During July and August, 2017, the British Film Institute hosted a two-month season of LGBT+ cinema to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act.
‘Gross Indecency: Queer Lives Before and After the ’67 Act’, look edat the decade before and after homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales. Starting with the Wolfenden Report in 1957 and going through to the onset of the AIDS crisis in 1977, it shone a spotlight on the LGBT+ community during that time.
Part of the season included ‘Queerama’, which is a documentary created using historical footage held by the BFI National Archive. It traced gay life in Britain from the end of the First World War and throughout the 20th Century, backed by a soundtrack including John Grant, Goldfrapp and Hercules & Love Affair.
There was also be special previews of BBC documentary ‘The People’s History of LGBT+’, as well as new drama ‘The Man in the Orange Shirt’.
The first part of the season – which ran through July – focused on the run-up to the Sexual Offences Act, with cinematic milestone ‘Victim’ (1961) being one of the main draws.
It was shown alongside one of the UK’s earliest surviving gay TV dramas, ‘South’, which starred PETER as Lieutenant Jan Wicziewsky.
PETER took part in a special Q&A after a screening of the drama on 3rd July.
But the season was launched with a screening of On Trial: Sir Roger Casement (Granada Television, 1960), also starring PETER, which is a dramatic retelling of one of the most gripping legal trials in British queer history.
Other screenings included ‘Consenting Adults 1: The Men’ and ‘Consenting Adults 2: The Women’ (BBC, 1967), ‘The World Ten Times Over’ (Wolf Rilla, 1963) and a story of ‘Romeo and Romeo in the south London suburbs’, ‘The Leather Boys’ (Sidney J Furie, 1964). For the second part of the season in August – which focuses on the decade after the Sexual Offences Act was passed – ‘The Killing of Sister George’ (Robert Aldrich, 1968) and ‘Staircase’ (Stanley Donen, 1969) was shown, along with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (John Schlesinger, 1971).
Transcript of Peter’s Q & A
How did you get the part?
I can’t remember as it was so long ago. However, I do recall wickedly agreeing with director, Mario Prizek, who is now an executive producer on the splendid series, ‘NCIS’, that we not tell Graydon Gould, who played Eric McClure, that he was fighting a duel with someone who was in love with him; but that the duel was over his fiancé. How we got away with it is obscure, but we did manage it.
Graydon was totally heterosexual, and had actually expressed some mildly anti-gay feelings. Of course he read the script, but Mario somehow managed to put over to him the idea of what it really was – a Greek Tragedy. At that time, no actor would dream of playing a poof; the fear was being associated with homosexuality – in spite of Hollywood insisting that every British actor was gay.
I was asked after the play was shown if I was a poofter, and I provided them the answer given by the French heartthrob, Alain Delon, after he was asked if he was gay: “We are all gay, are we not?” But then he was French, not British or American, so he got away with it!
It was a real ordeal at the time, as Graydon kept asking questions which were very
difficult for Mario to deal with. For example, he asked why my character – Jan Wicziewsky – would allow himself to be killed when a cut, given the circumstances, would suffice. Mario couldn’t tell him that it was meant to be symbolic of penetration; otherwise he’d have walked off the set!
Mario had offered the part to a number of actors with the script in its original form, but had been repeatedly turned down; ‘playing a poof – and on the telly? You must be joking! No! Never!’
The play was broadcast on 24th November, 1959. Can you tell us a little about your career before that point?
I’d done numerous plays, both on TV and the stage, including playing Sydney Carton in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’; Isambard Kingdom Brunel in ‘Engineer Extraordinary’, for which all the engineering calculations and mathematical equations had to be written out for me and distributed about the sound stage, because I’m completely innumerate. And Petruchio in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at The Bristol Old Vic.
I’d also played de Levis in ‘The Light Is Dark Enough’ – a long verse play – with Dame Edith Evans, who was probably the greatest actress on the British stage. She confided in me afterwards that she’d particularly asked for me, because she’d never acted for TV before and she wanted me to point out where all the cameras where, and to tell her where to look.
I recall a mad incident whilst we were doing that particular play. In one scene, I was to do my final speech standing next to a Palladian pillar, which we’d decided I was to speak very softly. Because it was going out live, a stagehand was to move the pillar the moment I’d finished and set it up with the other used scenery. However, because I was speaking so quietly, he thought I’d actually come to the end of the dialogue and moved the pillar from behind me.
