ITV1 - 28th December 2009 - 9.00pm
As Phillip Steele, the editor of the Christopher Street paper, tries to explain to Quentin in ITV1's superb drama premier, An Englishman In New York, he is an inspiration to a generation of gay men. Like Steele, when I first saw the broadcast of The Naked Civil Servant on Thames on the 17th December 1975, squirming rather embarrassingly in front of my mother and father at the time, I recognised a kindred spirit. That film said 'there are other people like you in the world' and that was good enough for me. The Naked Civil Servant remains a milestone in British television drama and Richard Laxton's sequel, for want of a better word, should quite rightly be praised and remain undiminished next to the original.
Where Jack Gold's film celebrated Quentin's rebellious, almost anarchic, youth and the development of his personality in a hostile world, Laxton's film is centred on a 72 year old Quentin's arrival in New York, his status as resident alien and it does not shy away from his self-created shibboleths of describing AIDS as 'a fad' and the urgent need to be the centre of attention even though ill heath and age seek to prevent it. The fascinating thing about Brian Fillis' script is the way it portrays the self doubt and anxiety of the man as much as it showcases Quentin's beautifully turned bon mots. In a way this is a story of survivor guilt, certainly underlined by the unflattering look at the hedonism of the gay scene in early 1980s New York, the furore over his comment about AIDS, and his overweening sense of pride that prevents him from connecting with friends until age takes its toll and it becomes completely necessary.
'The moment I saw Manhattan, I wanted it,' offers the opening narration. And An Englishman In New York is as much about that remarkable city and its inhabitants as it about Quentin's status as resident alien. This is about his journey into the cultural milieu of the time as well as an exploration of his soul, his brittle Britishness crashing up against an unrepentantly bold New York. As he says to a rapt gay crowd at the end of the film 'look inward and ask not if there is anything outside that you want but whether there is anything inside that you have not yet unpacked'. Whilst Quentin himself unpacks his essential persona slowly through the film, he defiantly stands in the middle of the street, in full display, reveling in the ability to do so openly without doubt and regret. Hilarious phone-ins on a black radio show and one-man theatre shows (for an audience to 'see a doctor who is iller than they are') endear him to New Yorkers until he crash dives off his pedestal when he takes a bon mot too far.
If this is about age, and by the conclusion the effects of it are of huge concern to us all, it's also about differences between generations. The battles for gay liberation may have been won by the time Quentin touches down in New York and he's all but seduced by the glamour of his fame and surroundings to grasp that one of the biggest battles of all started to rage around him in the early 1980s. I'm glad Fillis gets to explore the effect of being 'persona non grata' on Quentin and the queer on queer discrimination in the places he frequents because those generational conflicts are still ongoing within the gay community as well as the continuing struggle with AIDS. We still have to contend with, as Quentin so remarkably puts it, the 'fashionable ghettos' that mark out our progress through society. The doubt and guilt are also beautifully etched on John Hurt's face and that feeling of being 'not wanted on voyage' pulsates and aches from the screen in the middle of this film.
Fillis also touches on an interesting generational view early in the film where at a party Quentin has a conversation with a young, beautiful gay New Yorker. The young man waxes lyrical about the wide range of freedoms available and Quentin puzzles him by admitting, 'if these freedoms had existed when I was young I wouldn't have had the first clue what to do with them.' Laxton holds on the look on Hurt's face and it speaks volumes about his growing realisation that he's no longer in England in 1975 and is somewhat adrift. His tour of a gay bar full of clones is also a very funny exploration of masculine archetypes and appearances and his observations that it is a matter of pretence is insightful and keys into the film's exploration of the construction of private and public personnas.
Quentin's anxiety about his unapologetic attitude towards the AIDS crisis is also tenderly framed in the relationship with artist Patrick Angus. Jonathan Tucker's fragile and sensitive performance as Angus imbues the film with a real heart and there is a suggestion that Quentin had perhaps met a fellow soul on the road to the Emerald City. It's heartbreaking as they discuss the complicated modes of desire for a real man and Angus declares, 'I wouldn't want me'. Angus prefers anonymity in the pursuit of sex and Quentin responds rather succinctly, 'to ensure that you will never meet anyone whom might actually love you'. All Angus wants is someone to love him and there's a frisson hovering in the air between the two men that the potential for that actually exists.
The later scene in the gay bar where he's offered hostility from a man who he happens to be looking at is redolent of the alienating force of casual sex. After all 'there is no great dark man' and as Quentin remarks 'he's a fantasy and a damaging fantasy at that'. It's then that Angus confirms it's too late to start worrying about it. The brittle tenderness displayed by Crisp as he endeavours to get Angus' work successfully shown at a gallery at least uncovers a warm compassion in an era when there was very little of it about. There's a heartbreaking exchange of glances between Crisp and Angus as he sits in a gallery, selling his work to the likes of Hockney, but aware that the spectre of AIDS sits on his shoulder. The look in Jonathan Tucker's eyes would melt the hardest of hearts.
John Hurt inhabits the role again so completely and provides us with a gorgeously witty and deeply moving performance as Quentin. Like Fillis and Laxton, he's unafraid to show the doubt, loneliness, the old age and infirmity of the man beneath the lipstick and mascara. He also slips easily between Quentin in full on performance, the outward vision that delivers the witticisms so effortlessly, and the quieter, more tender moments between him and Patrick or his coffee mornings with editor Phillip in the diner. It's a triumph and Laxton cleverly frames the minutest play of emotions in Hurt's eyes, mouth and expressions thus allowing those images to carry Quentin's complex oscillation between sadness and joy in the film.
As the film glides towards that fateful return to England for one last speaking tour, the division between Quentin as performance art and Quentin as ageing gay man disappears. They become one and the same. But the performer can't let the spotlight go and he gamely soldiers on with Penny Arcade's show. I absolutely loved his definition of postmodernism 'I believe that once there was modernism, then it ended and now there is only decline and decay' and that pretty much sums up the journey from The Naked Civil Servant to the final conversation with Penny at the end of this film. She also efficiently defines the 'me me me' attitudes and ills of modern gay culture (her list of gay commandments are hilarious observations). Hurt is surrounded by excellent performances from Swoozie Kurtz as his agent, Connie Clausen, and from Cynthia Nixon as Penny. Denis O'Hare as Phillip Steele, his constant companion through these battles, holds the whole enterprise together with an understated and delicate portrayal. The moment that Quentin finally calls him by his first name is gorgeously played.
A beautiful little film for television. A heartfelt reminder of the importance of being yourself even when it isn't fashionable to be so.