50 Years Legal ****
Featuring: Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Olly Alexander, Stephen K. Amos, Marc Almond, Simon Callow, Julian Clary, Angela Eagle, Elton John, Matt Lucas, Peter Tatchell, Will Young, David Hockney
Director: Simon Napier-Bell
50 Years Legal was released on DVD last week by Peccadillo Pictures. A retrospective documentary created to coincide with last year’s fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, it was directed by legendary music producer Simon Napier-Bell, the man behind T-Rex, Ultravox, Boney M, Wham! and even Sinitta. Featuring some of the UK’s most famous LGBT faces, these talking heads give personal accounts from the worlds of politics and entertainment alongside historical footage and commentary.
Starting with early famous cases of gay men convicted for homosexuality, such as Peter Wildeblood, the documentary covers the resulting Wolfenden Report in 1957 and the subsequent parliamentary move toward the decriminalisation of sex between two consenting men over the age of 21. The film adeptly explains the reality of the move, however. Due to this change in the law it became easier for people to be convicted of “gross indecency” as the law had been clarified. Even though two men over the age of 21 could have sex behind closed doors, the solicitation of sex, even just through kissing in public, holding hands or chatting someone up, was illegal. And the entrapment of young gay men over 16 but under 21 became a favourite pastime of police.
Many of the film’s contributors came of age during this period and their personal accounts of living double lives have profound resonance alongside this fact-based timeline. Similarly, the depiction of the UK press’ ridiculing reaction to the Stonewall Riots in the US is also interesting as this continuing homophobia is something rarely explored on screen, with the film placing great emphasis on how slow the progression toward tolerance really was. The narrative follows through the emergence of Soho as a centre for LGBT People in London, the first UK Pride march and the first appearances of LGBT characters on screen and in music. It picks up on Dirk Bogarde’s Victim, The Killing Of Sister George, Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Naked Civil Servant, as well as David Bowie’s coming out, Dusty Springfield, Marc Bolan, Soft Cell, Erasure, Boy George and even Beatles manager Brian Epstein. The director’s musical pedigree is highly visible at this point, but it is arguably quite relevant to explore pop culture’s depiction of LGBT people alongside the political advances as the cultural changes did just as much to change attitudes throughout the 20th century as did the painfully slow advancement of the wheels of UK lawmakers. In fact, the fact that Margaret Thatcher brought about the implementation of Section 28 when all this had come before just goes to show just how behind the times politicians were, which is shown very evidently in this film.
On the flip-side toward this cultural progress, however, is of course is the AIDS Crisis, which is depicted interestingly as being a relatively American phenomena until the mid 1980s. This is symptomatic of much of the facets in this documentary, which gives a uniquely British spin on LGBT History, which is usually told on screen from a US-centric angle. Although it doesn’t ignore Stonewall and similar key US moments, the film puts specific focus on the events that directly affected British people rather than the wider international LGBT Community. The gravity of the AIDS Crisis is framed within UK terms, while Section 28 and the tragic story of Premier League footballer Justin Fashanu dominate the depiction of 90s LGBT Britain.
Bringing the film up-to-date, we see the legalisation of same-sex civil partnerships and then marriage, as well as the repealing of Section 28 in 2000. It looks at advances for the Trans* Community too as well as its enduring problems before the film concludes with a talk from Ian McKellen. He talks in detail about a brutal homophobic attack that happened in London a few years before. While he acknowledges all the advances of the last fifty years, he – and subsequently the film – refocuses the continuing fight for LGBT equality on tackling the source of homophobia. He asks what could make a person believe that to kill a person because they simply don’t like their sexuality, even now, fifty years on. And this is the message the film leaves us with: we should celebrate how far we’ve come but not rest easy until the source of this prejudice has been eliminated.
This is a very competent and enjoyable documentary that entertains as well as educates. A really interesting summary of the last fifty years, the film acts as a brilliant starting block that will find you poised to get lost in a Wikipedia-loop. Prepare to pause it, Google it and research more. The film is annoyingly London-centric (there is no mention of LGBT Communities outside London whatsoever – not even Manchester or Brighton), but despite this, if you have any interest in UK LGBT History, then this is definitely the film for you.