›› Against the Law ‹‹

a film by Fergus O'Brien.

2017 | 85 mins | UK.

a moving account of the trial of Peter Wildeblood and its legal repercussions.

Dave says:

Originally screened as the centrepiece of the BBC's Gay Britannia season to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, namely the decriminalization of homosexual acts carried out in private between two men of twenty-one years or over in England and Wales, this engrossing depiction of the noted 1954 Montagu Trial is in many ways a combination of the 2007 dramas A Very British Sex Scandal and Consenting Adults, covering as it does the most headline gay trial since that of Oscar Wilde, to that of Peter Wildeblood's personal testimony in front of the Wolfenden committee, as the only openly gay man willing to testify before them.

Then again, by that time Wildeblood had nothing left to hide, given both the police and the press had gone out of their way to detail every aspect of his sexuality and the sexual acts committed by him behind doors that were meant to be closed to prying eyes. Thus the British public in 1954 would come to be aware of the relationship between airman Eddie McNally (Richard Gadd) and Daily Mail journalist Peter Wildeblood (Daniel Mays), and in turn his friendship with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu (Mark Edel-Hunt) and his second cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers (Joshua Collins). The verdict was but a foregone conclusion, with all three duly convicted of having conspired to incite McNally and others to commit indecent acts during a beach holiday spent as guests on Lord Montagu's estate in the summer of 1952.

Times however were changing, with the authorities having grossly underestimated the views held by an increasingly sympathetic public. Appalled by the severity of the sentence and the fact that such had been secured by two men pressured into turning Queen's evidence to save their own skin, it was clear that the law that made being a practicing homosexual in Great Britain a criminal offence, was out of step with public opinion. Under both pressure and scrutiny, the government of the day was reluctantly forced to set up a Home Office committee to look into the laws relating to homosexual offences and prostitution, under the chairmanship of one John Wolfenden (David Robb), then Vice-Chancellor of Reading University and later life peer Baron Wolfenden of Westcott. The result was the 1957 Wolfenden Report that would come to recommend that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence" albeit with the exception of those serving in the Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy.

Written by Brian Fillis with an acute understanding of the harsh reality of being gay at that time, this production achingly depicts Wildeblood's arrest and subsequent imprisonment and thereafter his sheer determination to right such a draconian law. Backed by solid support from the likes of Paul Keating as flamboyant Fanny, Barney White as Dan; the befriending face in a prison of strangers and Mark Gatiss as Dr. Landers; a man ever happy to cite the barbaric methods of aversion therapy, this work in truth belongs to Mays who excels in the lead role, not afraid to get down to some man-on-man lip-service with his lover, only for their relationship to be brutally torn apart by the authorities and the media of the time. And times that are made all the more real courtesy of a series of recollections from those men, now largely in their twilight years, who lived through a period of institutionalized homophobia and which are intercut throughout this production. To some, this may impede the flow of the narrative. Yet there can be no denying the emotional depth of their words, detailing a harrowing picture of what it was like to live through an era of fear and shame; the shame felt by many for being gay, only for those at ease with their sexuality to live in constant fear of being discovered, knowing that a prison sentence was just a love letter, a tender kiss or even an innocent look away.

Such vivid testimonies speak volumes and none more so than the words spoken by 89-year-old Roger, who as a young man was at the time in a relationship with Jeremy Wolfenden; namely the openly gay son of the chairman of said committee and the out 'n' proud voice within the family, only for the man himself to die two years before the reports' recommendation reached the statute book. Roger, as with all gay men of the period, never thought it possible that the law, let alone public opinion would change to the extent that it has and in an apt postscript to the film, Roger, alongside his lifelong partner Percy commented on having become the first couple in Westminster to form a civil partnership.

Back in 1954 however a civil partnership, let alone marriage between two men was but the stuff that dreams were made of, given the reality of gay life in the '50s was that of living in a shadow world; open to blackmail, bloody beatings and imprisonment. Yet the gay community was united in its determination that homosexuality should be made legal. Peter Wildeblood played his part in forcing the government's hand and deserves our heartfelt gratitude for that. Sadly, it would be another ten years before such became law, only for the homosexual witch-hunts to be enforced even more vindictively by the police thereafter. In short, the 1967 act was in truth just the start of our fight for full sexual equality. But it was a fight that we would eventually win.

›› a BBC2 drama premiere: Wednesday, 26th July, 2017.
/ re-broadcast: BBC4: Monday, 16th August, 2021.
›› available as part of the NETWORK catalogue: 11th September, 2017 / UK.
›› revised: Tuesday, 17th August, 2021.

Gay Visibility - overt | Nudity - bare-arsed cheek | Overall - file under ... 4 stars

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