Tale of a love forbidden: 'Doctors thought they could 'cure' gay'
As 'Against The Law' takes pride of place at the GAZE LGBT Film Festival, our reporter talks to director Fergus O'Brien about the impact of the Lord Montagu gay sex scandal
In 1950s Britain, the Montagu case was breathlessly described as "the biggest gay sex scandal since Oscar Wilde". Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his friend Peter Wildeblood, then a journalist with the Daily Mail, were arrested after a sustained effort by police to punish them for homosexual 'offences'.
Yet their trial and subsequent conviction would go on to mark a change in public opinion, sparking a chain of events that would, within a decade, lead to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.
While in Wormwood Scrubs, Wildeblood underwent a harrowing amount of psychiatric treatments, from aversion therapy to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). A year later, he was determined to square up to the draconian laws surrounding homosexuality and testified before the Wolfenden Committee about the brutality of being a gay man at the time.
Growing up in Waterford and attending boarding school in Cork in the late 70s and early 80s, a young teenager, Fergus O'Brien, would read about Peter Wildeblood's experience.
"It was a heavily Catholic boarding school in Castlemartyr and I remember having to send off to the UK for the book as it wasn't one you were likely to find in Easons," he notes wryly.
"When I read the book it was terrifying in a way, because even though I knew we were living in different times, in some ways things weren't that different for gay people. You wouldn't go to jail, but attitudes hadn't changed that much."
Little did O'Brien know at the time that he would go on to direct a critically acclaimed docudrama about the Montagu case, screening this weekend at the GAZE LGBT film festival in Dublin. Starring Daniel Mays, Mark Gatiss and Charlie Creed-Miles, Against The Law is a dramatisation of Wildeblood's romance with Eddie McNally, and McNally's subsequent betrayal in a bid to save himself from the authorities.
"I thought very carefully about how to portray (the romance), the magic of falling in love and meeting someone significant, and how Wildeblood took a chance on falling in love knowing it was illegal. Falling in love is a moment you want to tell everyone about."
Mays in particular is a revelation as Wildeblood, and working with a group of young actors was a novel experience for O'Brien, primarily a documentary maker.
"Doing drama appealed to a controlling part of my personality," he smiles. "When it came to filming the sex scene with one actor who was straight and another who was bisexual, I decided it would be the last thing that we shot. The boys were like, 'can we not just get it out of the way?', but I wanted them to have a connection. That afternoon, we went up to the bedroom and we joked around, and I showed them how they would need to move, or roll around. It was so silly and hilarious that it took the fear out of doing the scene for us.
"We had a good laugh in the end, mainly because I'd bought some champagne for us in the lunch break." Yet what gives Against The Law its true emotional heft is the interspersion of interviews with real life British men who underwent similar experiences to Wildeblood's before homosexuality was decriminalised.
"We wanted to make something that was more than just a period drama, and these men represent thousands of men," notes O'Brien. "I had known about the ECT based on Pavlovian experiments and I didn't really know before I met these men that the psychiatric profession at the time saw themselves as gods that could 'cure' the condition of being gay. It was a privilege, and very humbling, to talk to those men.
"Making the film, there was a bit of a concern - will it all seem like a very long time ago?" he adds. "When I met these men, you could still see the impact the law had on them, and how scared they were at the time."
Born in 1967, O'Brien moved from Ireland to London in the late 80s, where he "gingerly" came out of the closet. Homosexuality was still a crime in Ireland and would remain so until 1993.
"Like many people who moved to bigger cities, I thought even if things were not necessarily better, they were places where one could be anonymous and everyone wouldn't know your business," explains O'Brien. "It was only much later, in 2007, that I would encounter a real experience of negativity and homophobia in London, being singled out on the street and beaten up.
"Even then, the LGBT thing was quite political: to go on a Pride march was a real political statement, where other people would stand on the side of the road and sneer. These days, the politics have been slightly forgotten and there's something good and positive in the idea that the younger generations don't feel they need to make a big political statement, but it's important not to lose sight of the politics. As we've seen in places like Eastern Europe, and even the US with transgender people in the armed forces, what can be given can be taken away."
In Ireland, of course, the LGBT community has rarely been far from the political agenda: thanks to their activism, the gender recognition bill was passed in 2015, as was the marriage equality referendum.
O'Brien watched the latter from a geographical remove, but it was still a hugely emotional time. "When I heard the news, I definitely shed a tear," he says. "I was just so proud of Ireland that day."
Ireland's LGBT community have moved inexorably towards social equality, but O'Brien notes that there is still an important place in society for LGBT spaces, and festivals like GAZE, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
"It's important that people can have a place where their particular culture is celebrated and they can see their own experiences reflected back at them in the same way that heterosexual people see every day," he says. "Gay culture has infused with broader culture, whether in pop or art or film, but weekends like this allow people to express themselves, and reminds them of their history."
Against The Law screens on Sunday at 4.30pm in the Light House Cinema as part of the GAZE Film Festival. The festival runs until August 7, see gaze.ie.
GAZE 2017 highlights
1. A retrospective screening of Neil Jordan's quietly seismic The Crying Game (tonight, 10.30pm), released 25 years ago, marks one of the first portrayals of LGBT characters in Irish film.
2. Following up on her recent documentary exploring her mother's Irish birth family, After The Dance director Daisy Asquith returns to Ireland for the Irish premiere of Queerama (Sunday, 8.30pm). A century of British gay experience is brought to life, selected from the extensive BFI Archive.
3. German filmmaker Tristan Ferland Milewski brings us aboard a seven-day gay cruise with passengers from 89 nations in his documentary Dreamboat (tonight, 8.30pm). It's a trip of liberation that, against a thumping soundtrack, lays bare intricacies of modern gay life.
4. A taut and terrifying psychological thriller, The Dark Mile (tonight, 8.30pm) sees a London lesbian couple take a boat trip to reconnect after a personal tragedy. Their idyllic journey into the Scottish Highlands soon turns into a horrifying ordeal. Director Gary Love will take part in a Q&A.
5. Tom Of Finland (Saturday, 8.30pm) is the beautiful and thrilling true story of cult Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen and his journey to international success.