thu 07/07/2022

DVD: 50 Years Legal | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: 50 Years Legal

DVD: 50 Years Legal

Simon Napier-Bell's moving survey of a gay half-century, presented with rapid-fire acuity

Simon Napier-Bell’s film has a huge appetite for its subject, which is, of course, the half-century of gay history in Britain that followed the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality brought by the Wolfenden Report in 1967. 50 Years Legal barely slows for a moment over its 90-minute run, concentrating on the wealth of personal testimony of some four dozen interviewees, drawn predominantly from the worlds of entertainment and the arts, its perspective completed by a small rank of politicians and public figures.

Everyone was involved – in different ways, at different times – in the history that they talk about, their experiences coloured by a huge range of emotions, from anger, both raw and considered, to humour. 50 Years Legal was first broadcast on Sky Arts in July 2017 (there is an accompanying book) as part of last year’s generous range of offerings marking the anniversary. Another was Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City, a wider history of gay London over two millennia, that devoted some 50 pages to the period that Napier-Bell covers in his film, but somehow managed to present it as almost dry-as-dust history. To say that 50 Years Legal gives us a sense of history as a living entity would be a massive understatement, and its testimony is incisively backed up by the director's choice of archive material, including plenty of treats. 

50 Years LegalIt’s presented in a rapid-fire edit (full kudos to editor Joshua Hughes for bringing the whole structure together), with contributions delivered in bites of a sentence or two, themes recurring over a narrative that Napier-Bell divides into five loose chapters, each of a decade. The effect is somehow cyclical – not unlike the film's visual interludes, gymnastic hoop gyrations from Matthew Richardson Circus Art – which makes it as difficult to single out any one episode as it would be egregious to choose from any of the contributors (though it should remind us just how considerable is the debt that Britain's gay community owes to Peter Tatchell). It's a collective company, as the DVD cover indicates (pictured right), in which men very much dominate, though women and trans people do feature more as the years move on.

There’s occasionally a sense of being bombarded with information and feeling, the result no doubt of Napier-Bell having filmed so much more material than the film's length could accomodate. But the director closes with a much longer excerpt from the remarkable speech that Ian McKellen gave at the Oxford Union in 2015 (main picture), its lapidary power all the more striking for the contrast with what has come before. It also reminds us, hauntingly, that for all the achievements and advances of a remarkable half-century, one that has changed British society beyond recognition, the struggle against prejudice is never going to go away.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for 50 Years Legal & Ian McKellen's speech at the Oxford Union, in full

50 Years Legal trailer

Ian McKellen's speech at the Oxford Union, in full

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