Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp

grey Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp

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 the UK.  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 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.

The actual, quasi-existing Crisp, born Dennis 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 improved and made edgier by what I shall call Hoyleian-Hurtian Crisp: I met the per­form­ance artist David Hoyle in the early 80s 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.)

TNCS, both the book and the dram­at­isa­tion, 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 queerbash­ing gang is now almost a cliché, but still has hil­ari­ous force: ‘“If I were you I’d bug­ger off back to Hoxton before they work out you’re queer.” Some toughs are really queer, and some queers are really tough. Crisp’s 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 really 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. Rather 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, over and over again. 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 rather less wit­tily and with less jaunty headgear.

Crisp added that as an effem­in­ate homo­sexual he was imprisoned inside an exquis­ite para­dox, like some kind of 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 any more. Hence the fam­ous, Death-of-God declar­a­tion in TNCS, after many, many mis­haps and mis­recog­ni­tions: ’“There. Is. No. Great. Dark. Man!”’

Strictly 19th cen­tury sex­olo­gic­ally speak­ing, Mr Crisp was prob­ably 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, per­haps rather than express­ing some kind of  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 70s, was prob­ably 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 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 GI’s 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, 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.

But 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 80s 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 him 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 were con­cerned – and rel­at­ively free of the hypo­cris­ies of every­day life.  This sequel sup­posedly 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 the 1960s Crisp, sit­ting in his London bed-sitting room sip­ping an unap­pet­iz­ing powdered drink he takes instead of pre­par­ing food, which he can’t be bothered with, that ‘has all the vit­am­ins and pro­tein I need but tastes awful’ 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 a very good 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. Ultimately 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 why 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 appar­ently jeal­ous of a new gen­er­a­tion of out queers who were steal­ing his limel­ite: he wasn’t the only homo in town any more.

This broad­side was a tad harsh, and Tatchell some­times sounds as if he’s on the Army board that rejec­ted Crisp (while 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 actu­ally 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.

Old Spice: inter­view Crisp gave Andrew Barrow of the Independent a year before his death.

Crispisms

  • 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.
  • You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open coun­try under fire, and drop into your grave.
  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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.

12 thoughts on “Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp

  1. American queers have always had trouble find­ing a niche for Quentin Crisp. In our evan­gel­ical fer­vor to gain equal­ity through mar­riage, of all things, we over­look those who have to live at a dis­tance from con­ven­tional soci­ety to sur­vive. Quentin Crisp was a fine writer who suc­ceeded at his self declared goal of being a truly fas­cin­at­ing per­son. I haven’t seen this film yet but I’ve nearly worn holes in my humble VHS copy of Jonathan Nossiter’s Resident Alien, an affec­tion­ate but unsen­ti­mental por­trait of this fas­cin­at­ing critic and aphorist.

  2. I’ve read about Quentin Crisp, but have never read him! I think you got me hooked in read­ing him!

  3. Well, well well,
    What a lovely art­icle. I must con­fess I was never much of a fan of yours before but I truly enjoyed your words on Mr Crisp.
    I agree with every word you wrote about him, you seem to have a deep under­stand­ing of him– a deep under­stand­ing of any­thing is very rare these days.
    I do wish you would have stuck the boot into that twit Mr Tatchell– he does the homo­sexual world no favors with his ego furled protests ( he makes Bono look sin­cere).
    I expect it’s just jeal­ousy as Crisp has had a cul­tural impact and writ­ten the way for many a pop star (Bowie and Morrissey take a bow) as well as being the nations best “found Object”, admired by people in the “gay” and the “straight”. world– no one in the hetero world could care less about Mr Tatchell– although he does have a good face for radio.
    The truth is, of course, Mr Tatchell is typ­ical of the Gay com­munit­ies reac­tion to any­one who doesn’t want to join their gang.
    Who would want to be “gay” any­way? The gay world is just as played out as the dull blokeish tend­en­cies of the straight world. Homosexual yes, gay no thanks my dear.

    I think Mr James Makers book (if it ever gets released) should be read by any­one who likes Crisp. Where as Morrissey played Crisp as writ­ten– a romantic, witty, invalid on the ram­page (in the early days at least). Maker is a far more “full blooded” approach to life– though not art.

  4. When quentin files his nails at the docu’s end, the moment of his med­it­a­tion is filmed.
    I can’t help but won­der why, with so much man­i­cure care that women con­sume, they don’t use the time to hal­lu­cin­ate as wit­tily as he.
    If only the world’s fantasy of Rudy Valentino’s women were still alive today, I’d be liv­ing the homo­cris­pian fantasy of the het­erotino, end­less romance!

  5. Without a doubt , if Crisp had been placed in Middle America, where I live now, which even British people seem to avoid like chol­era, too say noth­ing of effem­min­ate char­ac­ters, he would have hid­den in the closest box. Individuality is a pox itself.
    Indeed , my guess is that they would have attemp­ted to force a sex change on him the minute he was sized up. He would not find friendly people, not even at the Minneapolis airport.

