Discover more from Mark Simpson's Subby
Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp
On the Nakedness of Civil Servants
Writing about rainbows recently, and the death last week of HRH QEII, reminded me that the best antidote to Prideful identity politics is/was that other expired Queen of England, Quentin Crisp, who before his death in 1999 turned being totally abject into an epigrammatic art form - and somehow a living. This essay was originally published on marksimpson.com in 2010 after watching ‘An Englishman in New York’, the (non) sequel to ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ - the Thames TV drama which launched him into fame in 1975 (now available in full on YouTube). The attempt to assimilate Crisp to 21st Century LGBT rainborg politics was predictable – but its failure is highly instructive.
The Naked Civil Servant is the best and funniest TV drama ever made. And I’m sorry, but it’s a scientific fact. And like its subject it could only have been made in England. Even if Crisp said he hated England – and he did, over and over again.
So many lines in Philip Mackie’s superb screenplay for the Thames TV adaptation glitter like, well, the icy aphorisms that Crisp filled his 1968 eponymous autobiography with. But it was Hurt’s breakthrough performance as Crisp which is most historic: rendering Crisp, as Quentin himself acknowledged – and welcomed – something of an understudy to Hurt’s Crisp for the rest of his life. [Crisp died in 1999; John Hurt in 2017.]
The actual, quasi-existing Crisp, born Denis Charles Pratt in Sutton, Surrey in 1908, sometimes sounded by this stage (he was nearly 70 when the drama aired) like a vintage car tyre losing air ve-ry slow-ly. And was almost as immobile. Hetero dandy Hurt injected a kind of rakishness – a hint of phallicism, even – to Crisp’s defiantly passsssive persssssona that came across rather more invigorating and sexy than he actually was. Hurt rendered Crisp rock ‘n’ roll when he probably wasn’t even up for a waltz. When Hurt repeatedly intoned Crisp’s Zen-like answer to the world and Other People and Desire in general – “If you like” – it sounded slightly more aggressive than passive.
(And for me, Hurtian Crisp was further enhanced by what I shall call Hoyleian-Hurtian Crisp: I met the performance artist David Hoyle in the early eighties when we were both teenage runaways to London’s bedsit-land. He would perform key moments from TNCS mid conversation about the weather or who was on Top of the Pops last night, adding a dash of David Bowie and Bette Davis to the mix. David always succeeded in making these impromptu excerpts sound as if they were flashbacks to his earlier life. Which, since he grew up a sensitive boy in working class Blackpool in the 1970s watching a lot of telly, they were.)
The Naked Civil Servant, both the book and the TV dramatization, is criminally funny precisely because so much of what Hurt/Crisp says/declaims is so shockingly true.
The line whispered delicately in the ear of the leader of a 1930s queer bashing gang is now almost a cliché, but still has hilarious force: “Why don't you sod off back to Hoxton before they find out you’re queer.”
It is of course a direct hit. Prompting a silent-movie style intertitle:
“Some roughs are really queer, and some queers are really rough.”
Crisp’s homo truths, particularly about human relationships, are the truths told by someone who has nothing to lose – largely because they’ve already lost everything to the bailiffs of despair. This is the ‘nakedness’ of the Civil Servant.
Because it was one of the first TV dramas to depict a self-confessed and unapologetic – flaunting, even – homosexual TNCS has been frequently misrepresented as a ‘gay drama’. But Crisp’s sexuality is not what TNCS is about – or in fact, what Crisp was about.
To a degree it is about being ‘out and proud’, or at least determined to inflict oneself on the world, but not so much as a homosexual, and certainly not as ‘a gay’, in the modern, respectable, American sense of the word. It’s not even, thankfully, a plea for tolerance. It’s a portrayal of the heroic self-sufficiency of someone who decided to stand apart from society and its values, henna their hair and work as a male street prostitute – and then, lying bruised in the gutter, turn a haughty, unsentimental but piercingly funny eye back on a world which regards him as the lowest form of life. It’s the blackest and cheekiest kind of comedy – which is to say: the only kind.
“I am an effeminate homo-sex-u-alll“, declared Crisp to the Universe. Repeatedly. And the Universe had no choice but to agree. By being utterly abject Crisp forced the Universe to do precisely as he instructed. A blueprint for celebrity that was to be repeated many, many times by others before his death in 1999 and even more times after – though usually less wittily and without the jaunty headgear.
