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.
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 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.)
The Naked Civil Servant, 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 queer bashing 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.” As the silent-movie intertitle (used throughout for key Crispian aphorisms) has it:
“Some roughs are really queer, and some queers are really rough.”
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 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 sans 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 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 GI’s in London during the Second World War, no wonder he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
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 he takes instead of preparing food which “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 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. And 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 have a hunch 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. Here’s how. 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
1970 interview with Quentin Crisp in his London bedsit.
“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.“
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.
I’ve read about Quentin Crisp, but have never read him! I think you got me hooked in reading him!
of course I meant “ego Fueled”- blasted spell checker
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.
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!
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.
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”)
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.
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.
No, never met Quent either. You came much closer than I ever did.
You were quite right to walk out.
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.
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.