Suddenly, I was made aware that there was a taxi waiting for me, as I’d booked a flight to New York to see the opening night of ‘Look Back In Anger’ on Broadway, I was whisked across the studio at breakneck speed and out to the cab.
When I told Dame Edith about the pillar incident afterwards, she said that she wondered why I was so jerky. I was trying to hold on to the scenery!
Where you aware of the production of the play in which Sir Peter Hall directed Denholm Elliot under club conditions? 
This is a very tricky one.
I was appearing as Dunois in ‘St Joan’ at the Art’s Theatre in Leicester Square with Siobhan McKenna, which was directed by John Fernald, who later became head of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
His new Assistant Director was Peter Hall – both of whom disagreed with my interpretation of the relationship between Dunois, as leader of the French forces, and Joan. In my considered opinion, I felt that Shaw’s preface that Dunois had no physical attraction to Joan, as a woman, was mistaken. Here was this red-blooded, dyed-in-the-wool commander of the French Army. Of course he desired her as a woman. Siobhan agreed. We both felt that the only real contact The Maid had ever had with a man was with Dunois. Whether their relationship had ever been consummated physically was neither here nor there. The point was that she adored him, as he her. This, we believed, was our only chance to see her as a human being, before she was transformed into a saint.
Peter (Hall) didn’t agree, and he took a strong dislike of me from that time on. It was then that I realised it was not wise to cross him – EVER! I learned from Vivien Leigh that Olivier wanted me to lead the Company at the National Theatre, but when the theatre was handed over to Hall, I was dropped, and was labeled as being “difficult to direct”.
That was never the case for those I respected, like Jean-Louis Barrault, who directed me in ‘Duel of Angels’, in which I appeared with Vivien, and Jack Clayton, for whom I played the ghost of Peter Quint in ‘The Innocents’.
I left the production just before it transferred to the West End to make a film in Spain . Siobhan blamed the short run of the play, which had been so successful at the Art’s, on the recasting of Dunios , who played the part as Hall instructed.
I still maintain that if Shaw had eaten a good rump steak instead of sticking to his avowed vegetarianism, he’d have come round to my way of thinking on Dunois and Joan! Alas he never did.
I’m also convinced that John Fernald wanted me to be in his production of ‘South’ at The Art’s, but Peter Hall managed to convince him that dear old Denholm Elliot was better casting.
Your performance of the tortured lead is very powerful. Can you tell us something about the attitude to getting the character across?
I just remembered the feelings I had as a child in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai.
‘South’ is the earliest known television play with a gay subject. Did you hesitate at all at taking the role?
No, of course not. It was a bloody good part and a wonderful script.
How was it received?
In Roger Langley’s biography of me , there’s just a couple of lines about the play. He then adds references to the reaction it got in the newspapers. These were the dailies that used words like “Disgusting” Filth, “Pervert” in their articles, which showed the calibre of critics back in the day.
Several of the papers mentioned me directly – saying that the blame for all this “filth” should be put on the shoulders of the man who was recently nominated as ‘Actor of the Year’. Peter Cushing inevitably won it, and quite rightly. Strangely, Sidney Bernstein  had recommended Peter (Cushing) for the part of Lieutenant Wicziewsky in ‘South’, but he had other obligations so it was offered to me. I thought it was a staggering piece of theatre, and having Mario Prizek directing was the cherry on the cake.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I think Julien Greene, who wrote the play, would be delighted that we’re still talking about this piece now.
. The Lord Chamberlain had banned the play from openly accessible theatres.
. ‘Alexander the Great’ in which PETER played Pasaunius.
. Robert Cartland was cast as Dunois after PETER left ‘St Joan’.
. ‘Peter Wyngarde – King of TV. A biography’ Roger Langley. Escape Publications 2012.
. Lord Sidney Lewis Bernstein. Founding chairman of Granada-Group.
. 35,000 Australian woman voted PETER ‘The Man We Would Most Like To Lose Our Virginity To’.
“PETER WYNGARDE was mobbed after our screening of SOUTH
@BFI tonight. What a treat to have him with us as we kick off Gross Indecency”
Simon McCallum – Curator, The British Film Institute
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