Crisp added that, as an effeminate homosexual, he was imprisoned inside an exquisite paradox, like an ancient insect trapped in amber: attracted to masculine males – the famous Great Dark Man – he cannot himself be attracted to a man who finds him, another male, attractive because then they cannot be The Great Dark Man anymore. Hence the famous, Death-of-God intertitle declaration in TNCS, after many, many mishaps, and misrecognitions:
“There. Is. No. Great. Dark. Man!“
Strictly 19th century sexologically speaking, Mr Crisp was more of a male invert than a homosexual, and often said that he thought that he should have been a woman, and even wondered whether he was born intersexed (this despite famously dismissing women as ‘speaking a language I do not understand’ – perhaps because he didn’t like too much competition in the speaking stakes). Either way, he doesn’t appear to have been terribly happy with his penis or even its existence – something homosexual males, like heterosexual ones, are usually delirious about. But then again, rather than expressing proto-transsexuality Quentin’s Great Dark Man complex was merely setting up a situation in which he could remain ever faithful to his one true love. Himself.
In Thames TV’s TNCS, which begins (at Crisp’s request) with a pretty, pre-pubescent boy as Quentin/Dennis dancing in a dress in front of a full-length mirror, Hurtian Crisp is an out-and-proud narcissist, who simply refuses to take on board the shame that such an outrageous perversion should entail. When he attempts to join the Army at the start of the war, he causes apoplexy in the recruiters for being completely honest about his reasons for doing so: he doesn’t mouth platitudes about ‘doing his duty’, ‘his bit’ or ‘fighting Nazis’. He just wants to eat properly, and the squaddies he knows seem to have quite a nice time of it: loading and unloading petrol cans in Basingstoke. His openness about his homosexuality is palpably less shocking to the Army officials than his honesty about his self-interestedness. About his interest in himself.
Or as Hurt/Crisp replies as a preening adolescent youth when asked by his exasperated, buttoned-up Edwardian petite-bourgeois father:
“Do you intend to admire yourself in the mirror forever??”
“If I possibly can.”
And boy, did he. TNCS, which aired slap in the middle of the seventies, was more of an inspiration to the glam, punk, new-wave and new romantic generation than to gays in general. Hurtian Crisp and his hennaed hair and make-up sashaying the streets of 1930s London symbolised in the 1970s the idea of an aestheticized revolt against Victorian ideas of proper deportment and dullness that had dominated Britain for much of the Twentieth Century. The best British pop music had always been a form of aesthetic revolt, and Crisp seemed to be very much his own special creation, which is what so many teens now aspired to be. Crisp was taken for a real original and individual in an age when everyone wanted to be original and individual. Or as Crisp put it himself later:
"The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another."
TNCS changed Crisp’s life and made him very famous indeed. A reality TV winner before such a thing existed, his prize was the chance to move to America. Since he had loved Hollywood movies from childhood and was later treated like a Hollywood starlet (albeit in air raid shelters) by American GIs in London during the Second World War, no wonder he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
But if there’s anything to be learned from An Englishman in New York (2009), the sequel to TNCS broadcast on ITV recently, it’s that it may all have been a terrible mistake. Even if Mr Crisp never thought so. Although Hurt turns in a technically fine performance, he seems to have become more Crispian and less Hurtian. Perhaps that’s inevitable with the passage of time (Hurt is nearly 70, the age Crisp was when he first played him). Or perhaps it’s simply that his acting skills have increased. Whatever the reason, it’s not a welcome development here. And I’m sure Crisp would have agreed.
Much, much worse is the redemptive reek of this sequel. Everything is made to turn on Crisp’s “AIDS [upper case back then, remember] is a fad” quip made in the early eighties and the trouble this got him into in the US – and why he was a good sort, really. Despite the things he actually said. So, we see him adopt a gay artist dying of the ‘fad’, fussing over the guy (an especially jarring image) and arranging for his art to be exhibited. We discover him sending secret cheques to Liz Taylor’s Aids foundation. We even hear him explain what he meant by ‘fad’ (supposedly it was a political tactic: minimize the gay plague to avoid a hetero backlash).
Now, this obsession with redemption may be very American and has of course, like many American obsessions, become more of an English one of late – especially when trying to sell something to the Yanks, as I’m sure the producers of this sequel are hoping to do. But if there was any point to Crisp at all it was that he was utterly unsentimental – except where royalty was concerned – and relatively free of the hypocrisies of everyday life. This sequel ostensibly about him is full of them. So, forgive me if I’m unconvinced.
Crisp was invincible in his determination to regard the US as the dreamland of the movies of his youth made real: America was as he put it “Heaven” where England was “Hell”. And why not? If you’ve spent most of your best years deprived of almost every single illusion that comforts most other people, why shouldn’t you have one big one in your retirement?
And to be fair, much of what he had to say about the friendliness and flattering, encouraging, open-hearted nature of Americans compared to the mean-minded, resentful, vindictive English is quite true, even today. But Crisp’s whole approach to life was even more at odds with American culture, even in its atypical NYC form, with its emphasis on self-improvement, aspiration, uplift and success. “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style,” said Crisp, who regarded himself as a total failure. Could there be a more un-American worldview? Apart that is from, “Don’t try to keep up with the Jones. Try to drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper.”