  6. If you hadn’t done such an excep­tional job of point­ing up the sig­ni­fic­ance of Crisp as that indi­vidual who he was, it wouldn’t be odd. Moreover, it’s my own per­versity in hav­ing watched Hurt so much that it’s “pain­ful” and lik­ing him., that I couldn’t help see­ing his own char­ac­ter pop­ing out all the time.
    Your assess­ment is surely within a crit­ics proper vocabulary.

    I realise,even cur­rently, or espe­cially now that many people get tied into repeata­tive and obsess­ive, fear driven pat­terns, which make them not remarably dif­fer­ent from cattle, chikens or other very simple beasts, how import­ant unique­ness is. I think that if noth­ing else a per­son has a story which makes him dis­tinct and unique from every­one else. Some people get so lost in fol­low­ing the paths set out for them for oth­ers that they never evi­olve their own tale. Crisp was a not­able excep­tion, which you go at pains show­ing; like your­self, I might say.

    I don’t blame Crisp for his excite­ment; I dare say that it was not until I landed in NYC and espe­cially the Village that I thought. “God, life really is worth living-there’s a place for people like me ” .(Of course that was before all of the urban “improvements”)

  7. Mark W: Crisp prob­ably didn’t even know every much about NYC — just the East Village. Likewise, his gen­er­al­isa­tions about the English were prob­ably based on Southern and middle-class English milieu that he came from.

    Yes, it’s more than slightly absurd to sug­gest that Hurt was ‘bet­ter’ at being Crisp than he was, since Crisp was very much an indi­vidual. I sup­pose it just means that I pre­ferred the Hurtian ver­sion. Which is my own indi­vidual perversity.

  8. While I didn’t watch the film, the shorts seem to again indic­ate to me that Hurt was a Hurtian queen, never as prop­erly sub­dued as Crisp. Indeed, it seems to me that American street queens would find Hurt much more regal in demeanor: as a proper (American)queen should be:Haughty and defens­ive. Ms. brown from Tattler could not have been more accur­ate about America.
    I t seems that Quentin was cer­tainly just him­self, the only point of depar­ture from good sense was pos­sibly his gen­er­al­iz­a­tions about America. What he saw as a flamingo, from NYC would have really appeared a mud­hen had he ven­tured far out­side. Even U.S. queens would eat him up. I thought, that his gen­er­al­iz­a­tion about women was strange. In the U.K as far as I can tell people call each other “old boy” equally as much as they address famil­i­ars as “old girl” Probably , In America, Black women and drag queens address men as much as’sweety’ or honey” as much as men address women in that fash­ion. American men still address their oth­ers as ‘the little woman”:something gays may think to take up with their part­ners, or “punkin”, which I can’t ima­gine Quentin con­don­ing.
    Crisp is, non­ethe­less one of the glor­i­ous dying spe­cies, called an indi­vidual, some­thing which no one can really duplic­ate. Maybe , as you say Mark, “to be bet­ter at” is pos­sible in some odd way. But can you ima­gine, someone try­ing to be you? and being bet­ter than you. Sounds odd to me at least. I like the idea of being the very best ver­son of myself, even at my worst.

  9. You never met Morrissey did you ever meet Quentin? My brother used to have him over for din­ner, but I was over here on the west coast by then, sadly.

    I tried to watch the new movie but just couldn’t bear it. I’ve been taken to task over being wont to walkout when I can’t get into some­thing after 20 minutes or so. My response is “life’s too short, espe­cially with AIDS!” That shuts them up. If I can’t get into some­thing within a reas­on­able period of time, bet­ter to try get­ting into some­thing else.

  10. God awfully, won­der­fully dense art­icle, Mark; much of the com­plex­ity comes with the vari­ous over­lap­ping with “American” cul­ture, of course, as you even say it’s New York City that impresses Quentin, not The U.S.
    Just one thing right off , Quentin brings to mind the homo­sexu­als who asso­ci­ate on one level or other of con­scious­ness, their dis­tinc­tion from heterosexuals(their ‘gay­ness’ )with their gender rather than their sexu­al­ity because of their passiv­ity., and are “pur­it­an­ical “due to frus­tra­tion not mor­al­ity as a sep­ar­ate sens­ib­il­ity.
    Relevant to that, while I love Hurt and think he is truly great, I won­der if he might not loss some of Crisp when that sharp wit is not car­ried just on the wave of Crispian ‘passiv­ity, fall­ing out of char­ac­ter with aggress­ive­ness? Sometimes wit’s greatest potency is clear delivered cloaked in passiv­ity.
    Then again, I’m an Amerian, and the lar­ger part of even the U.S., even us homos, never paid much atten­tion to bright people like Quentin: not Lutheran enough, or pur­it­an­ical or just too much himself.

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