Did we like it?
A superbly acted, engrossing drama based on the real-life circumstances that led up to the legalisation of homosexuality, yet at times it savoured its own moral piety a little too much and some of the dialogue sounded like mechanical adversarial exposition.
What was good about it?
• The acting, especially Charles Dance as John Wolfenden, the man chosen to head the inquiry into prostitution and homosexuality, and Sean Biggerstaff as his “queer” son Jeremy. While the relationship between them was quite the usual for a drama – a schism between father and son resolved through the father having his bigoted blinkers removed – what made this so much more than just a prop with which to act as a microcosm of the debate in Britain on the legality of homosexuality was the passion and subtlety of the performances.
• While the warring roles is an obvious metaphor of post-war English stuffiness and reserve against the threat of the liberal attitudes of the 60s, the contrast between Dance’s brooding John, who slowly but surely has his eyes opened on the twilight world of cottaging and buggery, and his fitfully brilliant son whose own sexual dalliances are restrained by his inherent loyalty to his father as he chairs the inquiry.
• Jeremy’s energy is also apparent in his twitchy and agitated antics which are distinct from his father’s measured stoicism or his mother knitting quietly in the parlour with a cardigan around her shoulders. While when he stumbles drunkenly into a meeting at Oxford University the only movements the static panel make are to applaud his philosophy paper.
• The manner in which politicians seek to satiate their instinctive bigotry of anything they decree as deviant, such as homosexuality, through fallacious altruism was as true half a century ago as it is today. John attempts to justify keeping the ban to “protect the young from harm”.
• When Jeremy is sought out by the secret services for recruitment to Moscow where he hopes to be posted as a journalist, he is told that he would make a good spy as “without family ties queers can devote themselves to the service”, not to mention being well-practised at furtive activities.
• Although acting as an artificial window into the real world away from the zenith of Britain’s social elite, the sub-plot of Parker and Bullard worked well as a tragedy in its own right.
What was bad about it?
• There’s something indefinably alienating about watching the events of historical drama unfold from the lofty perspective of the ruling classes. Perhaps it’s the way men sit in armchairs, legs firmly crossed, a book being caressed with lilywhite hand with pinpricking white fingers while the whole scene is bleached further by the evening sunlight. And they all hold cigarettes halfway up the butt and exhale enough smoke to cause passing ships to run aground from lips irreparably curved from issuing orders to control the whole country.
• It sometimes resembles watching a gigantic conflict unfold from the safety of the generals’ pavilion situated atop a high peak, with the infrequent dispatches into the murkier world of the working classes, epitomised by Bullard and Parker, mere lip service and tokenism.
• The rather simplistic device whereby everyone in favour of the legalisation of homosexuality was portrayed sympathetically, whereas those against it were uniformly paraded as conniving bigots, such as Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe (Mel Smith) who noted that the inquiry might “set those bum boys off my case for a year or two”.
• The awful dialogue in the cottaging scene that may be been excused (or even lauded for its accuracy) in the nascent era of Carry On films. “That’s a nice one!” says an admirer to Parker at the urinal. “I can’t be long,” warns the ruffled Parker. “You look long enough for me,” comes the reply.
• As it was based on real life events, we learned that Jeremy didn’t have a very happy ending, dying of suspected liver failure aged 31.