Fifty Shades of Gay: a nostalgic Rupert Everett is absolutely himself

The actor's Channel 4 film explores the gap between outward appearances and deep-seated feelings.

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As a boy, the actor Rupert Everett liked nothing better than to involve himself in his mother’s preparations for going out, the climax of which was the moment, after she had carefully backcombed her hair, when he was allowed to wield the giant can of Elnett that she kept on her dressing table. But perhaps he enjoyed this routine a little too much. She certainly thought so. One evening, their eyes met in the mirror. “I’ll kill you if you’re queer,” she said.

She didn’t, of course. “Mother came round in the end,” said Everett, doing his best Edith Evans. But what does “coming round” mean? As he also pointed out: “Now you can’t say faggot or poof, you don’t know who’s thinking faggot or poof.” It was this, the gap between outward appearances and deep-seated feelings, that he explored in Fifty Shades of Gay (3 July, 10pm), a lovely film made as part of Channel 4’s season marking the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality, though he began – and why not? – with a little light nostalgia.

First, a trip to a boarded-up public convenience in Manchester with a retired copper called Roger. Then, a session at what used to be the Coleherne Arms in Earls Court, London, reminiscing about what the leather queens used to get up to round the back after closing. Everett wondered if the transformation of both places didn’t speak to something lost (the Coleherne is now the Pembroke and, by the look of its bar, its customers wear signet, not nipple, rings). As he put it, when everything is available at a swipe, how can there ever be a gay community?

I’m a fan of Everett, though admittedly this took a while. Three decades after my school friends went mad for his floppy hair, I saw him play Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss and was convinced of his genius. Even so, I had no idea that he’d be this good at talking to builders in Southend, let alone to lesbians in Hebden Bridge. It has to do with the way that he is absolutely himself, a quality that people recognise and respond to in kind. He seemed genuinely touched by the stories of those he met, even that of Paul Burrell, Princess Diana’s former butler, whose Lake District wedding (to a bloke) he semi-gatecrashed.

I once sat next to Burrell at a posh dinner – which isn’t, by the way, a boast – and he struck me as silly and pompous, his head having been turned by too many brief encounters with Her Maj. Everett, though, pulled on the kid gloves: when Burrell expressed how painful it had been to come out (he was previously married to a woman), his interviewer somehow managed to suppress his amazement. “Didn’t everyone know you were gay?” he asked. And then, quickly: “You’re very butch, I understand. . . [but] I thought you were gay-ish.”

Everett helped with the wedding flowers – “Here I am, in my element!” he said, fiddling with a rose and a bit of green wire – but shortly before it was time for Burrell to slip into his kilt, he made his excuses. He belongs to that generation of out gay men who still shudder slightly at the thought of marriage, though in this instance it might (I’m guessing) have been Burrell’s comment that Diana would be “with him” on his special day that put him off.

Some people will have adored Angus Macqueen’s Storyville film Oink: Man Loves Pig (2 July, 10pm). I’m not one of them. The decision to have it “narrated” by a saddleback called Dorothy was soppy – and dumb, too, given that this high-pitched voice-over related only to the strand of the documentary in which she appeared.

Elsewhere, we got no help at all. Macqueen simply pitched us into a subject – the issue of antibiotics in farming, say – and then, just as we got interested, yanked us out again. I hated the changes of tone, the violence of the abattoir giving way suddenly to saccharine mush. One “chapter” featured a Brooklyn couple whose pig, Koko, shared the marital bed. Watching them anthropomorphising in their pyjamas, evil thoughts drifted through my mind, the basis of which involved piggy bowels, unlocked medicine cabinets and high-thread-count sheets. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania