Victim: Brave and Bitter
It’s not often that a film or TV programme has a direct, measurable political impact, and perhaps today, with the sheer volume of audio-visual content coming at us from all directions, it can’t happen. But once upon a time it could, and here in Britain we have two celebrated examples from the ‘60s: the Tony Garnett / Ken Loach 1966 TV play Cathy Come Home highlighted the reality of homelessness and helped launch the charity Shelter; and the Basil Dearden / Michael Relph 1961 film Victim helped pave the way for the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Given the attitudes prevalent at the time, it wasn’t an easy film to get made. For a dramatic treatment of its gestation, focussing on the complex relations and negotiations between writer, producer, director, lead actor, and the censors - listen in to Sarah Wooley’s brilliant radio play, available on BBC i-player at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08xcqwp.
When I went to catch Victim at the National Film Theatre a couple of days ago I hadn’t seen it for years, and was probably expecting it to feel a bit hackneyed. Far from it: it’s unsentimental, brave and bitter, narratively tight, beautifully shot, impressive cinema. It manages to work simultaneously as social commentary and police thriller – and also for us, beyond the original intentions of the filmmakers, as London documentary.
Ever since the film was released, Dirk Bogarde’s courage in taking the leading role, at a time when homosexuality was illegal and gay men routinely abused, harassed and arrested, has been celebrated. Quite right too. But it seems to me that the same applies to other members of the cast who contributed to this first mainstream cinematic portrayal of London’s gay sub-culture: Norman Bird, Donald Churchill, Peter Copley, Hilton Edwards, Peter McEnery, Anthony Nicholls, Charles Lloyd Pack, Dennis Price, Nigel Stock … And Derren Nesbitt who plays the blackmailer, in one of his many thug / crook/ bad boy roles, also deserves our respect; as Mark Duguid points out in his BFI Screenonline piece at http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/444107/index.html - the gay-baiting Nesbitt character is “slyly coded” as gay himself.
Finally, there is the film’s incidental documentary value. Much of it was shot on location in and around London, presumably in the autumn/winter of 1960-61. To contemporary cinema audiences the exterior scenes were nothing special: a building site, streets, cars, shops, pubs. And I suspect this was the filmmakers’ intention: to present an unremarkable backdrop of ‘normal’ life as a counterpoint to the hidden presence within it of an embattled gay community, fearfully keeping its head down.
For London obsessives like me, however, these scenes from 56 years ago are a treat. The building site used for the opening sequence was somewhere close to Westminster Cathedral, and I suspect this became the shops along the south side of Victoria Street. Later in the film there’s an encounter on Grosvenor Road looking across the river to Battersea Power Station chugging away on the south bank, its four chimneys stark against the sky, with no hint of the ghastly glass and cladding which hem it in today.
On the other hand, the scenes on Chelsea Embankment, and Charing Cross Road / Cecil’s Court / St. Martin’s Lane, are remarkable for showing how little has changed. You could re-shoot the police stake-out on the steps of the ENO tomorrow and it would look just the same – so long as you get your hands on some retro coppers’ macs and trilbies.
The History Project has conducted two interviews with people directly involved in the making of Victim – producer Michael Relph, and sound recordist Gordon McCallum. Unfortunately neither has yet been digitised so they are not available on the website. However a transcript of the Gordon McCallum interview can be found at http://historyproject.org.uk/content/0058. Also, the film’s cinematographer Otto Heller is mentioned in the interviews with Cedric Dawe, Freddie Francis, and Robert Beatty.
30th July 2017