Sunday, 5 February 2017


21. “Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It's cheaper.”


I will assume you have already seen “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975) because if you have not, then you will have missed why John Hurt made such an impact during his career – on one hand, there is putting in an unforgettable performance of a character, then there is performing your go-to memory of a real-life person. John Hurt is Joseph (not John) Merrick, the Elephant Man, he is Caligula – in the BBC’s 1976 adaptation of “I, Claudius” – and he is Quentin Crisp in “The Naked Civil Servant” (1975), and again in “An Englishman in New York” (2009).

Of these three figures, Quentin Crisp is the one we can make an easy comparison as, by the time “The Naked Civil Servant” was made, Quentin Crisp had already become a known curiosity, invited to speak on TV programmes about himself, and his views on life, because there was no-one else like him.

Crisp was as much a construction as Hurt’s performances of him would be. Born, in 1908, as Denis Charles Pratt, Crisp was openly gay and effeminate as early as the 1920s, light years before most progressive thinking on LGBT rights had even formed – his reaction to the Blitz in London, in 1941, was to remain at his one-room Beaufort Street flat, stock up on henna and cosmetics, and go picking up soldiers during black-outs. The “civil servant” side came from thirty years working as a life model for artists and schools, where it turned out that he had been painted, at the St Martin’s School of Art, by a student named John Hurt.

Hurt said that playing Crisp had changed people’s perceptions of him as a performer, and had been warned not to take the part but, in order to take part in a television film he felt he had to do, he turned down a lead role in a Tom Stoppard play that was due to transfer to Broadway. “The Naked Civil Servant” changed views on homosexuality, only legalised in the UK eight years before, and changed the life of its subject. Crisp swapped London for New York, an even safer harbour for the fringes of society, and his time as a public speaker and tutor there became its own film, “An Englishman in New York,” filmed ten years after Crisp’s death - even for John Hurt, no-one else could play this role.

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