‘An Englishman In New York’ – review

Yet again I leave the diary unchanged for days on end, then come back with an entry that’s far too long. Apologies.


One of my favourite and certainly unexpected Christmas presents was an advance DVD of the new Quentin Crisp film, ‘An Englishman In New York’. I’m extremely grateful to the kind person in question, who worked on the production and thought of me. They did try to get me IN the film itself, lurking in the background. This didn’t happen, but as a Crisp fan I’m more than happy with being able to see the finished product so soon. They’ve asked me to hold off from writing about the film until now. It’s just had its official premiere at the Berlinale film festival, and will be on ITV in the Spring.

So: ‘An Englishman In New York’ is both a biopic and a sequel. It follows ‘The Naked Civil Servant’, the 1975 ITV movie that dramatised the incredible life of Quentin Crisp, the Soho dandy, wit, artist’s model and unabashed lifelong ‘visible’ homosexual. It showed him – and the changing face of London –  from the age of 20 in 1928, through to what was then the present day. At the end a 67-year-old Mr Crisp walks through 70s Chelsea and muses on how the fashions of the day have finally caught up with him: men with long hair, beads, flamboyant shirts with big collars, flares and so on. ‘Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day…’

As Crisp noted, the film originally went out at a time when there were only two other TV channels.  BBC2 was usually a repository for the Open University or darts (when it was transmitting at all), while BBC1 – ‘the other side’ – would have been showing the Nine O’Clock News. So one has to remember that pretty much everyone who was spending an evening in with the TV that night in 1975, and who didn’t fancy the news, would have seen ‘The Naked Civil Servant’.

‘If it had been a cinema film,’ reasoned Crisp, ‘the only people who would have gone to see it would have been gay men… Oh, and liberals wishing to be seen going into and coming out of the cinema.’

Given such mainstream attention, ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ changed the life of its subject overnight. Crisp became nationally famous, a regular on TV chat shows. His one man stage show – in which he doled out his advice on life like a Wildean self-help guru – became his day job.

But it also changed the life of the actor who portrayed him, John Hurt. So much so that Crisp would say Hurt was still playing variations on the Crisp role for years afterwards. ‘The Elephant Man was merely me with a bag over my head.’

There’s a great moment in the 1990 documentary Resident Alien, where Hurt catches up with Crisp at his New York bedsit, and asks him about this.

Hurt: You said I was just playing versions of you.
Crisp: You play victims.
Hurt: But I wouldn’t necessarily call you a victim.
Crisp: Oh, but I CLAIM to be a victim…
Hurt: How so?
Crisp: Because I am at the mercy of the world…
Hurt: (laughs) Aren’t we all?

(It’s too easy to just go on quoting QC – so many gems)

Now Mr Hurt has returned to take up the part once more, covering the NYC era of Crisp’s life from the late 70s to his death in 1999. And fittingly it’s another ITV movie.

‘An Englishman In New York’ takes its title from the 80s hit about him, by the artist Crisp referred to as ‘Mr Sting’. And though the lion’s share of the film is indeed set in New York, there’s a few London scenes at the start showing the one most abiding aspect of how overnight fame affected his life in Britain.

We see him answering the phone in his Chelsea bedsit.

Crisp (voice over): My lifelong tormentors now had a name to go on.

Man on phone: Is this Quentin Crisp?
Crisp Yeeeeeeesss…?
Man: You dirty poof. I’m going to smash your f—ing face in.
Crisp: Do you wish to make an appointment?
Man: What?
Crisp: I have some time on Tuesday afternoon if that is convenient for you.


In the UK, suggests the film, fame is resented. Celebrities are punchbags, then as now. Certainly, interminable BBC3 programmes like ‘The 100 Most Irritating Celebrities’  – a six hour long show that went out last Christmas – would bear this out.

As soon as Crisp gets to New York, of course, the disco music plays, people smile and compliment him as he goes by, and he’s in a kind of heaven. He is granted Resident Alien status, moves into the Lower East Side, and spends his days Being Quentin Crisp professionally, delivering quips and aphorisms in his local diner, or at parties, or at his stage show.

That’s pretty much the real life tale in a nutshell. It’s a film that starts with a happy ending. There’s no conflict or journey or quest or antagonist, unless you count getting old itself. So rather understandably the script lunges for incidents of dilemma.

There’s the accusations of him being a kind of gay Uncle Tom figure, accused of ‘playing to the straights’ by Angry Gay Man 1 in one of his audiences. There’s his comment that ‘AIDS is merely a fad’ leading to him being cornered by Angry Gay Man 2 in an alley. The film uses these episodes to get under the Crisp skin, with a Boswell-style character at his side, Mr Steele, forever in a state of frustration. He knows there’s a Public Crisp, all sweeping statements and droll misanthropy – a kind of Grumpy Old Queen – as well as a Private Crisp, who is compassionate, kind and generous, who sends off cheques to AIDS charities.

And somewhere in the middle the story takes a complete detour to focus on the struggling artist Patrick Angus, who Crisp does his best to help. Again, the film thinks it needs to lunge for a message, ie ‘He Was Different In Private’. It’s pertinent that the script is by the writer of ‘The Curse Of Steptoe And Son’.

But sometimes you don’t watch a biopic to see years of untidy facts corralled into suspiciously convenient arcs of conflict and pathos. Dramas needn’t always be dramatic. If there’s no plot, you shouldn’t force one.  It’s perfectly okay to just want to spend time with the characters. Movies (and novels) can be like dinner parties. And that’s fine. That’s more than enough.

You come for  – and get – John Hurt returning to play Quentin Crisp, saying all the funny and wise and witty things Crisp said. You also get Miranda out of Sex and the City, visibly enjoying herself as the performance artist Penny Arcade.

You also get a wonderful recreation of a scene in the 1992 film Orlando, with Hurt playing Crisp playing Queen Elizabeth 1st (and a non-speaking actress playing Tilda Swinton playing Orlando as a young man – wish that had been me…).

And you get this marvellous line as a 90-year-old Crisp sits in his filthy NYC room (which you can almost smell):

‘He who famously said ‘after the first four years the dust doesn’t get any worse’… He was wrong! The dust took its AWFUL revenge…’

Tags: , ,