Jack Gold at the BFI (July-August 2016). Monday 25th July 2016 - ^The Naked Civil Servant^ in NFT1 and Panel Discussion Event.(1 Post)
Jack Gold at the BFI: The Naked Civil Servant / Panel discussion with Jane Lapotaire, Sir John Hurt, Tony Garnett, Carl Davis, Sir Jeremy Isaacs and Michael Billington (chair). Part of A Midas Touch: The TV and Films of Jack Gold which runs until the end of August.
The director Jack Gold, who died in 2015, had a wide and an illustrious career of over 50 years which encompassed theatre, TV and film. It is his TV and film output which is the subject of the most recent retrospective at the BFI where, on Monday night, screened his most famous work The Naked Civil Servant : the ITV TV biopic, from 1975, of the writer, wit, eccentric, raconteur and one of England’s great ‘Stately Homos’ Quentin Crisp ( played with relish by a young Sir John Hurt) as part of an evening’s celebration of Gold’s work.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion which included some of the most celebrated names in British film and television: the actress Jane Lapotaire, producers Tony Garnett and Sir Jeremy Isaacs , composer and conductor Carl Davis, and Sir John Hurt himself. The evening was chaired by the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington and the clips introduced by Jack Gold himself (with clips from a talk he gave at the Cinema Museum in Kennington shortly before his death), adding an element of poignancy to the proceedings.
Jack Gold’s work is rooted in a key moment of post war British television history, when TV, still fairly fresh out of the blocks after the end of war, offered a new medium ripe for technical experimentation, innovation in representation, in adaptation, documentary making, authenticity and realism, a medium for tackling immediate social issues and concerns and a platform for new, young writers ready to tackle the potential of TV for new types of drama and dramatic writing. This was, famously, the ‘Golden Age ‘ British television which at the time was dominated by the duopoloy of commercial (ITV) and BBC public service broadcasting.
These new creative voices forged a path to success through experimentation in documentary; arts programming; realist, experimental and popular drama. Jack Gold, a somewhat under celebrated voice in British Television, takes his place among this pantheon of programme makers and also next to the two greatest Kens of British Film and TV: the director, left wing fire brand , social realist and documentarian Ken Loach and the ‘enfant terrible’ British cinema, the late Ken Russell whose career began at the BBC making experimental, audacious and controversial documentaries and bio-docudramas for the Beeb’s arts showcase Monitor and in fact Jack Gold shared a number of key production colleagues with both Loach AND Russell.
After a cutting his teeth with a number of documentaries for the Tonight programme from 1960, in ’67, after a gradual transition towards to television drama, he began making films for The Wednesday Play - a televisual platform for new and innovative left wing socially-conscious drama from which emerged some of the most important and influential television dramas of the post war era - the most famous of which, Ken Loach’s searing housing crisis docu-drama Cathy Come Home was produced by Tony Garnett who also produced Gold’s own social realist drama and critique of the unsafe conditions in the building industry The Lump (a clear progenitor of Alan Bleasdale’s seminal 1982 drama series The Boys From The Blackstuff ). Garnett also produced Gold’s adaptation of Brecht’s ^ The Irresistible Rise of Arturo Ui^ (1972) – bringing Brecht to British TV, as the panel pointed out, was a pioneering move.
One of the innovations that Gold shared with Ken Loach was taking the camera out of the studio and onto location, into the street (which according to Jane Lapotaire, during the panel discussion, was something the BBC were reluctant to do – preferring to make the most of the expensive equipment and studios in at the then newly built TV Centre, White City), enlarging the scope of Television’s modes of representation. On The Lump he also shared an editor, Dave King, with Ken Russell – King later went on to edit Russell’s controversial and experimental , avant garde film about the composer Richard Strauss, Dance of the Seven Veils , in 1970 for ^ Omnibus^ . Like Russell, Gold also made a film for Omnibus : The World of Coppard (1967)- adapting three of AE Coppard’s short stories for TV. Director of photography Brian Tufano, who worked on The World of Coppard (the first TV fictional drama to be shot entirely on flm) and whose illustrious career includes films like Trainspotting (1996), East is East (1999), Billy Elliot (2000), Kidulthood (2006), Quadrophenia (1979( and many many more, began his career back in 1966 on Ken Russell’s television biopic/documentary film¸ the masterpiece Isadora, the Biggest Dancer In The World (1966) about the dancer Isadora Duncan – a pioneering film which relocates and draws together in its style, photography, framing, composition, the two mediums of film and television. Tufano also worked on Russell’s Omnibus film Dance of the Seven Veils. Sadly Tufano was due to be part of the BFI Panel discussion but was unable to attend.
In the 1970s Gold began working as a freelance director. For ITV and London Weekend Television he made a number of key, influential dramas including Mad Jack (1970) – an experimental film, written by Tom Clarke, about the WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon and his protest against the destruction and waste of the war; Faith and Henry (1969) – a love story set amongst the increasingly post industrial landscape of Britain and Stockers Copper (1972) – about the 1913 Cornish Clay Miners Strike which bares comparison with Ken Loach’s own Days of Hope from 1975: a documentary realist drama set during the 1926 General Strike and a comment on the industrial unrest of the mid 1970s.
By the late 1960s Gold had also started to turn to the medium of film where he also demonstrated similar social concern: The Bofors Gun (1968); The Reckoning (1970); The Sailors Return (1978, based on David Garnett’s novel, again using Tufano as cinematographer), The National Health (1973) dealt respectively with power, authority and the impotence of ‘the officer class’; the story of a Liverpool businessman whose journey from the Liverpool slums to economic success facilitates a moral decline; immigration and racial tensions – two key post war concerns filtered through an adaptation of a Victorian set novel; and a drama set in a decaying hospital (a metaphor for 70s Britain). In 1978 he directed a supernatural thriller, The Medusa Touch , starring Richard Burton, Lee Remick and Harry Andrews about a man with psychokinetic abilities.
