Broadcast in 1976 on British TV less than a decade after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, The Naked Civil Servant was a landmark film that added some depth to the public perception of gay people – which at that point, was largely dominated by the effeminate, innuendo spewing caricatures in programmes such as Are You Being Served?. Of course, Quentin Crisp (played here by a then-revelatory John Hurt that won him his first Best Actor BAFTA) was no stranger to effeminacy, but in this adaptation of his bestselling memoir, enough depth was added to this familiar persona to help audiences see beyond the stereotype.
It may be dated now, but The Naked Civil Servant was key in addressing the homophobia that was previously inherent in society. This is even more impressive considering that Crisp himself was a fierce critic of the gay liberation movement, even as he embraced his gay icon status for the remaining years of his life. However, this isn’t entirely unsurprising; he was a provocateur who didn’t care for societal norms, so why would he allow himself to be in alliance with the LGBT community?
The film expertly balances the disparate elements that make it; there is plenty of camp comedy, as audiences likely hoped for in an adaptation of Crisp’s memoir, but it also doesn’t shy away from the darkness so prevalent in homosexual life during an era when it was considered to be criminal. The most harrowing sequence shows Crisp harassed and attacked by a large group of men outside a pub- when a taxi comes, the driver refuses to take him, letting the gang forcibly drag him out of the vehicle and continue to beat him up. This is the most visceral depiction of an everyday horror a gay man had to suffer on a continued basis during the era- it was just amplified for somebody as defiant towards societal norms as Crisp.
That the film still proves to be in equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking is due to the timeless performance from John Hurt, one of the best in a long career that delivered more than its fair share of highs. As star making performances go, this is one of the best; Hurt completely disappears in to the character, making the moments when Crisp himself appears feel like we are witnessing the exact same person. Hurt’s portrayal not only nails all the mannerisms necessary for a successful biopic (only Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar winning turn as Truman Capote feels comparable), he manages to embed them with raw emotion that helps The Naked Civil Servant rise above having a caricatured portrayal of a man’s life. Even more impressively, it manages to do this all in a blink and you’ll miss it running time of 77 minutes. Who said you needed to make a two and a half hour epic to get under the skin of a public figure?
Now available in hi-definition, The Naked Civil Servant is camp and unabashedly so – but it has far more going on beneath the surface, and helped usher in more nuanced portrayals of LGBT people and culture in the years to come. It may be dated, but time hasn’t made it feel embarrassing in retrospect. It is still one of the most pivotal works in the LGBT pop culture canon that helped further mainstream awareness and acceptance. Quite an impressive feat considering Crisp’s own personal views on the gay community!