›› Consenting Adults ‹‹

a film by Richard Curson Smith.

2007 | 75 mins | UK.

Wolfenden: the story of a man did the right thing against his personal inclination.

Dave says:

Marking the centrepiece of BBC4's series of programmes commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Wolfenden Report; this dramatic work from the pen of Julian Mitchell details what, in effect, became the turning point in the legalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom.

For following the public outcry over the Very British Sex Scandal that was the 1954 trial and conviction of Peter Wildeblood, Lord Edward Montagu and his second cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers for matters relating to sexual misconduct, the government of the day was under both pressure and scrutiny. Their response was to kill two 'distasteful birds' with the one stone, by setting up a Home Office committee to look into the laws relating to homosexual offences and prostitution. In dire need of a strong chairman, they opted for one John Wolfenden (Charles Dance); then Vice-Chancellor of Reading University and later life peer Baron Wolfenden of Westcott.

The committee first convened on the 15th September, 1954, with Wolfenden setting the tone from the onset by declaring that homosexuals should be referred to as 'Huntleys' and prostitutes as 'Palmers' after the local Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory, so as to avoid embarrassing the stenographers present. Meeting for a total of sixty-two sessions, the committee would eventually come to recommend that "homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence" albeit with the exception of those serving in the Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy. Even then, it would be another ten years before such became law through the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, only for the age of consent to remain at twenty-one, prompting the fight for full sexual equality to continue for many years to come, in particular in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

That aside, what the report did achieve in the months following its publication, was to provoke a furious public debate on a subject that for some was still the love of shame. Yet here it was, out in the open and with the almost unanimous verdict that it should not be a crime. What is surprising however is that this solid work marks a faithful, if at times somewhat dry dramatisation, as if Mitchell somehow struggled to inject life into the austere character that was John Wolfenden, even with Charles Dance on hand to deliver the very being of a reserved English gentleman who listened attentively to every word being made for, but mainly against the legalisation of homosexuality by police and probation officers, the then Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard, let alone esteemed sexologist Dr Alfred Kinsey, together with notably the moving words of Peter Wildeblood upon his release from prison and headline trial of the time. Yet in a cast that is as rich with key players, as it is with quality performances, the monotonous tone of the narrative is redeemed by the unsung hero of the piece, in the form of Wolfenden's son, Jeremy. And here Sean Biggerstaff excels in the role of a man whose homosexual openness to both his father and the Foreign Office became Wolfenden's nagging voice for gay rights.

In the end, Wolfenden did the right thing against his personal inclination. Yet the real gem of the story on offer here is the troubled father and son relationship of the piece, with Biggerstaff playing the part with the arrogant charm and intellect indicative of the man himself, then a brilliant undergraduate at Oxford, due recipient of a first class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and thereafter the Daily Telegraph foreign correspondent in Moscow. The fact that he died two years before the reports' recommendation reached the statute book at the age of only thirty-one, only adds to a fascinating story of a journalist turned spy that's waiting to be told. Screenwriters - take note!

›› revised: Tuesday, 17th August, 2021.

Gay Visibility - overt. 
Nudity - from the waist up. 
Overall - file under ... 3+ stars. 

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