Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Against the Law/ Top of the Lake: China Girl

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Against the Law/ Top of the Lake: China Girl

Article excerpt

As you may have spotted, the BBC is marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality with an extended gay season. (And if you haven't, I can only assume you've seen and heard no BBC trailers for months.) The centrepiece this week was Against the Law (BBC2, Wednesday), which dramatised the story of Peter Wildeblood, a Daily Mail journalist imprisoned for 18 months in 1954 for the possibly overlapping crimes of buggery and gross indecency. But -- double entendre alert -- Wildeblood didn't take this lying down. After his release, he published a book making the case for legalisation.

In the central role, Daniel Mays captured Wildeblood's reluctant journey into the spotlight perfectly: his touching nervousness before going into a gay pub; his sense of wonder when he bagged himself a RAF corporal; his feelings of betrayal and humiliation when the corporal in question was coerced by the police to testify against him in return for indemnity.

But even more striking was, of course, the piercing reminder of the almost unimaginably different Britain of not so long ago. Dramas set in the recent past that carry the message, 'look how much better we are now', can often end up seeming unfair and irritating. In this case, though, there's really no denying that we are.

And should anybody have been tempted to disagree, the programme also interspersed the drama with the memories of several elderly gay gents. At first, it looked as if their contributions, while affecting in themselves, might get in the way of the main action. In the event, they served, very effectively, as a kind of Greek chorus, making Wildeblood's story even more resonant.

One old boy, for example, recalled that, like that RAF corporal, he'd been promised leniency if he shopped a former partner -- and that when he did, the man killed himself. ('Something I've had to live with for 60 years,' he added with a break in his voice.) Another explained how pleased he was with the government's choice of Lord Wolfenden to investigate the possibility of legalisation -- because 'as it happened, I was having an affair with his son Jeremy'.

The programme was also honest enough to acknowledge that even Wildeblood never quite achieved 21st-century levels of virtue. Appearing before Wolfenden's committee, he explained that he was seeking tolerance not for 'the effeminate creatures who love to make an exhibition of themselves' but 'for men like us' who want to live decently 'despite their tragic disability'. …

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