In an early documentary from 1970 Crisp, sitting in his London bed-sitting room sipping an unappetizing powdered drink that “has all the vitamins and protein I need but tastes awful” which he takes instead of food, he describes himself as a Puritan. Actually, Crisp was a Puritan with an added frosting of asceticism. Crisp was deeply suspicious of all pleasure (save the pleasure of being listened to and looked at) and most especially of sex, which he described as “the last refuge of the miserable”. And four years of house dust is an exceptionally effective way of showing how above the material world you are.
It’s a very middle class, middle England, middle century Puritanism – just like Crisp’s background. But Crisp was also his own kind of revenge on himself, or on the world that had made him – of which he was a living parody. None of us are really our own special creations. The most we can hope for is a special edition.
Crisp’s Puritanism was part of the reason he could never embrace Gay Lib (“what do you want to be liberated from?”). He was recently subjected to a stern posthumous ticking off by Peter Tatchell, an original Gay Libber, in the Independent newspaper prompted by what he sees as the ‘sanitising of Crisp’s ignorant pompous homophobia’ in An Englishman in New York. Post-60s Crisp was jealous of a new generation of out queers who were stealing his limelight: he wasn’t the only homo in town anymore.
This broadside was a tad harsh, and Tatchell sometimes sounds as if he’s on the Army board that rejected Crisp. Accusing him of ‘homophobia’ threatens to make an absurdity of the word. But I agree that the sequel does ‘sanitise’ Crisp, though I think this a bad thing for different reasons to Mr Tatchell. I also suspect there’s some truth to the accusation of ‘jealousy’, but I’d be inclined to put them in another form. Maybe Crisp didn’t want homosexuality to be normalised because if it were it would undo his life’s work. Likewise, I think Crisp would have loathed metrosexuality.
And as the sequel suggests, in one of its few insightful moments, one reason for Crisp’s failure to answer the gay clarion call was simply that he didn’t believe in causes, or the subjugation of truth and dress-sense to expediency that inevitably goes with causes. Unless that cause is yourself.
Besides, like many ‘inverts’, Crisp was a great and romantic believer in Heterosexuality – the ideal kind, of course, rather than the kind that heterosexuals have to live, and which they execute very, very badly. He used to call heterosexuals ‘real people’ (as opposed to ‘unreal’ homosexuals), but I suspect he thought he was the only real heterosexual in town.
And, in a sense, he was.
I can’t leave you without pointing out that while Quentin Crisp may have dismissed Aids as a ‘fad’, Hurtian Crisp became more associated with ‘the gay plague’ than almost anyone save Rock Hudson: literally becoming the sound of the seriousness of the subject. In 1975 hetero Hurt plays the most famous stately homo in England. The success of this gets him to Hollywood, where four years later in 1979 he is cast in an even more globally famous role – as ‘Patient Zero’ in Ridley Scott’s Alien: the first host for the terrifying unknown organism that enters his body by face-raping him and which proceeds to kill-off in horrifying, phallic-jackhammer fashion, his shipmates. Two years before the first identified Aids cases in NY.
Eight years later, Hurt was the unforgettable fey-gravelly voice for those terrifying tombstone ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ ads (complete with jackhammers) that ran in heavy rotation on UK TV, urging people to read the Government leaflet pushed through their letterbox and practise safe sex.
In other words, The Naked Civil Servant had become a rubber-sheathed civil servant.
You can now watch The Naked Civil Servant in full on YouTube
'In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.'
'It is not the simple statement of facts that ushers in freedom; it is the constant repetition of them that has this liberating effect. Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment, but of boredom.'
'To know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.'
'I simply haven’t the nerve to imagine a being, a force, a cause which keeps the planets revolving in their orbits and then suddenly stops in order to give me a bicycle with three speeds.'
'Even a monotonously undeviating path of self-examination does not necessarily lead to self-knowledge. I stumble towards my grave confused and hurt and hungry.'
'It is explained that all relationships require a little give and take. This is untrue. Any partnership demands that we give and give and give and at the last, as we flop into our graves exhausted, we are told that we didn’t give enough.'
'The consuming desire of most human beings is deliberately to place their entire life in the hands of some other person. For this purpose they frequently choose someone who doesn’t even want the beastly thing.'
'The simplest comment on my book came from my ballet teacher. She said, “I wish you hadn’t made every line funny. It’s so depressing.”'
'Someone asked me why I thought sex was a sin. I said, “She’s joking, isn’t she?” But they said, “No.” Doesn’t everyone know that sex is a sin? All pleasure is a sin.'
'You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.'
1970 interview with Quentin Crisp in his famously dusty London bedsit.