Revisiting "Nighthawks", a film with the most extraordinary coming-out scene

“Are you bent? Are you queer?”

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To BFI Southbank this week for a rare screening of Nighthawks, Ron Peck’s 1978 film about a London geography teacher, Jim (Ken Robertson), and his repetitive and frustrating life: drab days at work, the odd evening out with a colleague, nights spent silently scouring gay clubs and bars until he finds someone new with whom he can strike up the same conversation he had the last time he was there.

He’s looking for love but it doesn’t want to be found. He is a nondescript, soft-faced fellow, a miniature Robert Powell and, it must be said, extraordinarily unlucky. A couple of pick-ups see him for more than one date. For the most part, though, his encounters lead only to sex or to promises to call which have no intention of being kept.

I last saw the film when it was screened on Channel 4 in 1985. I was 14. There was a frisson of danger surrounding it, as there was with any film shown on Channel Four late at night, which is why I had a lie ready if my mum burst in to my room and asked what I was watching. I would tell her that it was a horror film called Dead. (There is no such film, though I still feel like it exists.) That would throw her off the scent alright.

My family had a joke about how I only liked films in which someone got their head chopped off. Horror was the perfect cover story. Little would they know that in this case, it wasn’t heads off, it was rocks off.

Channel 4 had recently run a series of “red triangle” movies – titles deemed to be so adult or potentially offensive in content that a tiny red triangle hovered in the corner of the screen at all times to spare the blushes of the innocent channel-surfer (though with only four channels to choose from back then, perhaps the term “channel-paddler” would be more apt).

I had misremembered Nighthawks as being a red triangle film but in fact it fell outside the season, though its screening did provoke the ire of the Mail and other tabloids. Not that there’s anything incendiary in it: just some heavy petting and the odd penis. Odd as in occasional, rather than quirky.

There was something else I had misremembered: the tone of the film. To my 14-year-old eyes, it was unremittingly bleak and miserable. I had recently heard for the first time Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay” (the ferocious version he performs solo in The Secret Policeman’s Ball) but there was nothing very glad about Jim’s demeanour.

That’s the way I saw it anyway. Dingy rooms, pale bodies, downcast faces, a carousel of misery. The Conservative government, worried around this time about the promotion of homosexuality, implemented Clause 28. At 14, I felt like a compulsory screening of Nighthawks would have been a more effective deterrent.

I see it differently now. Sure, Jim is hardly the life and soul. And the gay scene looks pretty dour. But the director Ron Peck and his co-writer Paul Hallam are making some stylistic points about patterns of behaviour: their film is big on repetition. Every club plays the same pulsing electronic motif (we even hear it at Jim’s work party). Shots are repeated throughout the film, particularly driving shots, with the camera stationed on the back seat as Jim drops another one night stand off at the Tube the next morning. With this emphasis on repetition, the movie is urging Jim to make a decisive move – to break the cycle that is imprisoning and inhibiting him.

This he does in the most extraordinary scene in the film. Challenged in class by his pupils – “Are you bent? Are you queer?” – he comes out to them and faces their probing questions (“Do you wear women’s clothes? Do you carry a handbag?”) with calm, equanimity and compassion.

The staging of the scene is highly effective: we hardly see Jim at all, but the camera is placed in his stead so that the pupils seem to be hectoring and haranguing us directly. We are literally in Jim’s shoes. The scene, cut together from five takes shot over two days, is heated but never hysterical, and worthy of comparison to  Ken Loach (who gets a name-check when one of Jim’s colleagues lines up a screening of Cathy Come Home for her pupils).

I remember my classmates at school on Monday were all talking about the face-off between Jim and his pupils. None of us had liked the film exactly, but we had been electrified by that tension. We knew it. It was life.

Ron Peck was at the screening this week to discuss the making of the film. He had used ads in the gay press and Time Out to set out his stall and invite collaborators (this was how he met Hallam) to help him determine the shape of what was to be a truthful portrait of gay life in London, or to suggest locations, or to appear as extras. (He wrote to the Sunday Times and received a little shout-out from Dilys Powell in her column.)

He sent the script to esteemed filmmakers who offered their advice. The great directors Michael Powell and Lindsay Anderson were among those who contributed; Derek Jarman offered help and locations and also appears in the film, loitering enigmatically in a club.

Powell told Peck: “Don’t be afraid to show the male looking at the male.” Illuminating, pertinent advice for the man who captured the lustful, voyeuristic gaze himself in films like Peeping Tom and Black Narcissus; Anderson’s advice, Peck recalled, amounted to variations on telling him to kick out against the British film industry.

Of course, the film was made before there were any cases of Aids in the UK, which gives it an entirely unintended air of innocence and poignancy. It was also long before the brutal dating formats fostered by Grindr and Tinder. At a screening in Paris last year, someone came up to Peck and said: “People behaved much more kindly then.”

Nighthawks is available on BFI DVD

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.