TV Review: A Very British Sex Scandal

“Do you think that homosexuality between 2 consenting males should be a criminal act”

A Very British Sex Scandal was a docu-drama that aired in 2007 on Channel 4. I watched it at the time and it has stuck with me ever since, a devastatingly powerful piece of film-making and a pertinent reminder of the struggles and battles that others fought in order for gay people to live in a more equal society today. Written and directed by Patrick Reams, it centres on the mid-1950s trial of several well-known men arrested for gross indecency and buggery which proved to be a landmark moment in solidifying public opinion against such legislation, stemming the virulently anti-homosexual political establishment and eventually leading to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in Britain.

The film is a combination of dramatisations of key moments and events from the story interspersed with a set of interviews with gay men who were alive at the time. The mix is a good one: initially it is a roughly even mixture of the two, full of scene-setting shots in the drama but also providing much context of the realities of being a practising homosexual man in this era. These contributions are often eye-openingly frank and disturbingly brutal, it’s hard to think that it really wasn’t so long ago but this was just what life was like. 

Tis often the way of these things now, that the cast turns out to be retrospectively familiar. And so it is Martin Hutson who takes on the key role of the pioneering Peter Wildeblood, really quite moving in his almost disbelieving joy at finding a deep romantic love with RAF man Edward McNally, played with a handsome naïveté by Sam Heughan, but all too aware of the precariousness of the whole situation. He even makes you feel sympathy for a Daily Mail reporter, for that it is his job and as the film progresses, there’s more of the drama than the interviews but it is carefully calibrated to ensure that it is never less than essential. 

When the vital moment in court comes, that eventually tips the balance and sets off the domino chain of events, it is truly spine-tingling. Though lightly played here, there is no mistaking the huge import of the moment, the weighty significance of what has happened, the immense bravery committed by Wildeblood who held onto his principles despite the considerable personal cost. The contribution that follows from a man who tearfully wished he could have been as brave is simply heart- thing, I just wanted to hug him and remind him that hindsight is a wonderful thing. A Very British Sex Scandal may not always be the easiest watch but its message is ultimately so uplifting that it ought to be compulsory viewing and you can watch it now on YouTube.

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