Charles Dance stars as Jack Wolfenden in this drama by Julian Mitchell which tells the human story behind the so-called Wolfenden report.
Fifty years ago, a Home Office committee chaired by Wolfenden, then vice-chancellor of Reading University, recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality. But behind the scenes of what was to become a turning point in British social history, there was an even more extraordinary story. Jack’s son Jeremy, then a brilliant undergraduate at Oxford, was himself gay, something his father could not bring himself to acknowledge.
From the corridors of power in Whitehall to the squalid public toilets of a Reading park, this is a story of fathers and sons, ambition and prejudice, gentlemen and players. Also starring Sean Biggerstaff, Samantha Bond, Haydn Gwynne and Mel Smith.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b007y9gx/Consenting_Adults/ (sadly only available to the UK, but well worth seeking out on DVD.)
Consenting Adults is a BBC Production which was made in 2007, and for some reason I’ve completely missed until yesterday. Just over an hour long, it’s an absolute must for anyone who has any interest at all in gay history.
It’s a simple enough story–pretty much based entirely on true facts–which relates the reasons for the instigation of the famous “Wolfenden Report” (more correctly known as “Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (1957”)
You’d think that a story of a dry committee, sitting for months and discussing this subject would be incredibly dry as televisual matter, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. As often happens, truth is stranger than fiction and the work done on the report is brought into sharp focus as we discover that Jeremy Wolfenden, the son of John Wolfenden who headed up the report, is homosexual. The relationship between father and son is hugely typical of that time and place – the young man much more confident and striding (or at least on the outside) and desperate for father’s approval and attention–and neither man able even to touch each other in friendship. Wolfenden senior tells Jeremy that he’d better stay away from home while the enquiry is on.
I learned something too–like many many people I’d been pronouncing it homo (as in go go) when it should be pronounced homo (to rhyme with dom-oh) because it’s from the greek which means “same” and not the latin which means “man.” Coo, the things you learn off the telly, eh?
The Report had been commissioned to see if any changes in the law were required, not only in homosexual cases, but in the matter of prostitution, as street prostitution was increasing, causing more people to be arrested, which hit the newspapers, creating moral outrage. With homosexuality, more and more men were being arrested for sodomy, attempted sodomy, public indecency and other acts under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 –which had not been altered since the infamous Labouchere Amendment of 1885–making every homosexual act illegal, in private or no. The Labouchere Amendment had created “A Blackmailers Charter” and because men were turning each other in through fear, or, when they were arrested themselves, their phone books were finding many other men of the same inclination.
It seemed to the public at large that homosexuality was increasing in huge leaps and bounds, whereas it was simply the law, and enthusiastic police regimes which were causing the perceived growth. More and more public figures were thrown into the spotlight, having been arrested for “public indecency.” Oscar Wilde was famously the first, but many others followed, and in the fifties, famous cases were splattered all over the headlines.
In 1953, Sir John Gielgud, was arrested after trying to pick up a man in a public toilet who turned out to be an undercover policeman. He was found guilty of “persistently importuning for immoral purposes.
In 1954, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, then a 28-year-old socialite and the youngest peer in the House of Lords, was jailed for a year, on a charge he has always denied. He was convicted along with the Daily Mail journalist Peter Wildeblood and the Dorset landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers in a sensational case that made headlines around the world. It is thought today that these three arrests, following on from Geilgud’s cottaging scandal,
brought about the instigation of the Report.
(For additional viewing, the tale of Peter Wildeblood and Lord Montagu’s trial is told in a 2007 Channel 4 drama-documentary, A Very British Sex Scandal.)
What I found fascinating was the people who were elected to be on the Report’s Committee. Certainly at first glance, these people seem to be the very worst of those that could have been chosen. MPs, the leader of the Girl Guides, Church leaders, psychiatrists and doctors. If you’d asked me to bet (were I to live in that time) I would certainly have said that the law would have been strengthened, not lessened, but perhaps it goes to show that even I shouldn’t take things on face value.
This committee, despite most of them being revolted by homosexuality, voted almost unanimously (James Adair, former Procurator-Fiscal for Glasgow being the only objectee) to change the law in England and Wales, that as long as homosexual behaviour was behind closed doors, between Consenting Adults (over 21 at the time, although the age of consent was eventually lowered to today’s 16) then it should not be an offence. The law did not take into account the Merchant Navy or the Armed Forces, an oversight that has caused much grief, and one that was only righted very recently.
Sadly, and Laird’s reaction was an omen of this, Scotland and Northern Ireland did not take the crime of homosexuality off their statute books until 1980 and 1982 respectively. And it has to be said – even England did not race to take on board the recommendations of the Report, and it took a good ten years for the recommendations in the Report to become law with the new Sexual Offences Act 1967.
Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, was a startlingly intelligent young man and was approached for recruitment as a spy by the Secret Intelligence Service whilst he was doing his National Service. It is stated in the film that they knew he was “queer” – and it’s more than probable that they did. He eventually accepted their offer and went to Moscow, but his drinking eventually killed him. He was found dead in his bath at the age of 31. It is suspected that he died of suspicious causes, particularly as was playing a dangerous double game between MI6 and the KGB, that he became friends with Guy Burgess (infamous defector and fellow homosexual) whilst in Russia, and that he had been a victim of attempted blackmail after pictures were taken of him in bed with a Russian man.
What is particuarly poignant about the film is that it does not shy away from the fact that prosecutions continued vigourously up to and after the Report. Sodomy could result in life imprisonment, attempted sodomy in ten years. There are two particular stories in the film which show how sad and desperate men’s lives were in the era. Highly recommended.