Sadly, 2017 saw the passing of one of the finest screen actors who ever lived, John Hurt. He was an actor who brought such dignity to the roles he played, even in rubbish films. When he starred as Quentin Crisp in 1975, he was already a well-known character actor in films such as 10 Rillington Place and A Man for All Seasons, but this role brought him bigger attention than he had ever had before.
The Naked Civil Servant is a relatively short TV biopic based on the autobiography of Quentin Crisp, who was one of the great British eccentrics. He was flamboyantly gay and often wore makeup and women’s clothes, but wasn’t a drag queen or transgender. He would probably now be considered “genderqueer,” but I’m sure he would reject and be disgusted by that label. He infamously told Peter Tatchell during the gay liberation movement of the ‘70s: “What do you want liberation from? What is there to be proud of? I don’t believe in rights for homosexuals”. Ironically, over 30 years later Tatchell himself would be under scrutiny for being politically incorrect.
The film for the most part is about Crisp’s young life in pre-WWII Britain, from discovering the gay bars of Soho to being brutally attacked by homophobes, and his absurd attempt to enlist in the British army. He was eventually rejected because he was “suffering from sexual perversion.” Being a homosexual was illegal til 1967 in the UK, so naturally there were run-ins with the law that are touched upon, including a court case during which he showed the police up for the buffoons that they were.
John Hurt really makes the film due to the fact he completely inhabits the role. Quentin Crisp actually introduces the film, and unless you knew who he is already, it would be hard to figure out who is the real Quentin Crisp and who is the actor. It skyrocketed John Hurt into public attention, and helped him get his prominant roles in Midnight Express and Alien. It also marked the first major screen appearance of John Rhys-Davies, who is completely unrecognizable as one of Crisp’s lovers.
While it certainly boosted John Hurt’s career, the film also made Quentin Crisp into a household name. The first publication of The Naked Civil Servant only sold a couple thousand copies, but after the broadcast of the film it became a bestseller. Crisp was a self-proclaimed exhibitionist, and soon had numerous books, film roles, and a much-celebrated and successful one-man show, which he was still doing when he died over 30 years later. He also was someone who journalists could always rely on for a shocking and/or humorous quote on something: for example, Crisp infamously called AIDS “a fad.” He moved to New York in the late ‘70s, and in 2009 John Hurt reprised his portrayal of Crisp in the sequel, An Englishman in New York.
The Blu-Ray looks great, and makes the film available in full-screen or widescreen format. The big feature is a commentary track with John Hurt, director Jack Gold, and executive producer Verity Lambert. The rest of the disc’s features are interviews with Crisp, including a Granada profile from 1971.