The Naked Civil Servant – Screened at in NFT1 on Monday 25th June 2016; Panel Discussion
On Monday evening, the BFI screened , to a packed out house, Jack Gold’s most famous and lauded work, The Naked Civil Servant (ITV,1975) , his biopic, starring Sir John Hurt, of one of England’s greatest wits and raconteurs, Quentin Crisp.
Born in 1909 at a time when homosexuality was looked upon as an ostracising ‘sexual perversion’ and worse – illegal, Crisp (born Denis Prat) was ‘out’ (and outrageously so) from when he was a boy. The film begins with an introduction from the real (aging) Crisp and then cuts to an image of him as a child dancing and admiring himself in the mirror wearing his mothers clothes. The film was written by Phillip Mackie and based on Crisp’s own autobiography. Clive James famously said of it ‘It’s the best Jack Gold Film...since the last one’ . In 2000 it came fourth in a the BFI list of the top 100 TV programmes of the 20th century (the highest ITV entrant on the list). The film was produced by seasoned producer Verity Lambert ( Doctor Who ) and won Hurt a BAFTA for best actor.
In the panel discussion after the screening Hurt mentioned that Crisp had had little involvement in the production itself, only visiting the set 4 or 5 times. Hurt apparently asked him, if his performance was camp enough to which Crisp replied “You can’t be camp enough dear”. He also said that before Hurt came on board Gold had thought about casting the female impressionist and light entertainment star Danny La Rue in the role!
The script crackles with Crisp(ian) wit. In the final scene of the film as the aging Crisp is accosted by a group of young homophobes who threaten to tell a nearby copper that he molested them unless he gives them a quid each, he responds (with one of Crisp’s most famous lines):
“I defy you to do your worst. It can hardly be my worst. Mine has already and often happened to me. You cannot touch me now. I am one of the stately homos of England!”
It’s a film which resonates today, depicting Crisp as a true pioneer and champion of diversity and gay rights. John Hurt’s performance as Crisp stuns, particularly in a scene in which, dragged up in front of the judge on a trumped up charge of soliciting, Crisp gives the performance of his life, an impassioned plea, duly turning the Judge’s mind and getting the case thrown out. It is interesting to consider if this is a film that could get made today – in a era where were we get our great TV drama from around the globe and where domestic drama has been somewhat subjected to Downtonisation, where England is often presented in the safest, idyllic, and comforting ways. The Naked Civil Servant does not shy away from depicting the nation’s innate homophobia, which is as present today as it was in the 1930s (note for instance the lethal attack on 34 year old David Morely in 2004 close to the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank). It does not flinch from depicting the repression of the era to which Crisp was an antidote and the verbal and physical assaults to which he was subjected and to which he responded in kind, not with fists, but with biting and often savage wit.
One scene towards the start of the film particularly stands out, when sitting with his fellow queens in their favourite West end Cafe, the Black Cat (where earlier Crisp, in a pivotal moment, puts on lipstick for the first time), he is savagely set upon by a group of East End thugs, whispering in the ear to one of them as a punch is delivered ‘Why don’t you sod off back to Hoxton before they find out you’re queer’. Gold’s direction is the epitome of economical and he opens the way for Hurt’s performance to carry the scene. When asked by his repressed Victorian father “Do you intend to spend your entire life admiring yourself?” Crisp responds “If I possibly can”. A self-proclaimed martyr , his flamboyant and theatrical life became a never ending quest to turn heads, to shock and to ‘make them understand’ (as well as a doomed search for a ‘Great dark man’).
London, is depicted, throughout the film as highly repressed space, full of men lurking on dark streets looking for trade: civil servants, bankers, married fathers unable to be open about their sexuality. By contrast however the end of the film is more positive, taking place in the late 1960s, and we see Crisp walking down a London street full of men in drag, gay men, liberal open sexual attitudes and he contemplates his own position in relation to all of this. We see and reflect that it was his refusal to cow tow to the repressive demands of society that helped pave the way for modern, more liberal attitudes to sexuality.
The film has shades of both Ken Russell (who during the 60s and 70s expanded and evolved the biopic format and who, three years later, would make a two part bio drama, Clouds of Glory/Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1978)) on the lives of the Lakes poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, for ITV and Gold’s other contemporary Dennis Potter, who was similarly writing controversial, innovative, boundary pushing television dramas, which frequently also dealt with childhood, sexual repression, violence, social hypocrisy and decline.
There is a scene towards the end of the Gold’s film where Crisp reminisces about the one time he felt truly happy: meeting a group of sailors one starry night on the seafront in Portsmouth. Here he feels total acceptance and friendship for the one and only time in his life. The scene, with its use of music and staged theatricality, reverie and unreality not seem out of place in a Potter drama, or indeed in a film like Russell’s The Boyfriend .
During the panel discussion which followed the screening, the panel talked with affection about Gold on both a personal and professional level and it served as a fantastic introduction for the uninitiated to Gold’s the sheer diversity and breadth of Gold’s work – adaptation, the biopic, social realism, surrealism..and made this writer ponder why his work is, compared to his immediate contemporaries, so under celebrated. Maybe it was because Gold’s own modesty (something that was strongly emphasised in the discussion) and his commitment to his family that kept him out of the limelight. Whatever the reason, the retrospective at the BFI will be instrumental in drawing attention to his work, once again.
Catch the remainder of the season at the BFI Southbank as part of the season A Midas Touch: The TV and Films of Jack Gold which runs until the end of August.
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