Last Night's Television - The Day of the Triffids, BBC1; An Englishman in New York, ITV1

Still the king of queens

Reviewed,Brian Viner
Tuesday 29 December 2009 01:00
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Almost 20 years ago, in New York, I took Quentin Crisp out for brunch. I'd heard that his number was listed in the Manhattan telephone directory and that in return for a meal, he was quite willing to meet anyone, anytime. When I told an American friend who my brunch date was with, she said: "Oh, I've heard of him. Isn't he kind of an English Norman Mailer?" Naturally, I relayed this to Crisp, who gave a yelp of delight. "Oh, isn't that wonderful," he purred. "I can't think what Mr Mailer would say if someone said: 'Are you the Quentin Crisp of Brooklyn Heights?'"

Last night's television, with An Englishman in New York scheduled directly against The Day of the Triffids, made me think again of this exchange. Crisp would have yelped again to think of himself, albeit in the form of John Hurt, going head to head with a Triffid. One, an extraordinary creature capable of eating everything in its path, and the other a man-eating plant. For sustenance, Crisp relied on phone calls out of the blue from people like me, and what he called the peanuts-and-champagne circuit. He regularly consumed his own body weight in peanuts and champagne.

An Englishman in New York was the sequel, 34 years on, to The Naked Civil Servant. It is instructive to consider how things have changed since 1975. Back then, it was no easy matter to get Crisp's autobiography dramatised. The BBC turned it down flat, and even when Thames bravely decided to go ahead, the Independent Broadcasting Authority was so jittery that it insisted on removing some of the more daring lines in Philip Mackie's excellent script. So "sexual intercourse is a poor substitute for masturbation" was replaced with "wasn't it fun in the bath tonight?", itself a poor substitute.

Brian Fillis's similarly fine script suffered no such surgery. Indeed, the most shocking thing about An Englishman in New York was how un-shocking it was. It is hard to think of it inspiring anyone to come out of the closet, as did The Naked Civil Servant, and in this day and age, with even international rugby players publicly declaring their homosexuality (or one, anyway), it was never likely to go down as landmark television, which The Naked Civil Servant unarguably was.

But that doesn't mean it wasn't worth making, and Hurt rose brilliantly to this slightly more muted occasion, recapturing the essence of Crisp as though the 34 years had never intervened, and using all his formidable skill to show the old boy ageing from his early seventies to his late eighties. For a while I was worried that the drama was little more than a vehicle for Crisp's admittedly brilliant aperçus, but it acquired more depth as soon as he remarked – as in real life he unfortunately did – that "homosexuals are forever complaining of one thing or another. Aids is a fad, nothing more".

After that his star plummeted for a few years in his adopted New York, but he soldiered gamely on in his velvet fedora and, as this fine drama revealed, privately made reparations by donating substantial sums to Aids charities. In public, however, he only half-apologised for misjudging Aids. In 1990, he said to me: "It's not really that Aids is a fad, just that in some way it's become a cause instead of an illness." Whatever, he died in 1999, and it was left to a simple caption at the end of An Englishman in New York to convey the monumental irony of his death. This unique man who only ever felt at home in Manhattan expired in, of all places, Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

As for the passage of time blunting the impact of television, I watched the first episode of The Day of the Triffids with my children, expecting at least the youngest of them to be as spooked as I was when, at about the same age, I watched the 1962 film on the telly. Yet he pronounced it no scarier than an average episode of Doctor Who.

Still, we all thought it was jolly good. Writer Patrick Harbinson had a creditable stab at updating John Wyndham's 1951 story for the 21st century, presenting the psychopathic plants as the source of an oil that has replaced diminishing fossil fuels and saved the planet from global warming. And the acting was as splendid as you would expect of a cast including Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and, entering the fray tonight, Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox. Not to mention Eddie Izzard, who might in fact be the scariest thing of all about the production, the amiable comedian looking entirely at home as the sinister villain of the piece.

All credit to director Nick Copus, too, for making the Triffids about as intimidating as he could, and not allowing them to look too much like killer rhubarb. I wonder, though, whether he might have missed a trick. At this time of year, there is a ubiquitous plant that frankly alarms the hell out of me: poinsettias are taking over the world, and nobody seems to have noticed.

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