Quentin Crisp and Hurtian Crisp

grey Quentin Crisp and 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.

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