I watched A Very British Sex Scandal
last night — it’s a great docu-drama made in 2007 about the Wolfenden Report
and the Montagu Affair, largely following Peter Wildeblood
. The Montagu Affair was a very high profile case in the 1950s in which three men were tried for “homosexual acts” — it’s credited with helping to change public opinion and, eventually, the law. Wildeblood was one of the men tried.
I strongly recommend the film. The docu bit is fascinating — the contributors are queer men born in the 20s and 30s who watched this all play out, including, rather amazingly, Lord Montagu himself.
The drama bit is sweet, compelling, understated, and doesn’t take too many liberties. I was also particularly touched by the context-setting voiceover, which provided us with such gems as, “In 1952 The Daily Mail was a serious establishment newspaper. Its opinions were highly respectable.”
After watching the film, I immediately bought Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law
, first published in 1959, which is largely about Wildeblood’s experiences of being gay, the Montagu Affair, and Wildeblood’s subsequent time in prison. In it he argues equally hard for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and for penal reform in general. It’s reckoned to be the first sympathetic book about male homosexuality to reach a wide audience in Britain.
It’s hard to overstate how brilliant and brave this book is, and I would have loved it for that no matter how it was written — but it’s also such a clear, spare, honest, witty, engaging piece of writing, one that leaves me feeling both in breathless awe of this hero of a man and, at the same time, like it’s only an accident of space and time that we aren’t friends. When I finished it, I missed him.
Yes, so, I fucking love this book and I recommend it even more strongly than the docu-drama. (I think there’s a new docu-drama coming out pretty soon, actually, called Against the Law
? AVBSS was made for the 40th anniversary of decriminalisation, and AtL is for the 50th anniversary. So if you’re only going to watch the one docu-drama, you’ll soon have a choice.)
My version has an intro written by Matthew Parris which I liked a lot and found very interesting but at the same time ended up disagreeing with quite strongly in places. (Which is, tbf, my normal reaction to Matthew Parris.) If you get the same version, I’d suggest not reading the intro until after you’ve read the book itself.
I also wanted to share with you the absolute gut punch I got when reading the very opening paragraph of the book.
Sometimes, when a man is dying, he directs that his body shall be given to the doctors, so that the causes of his suffering and death may be investigated, and the knowledge used to help others. I cannot give my body yet; only my heart and my mind, and trust that by this gift I can give some hope and courage to other men like myself, and to the rest of the world some understanding.
It’s. I don’t know. I read that, and I was struck by how very different it was from David Wojnarowicz’s If I die of AIDS - forget burial - just drop my body on the steps of the FDA
— but at the same time, by how strong the thread is that connects them.