Acclaimed British actor John Hurt returns to ITV as Quentin Crisp this Christmas in the follow-up 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, to one of British TV’s landmark dramas.
The 90 minute An Englishman in New York is a whirlwind of colour, humour and spectacle as Hurt and director Richard Laxton triumphantly recreate 1970/80’s New York and one of history’s most influential gay figures.
From the outset Hurt says he was “very keen that it had to be shot in New York” and “had to have America actors” to ensure the drama looked and sounded as authentic as possible.
That desire for realism clearly paid off, as Hurt explains: “It was fantastic. People kept recognising me thinking I was Quentin and saying, ‘God I thought he was dead’. I had conversations with people on the side of the road. There was never anything other than a huge amount of love and respect for him. New Yorkers adored him, East Villagers adored him.”
Although the film is a celebration of the UK’s most famous gay men it doesn’t shy away from awkward moments. Crisp suffered a very public backlash when a careless comment during one interview, that AIDS is merely ‘a fad’ resulted in him being vilified in certain quarters of the city’s gay community.
“Quentin was a wit” says Hurt, “And wit by nature and by definition is cruel. So it tends to hit quite hard. When trying to make a witty answer to that particular question, he really hit a duff one. And also one must remember that at that time, there just wasn’t the information on the disease there is today. People weren’t aware of just how dangerous AIDS was; the disease was in its infancy and while there had been a few deaths, I don’t believe that anyone thought it was going to become a world wide pandemic.”
Asked for his take on Crisp’s refusal to apologise, Hurt says: “…my suspicion as to why he never apologised, and it can only be a suspicion, is because he said ‘if I apologise, that makes it seem as though I don’t mean anything I say and I do’ As he says, nobody wants an explanation, the press don’t print explanations they only print apologies.”
Over the years many people have wondered whether Crisp’s public persona was very different from his private one, Hurt suggests “he eliminated the private persona”, adding: “Quentin practiced what he preached. The one thing about Quentin is that he was a philosopher in a sense but what is unusual about Quentin is that he lived his philosophy, unlike Karl Marx for instance.”
Crisp’s legacy includes a wealth of memorable quotes, asked to name his favourite Hurt says: “well there are so many to choose from and of course there are the famous ones or there are the personal ones, but perhaps one that sticks in my mind Would be when I asked him, ‘how are you enjoying New York?’ He said, ‘oh it’s wonderful, in New York three weeks is a meaningful relationship.”
An Englishman in New York, ITV, 28th December 2009