Thursday, 12 July 2007

Serious Serendipity

Serendipity is like a benevolent fairy godmother for many a gay man looking for his roots. The fact that our history as a group has been so carefully hidden and pushed into the proverbial closet for so long makes any new discovery like a victory, even if that very discovery has been and will be made over and over by fellow solitary travellers.

I had such moment of serendipity earlier this week, itself the result of another such moment for someone else. A Friend of mine with an interest in theatre and cinema brought my attention to a BBC Radio 2 which had delivered to him more than the original unpromising expected few comments about a certain film. The programme, about the evolution of the representation of sexual moors in British cinema, included some un-trailed remarks about a few moments of cinematographic LGBT history which my friend thought worth sharing.

DVD jacket of VictimThe programme of course mentioned the well known film Victim which was released in 1961. The film was quite a risky career move for its star, Dirk Bogarde, then at the pinnacle of his art. This depiction of a respectable lawyer risking his life and reputation to unmask an unscrupulous blackmailer is often credited for having helped the change of mentality started in 1957 by the release of the Wolfenden Report which would lead to the partial decriminalisation of sexual acts between men in 1967. It is also hailed as the first positive representation of a gay character in British cinema.

If first heard of the film about 3 years ago by chance (serendipity again) while listening to an interview of Sylvia Syms (who plays Bogarde's character's wife) on Radio 4's Front Row to mark a retrospective of her career at what was still the National Film Theatre (NFT). The programme mentioned the film, what it was about and that it was being shown that same night at the NFT. I had recently moved to my current home which is located very close to the South Bank where the NFT is. I grabbed my chance and made a dash for it, something which would have been futile to attempt only a few months earlier when I lived further out. I made it in time and was able to enjoy the film which not only was good and moving but also clearly an important landmark for gay history.

In addition to Victim, the Radio 2 programme mentioned above made reference to another film released in 1959. The film is Serious Charge of which I had never heard of before. The film was released a Touch of Hell in the US in 1960. Directed by Terrence Young, it tells how an unmarried vicar in a new parish, Reverend Philips, (Anthony Quayle) accuses a local youth of being partially responsible for the death of a teenage girl. In defiance, the young man claims the vicar molested him. His story is backed up by a local woman (Sarah Churchill), vexed that the vicar rejected her advances. I searched the Internet to try and found more about this film and impulsively decided to buy a cheapish copy.

I watched the film last night. What a strange idea for a film! The fact that it is now presented and packaged as Cliff Richard's first appearance in a film (which probably saved the thing from total oblivion and allowed me to find it on DVD I guess) makes it even weirder. Also featured is the second daughter of Winston Churchill.

The film has this empty small-town feel you find in 1950's British films. The performances are really quite good despite a rather unfocused, drawn out and sometimes unrealistic plot. There are long and slightly pointless sequences of exposition showing the group of local "juvenile delinquents" which is led by the future accuser although you should probably remember that what we now call youth culture was only just out of diapers and therefore probably still fairly exotic.

In 1959, homosexuality was still illegal, yet once the accusation of sexual assault by the vicar becomes public knowledge, the local constable does not pay a visit to the man, unlike the hire of the righteous inhabitant of the village which is visited upon our man of the cloth through ostracisation, stones thrown through windows and anonymous letters. In the end, however and probably quite unlike the reality of the time for other men accused of homosexuality, everything ends well as the truth is finally victorious.

DVD jacket of Serious ChargeThe film is an early and tentative foray down the ill-lit alley later explored by Victim but it is also quite different. Reverend Philips, the main character, is for a start not homosexual, unlike Melville Farr in Victim. This meant that audiences could empathise with the hero in good conscience. Homosexuality seems little more than a plot device and the fact that it is homosexuality that we are talking about doesn't seem to matter much other than that if the producers were out to denounce parochial prejudice, this was probably what would be likely to generate the most violent reactions. The reactions remained pretty tame but the film was still given a "X" certificate thereby restricting even more what must have been an already limited constituency.

In the end, it is not very clear what point the makers wanted to make with this film. It is however a departure from the hitherto standard depiction of gay characters who were usually killers and psychopaths. Something for which the film must be lauded. In Serious Charge, audience members were offered an opportunity. They would require little effort, should they want to, to view Philips as really gay and therefore as a victim of society and from then start sympathising with his predicament.

In 1960, The Trials of Oscar Wilde was released. I haven't seen the film and don't know much about it but Oscar Wilde's story can certainly be viewed as that of a victim, a martyr, some would say. This theme of victimhood epitomised in the title of the third film on the subject released at the time is the result of the new attitude towards homosexuality heralded by the Wolfenden Report. The report recommended that homosexuals should not be considered as criminals any more but rather safeguarded "against exploitation and corruption".

From monsters, they (we) had become victims and from then on, gay characters made regular if sporadic appearances on British screens along with other social rejects (more about this here). The representation of gay people in film followed closely the level of acceptance they received from society as a whole.

In my view, Serious Charge is not as good a film as Victim but it remains an interesting period piece and a document of its time; a time when the light was just about starting to shine at the end of the dark tunnel of discrimination.

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