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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.

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 first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

Troy: Fall of a City. Photo: BBC
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In Troy: Fall of a City, all the men look as if they’re in a Calvin Klein ad

Rachel Cooke reviews Troy and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

In Troy: Fall of a City (BBC One, 9.10pm, 17 February) pretty much all the men look as if they’re appearing in a new Calvin Klein ad. The exception is King Priam (David Threlfall) who, perhaps to suggest his wisdom, favours a kind of gap year uniform: long beads, mirror-work blouses and, if his hair hasn’t been washed for a few days, a head scarf.

Muscly and sweaty and always having hot sex – usually in beds with the Homeric version of high-thread-count sheets, over which some lackey cast rose petals during turn-down service – these Trojan guys really are a ton of fun: as good at conversation as at bringing Spartan queens to orgasm.

Take Paris (Louis Hunter), a character particularly suggestive of the strong whiff of Obsession. Dispatched by his father Priam to the court of King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his gorgeous, pouting wife, Helen (Bella Dayne, who is going to launch a thousand ships dressed in a high-necked feathered ensemble that brings to mind John Galliano in his pomp), he was certainly ready with the important questions. “How did you two get together?” he enquired, in the same tone you or I might ask friends about Tinder or Guardian Soulmates.

The BBC has begged journalists writing about Troy: Fall of a City to avoid spoilers; apparently, we must think of those coming to these myths “for the first time”. But I’m going to take a chance and assume that New Statesman readers are already well aware that Paris’s diplomatic mission to Sparta is soon to end in disaster, his having pinched Helen right from under Menelaus’s nose. I mean, even I know a bit about the Trojan War, and I went to a comprehensive school where the six embattled souls who wanted to learn Latin had to do so on a landing in their own time (like Menelaus, they knew all about public humiliation). Though in any case, surely Cassandra’s (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) weird hissy fits pretty much give the game away. Paris has only to lift his chiton (that’s a kind of tunic – and yes, I did have to Google it) for his sister to begin shaking like a leaf.

Troy’s writer David Farr (The Night Manager) has said that in this series he is keen to explore the other side of Paris and Helen; he regards their story as one of passion and the breaking of conventions, seeing Helen as a bolter rather than as the victim of an
abduction. I guess this is fair enough: there are several versions of this narrative on which to draw. But if only he had not made it all seem so tediously 21st century.

Helen’s marital unhappiness, for instance, is signalled by her fondness for smoking the ancient Greek equivalent of Valium, as if she was a housewife rather than a queen; and when Paris begs her to leave Menelaus, he speaks not of love or even of desire, but of her freedom, her right to fulfilment. The dialogue is so richly silted with self-help banalities, we might as well be watching a Meghan and Harry biopic as a drama inspired by the greatest of all epic poems. There’s also something exceedingly creepy about its retro, soft-porny direction (by Owen Harris); every time Helen takes a shower, you half expect her to whip out a Flake.

In the opening episode of the shot-in-real-time documentary series 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4, 9pm, 19 February) the perpetrator of the crime – a man was being blackmailed for having visited a prostitute – turned out not only to be a copper, but (get this!) one of the officers on the surveillance team watching the spot where £1,000 had been left as bait. Naturally, this made for astonishing viewing; as DC Gareth Suffling was arrested, I thought at first a mistake had been made. But the real fascination of it for me lay in the fact that as a televisual coup, it was born less of serendipity than of the good and wholly transparent relationship forged between the producers and Bedfordshire Police (the series has been running since 2014). What it proved, quite brilliantly, is that hard-won trust and patience – neither of which are very fashionable qualities in journalism these days – can in the end deliver better results than what we might call a hit and run. Bide your time, programme makers, and the big reveal will be yours. 

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 first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia