an artist, and there’s a part of me that’s always thinking, ‘One day, I’m going to write that book, so this is a good experience. This is another chapter.’”

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures

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Matt Micucci

Matt Micucci

Filmmaker
Matt is a cinephile with a keen interest in the proliferation of film culture. He is a writer, programmer, filmmaker, and long-time contributor to FRED Film Radio and JAZZIZ Magazine. Has interviewed hundreds of people at international film festivals. Collaborated with Mark Cousins on a short inspired by Pasolini. Holds a BA in filmmaking and is currently pursuing an MA in Film Theory and Practice in Galway, Ireland, where he lives.
Matt Micucci
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