Hating Peter Tatchell

 

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A major figure in gay history gets a less distinguished portrait than he deserves.

 
Hating Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell and Ian McKellen

 

Having looked forward to this film, it distresses me to have to say that I feel totally let down by Hating Peter Tatchell. Like Elton John and David Furnish, who are among the executive producers here, I believe that the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell is a courageous and important man who well deserves being made the subject of a documentary feature film or even of a full television series. I should perhaps add at once that this film is guilty of what I personally see as being a major crime while recognising that some may regard that view as a foible on my part. This piece features a persistent music score that rarely lets up, which is applied not just to archive material but to fresh interview footage as well and which strikes me as banal and distracting throughout. However, while that could be thought of as a matter of taste, there are all too many other ways in which this well-intended film falls short.

 

It's hardly surprising to find that the one interviewer who literally shares the screen with Peter Tatchell is Sir Ian McKellen, but his presence prompts thoughts of McKellen: Playing the Part a near-perfect documentary about the actor's life and career. Not only did that film avoid irritating music, it also had McKellen talking in depth and in detail. By comparison, the conversation here between him and Tatchell is insipid and the other contributors to this film could surely have provided more insight than they do (Stephen Fry is one of them, but those who work best are probably the singer Tom Robinson and the former MP Chris Smith while Angela Mason is underused).

 

We do get some information from the film that may well be fresh to many. I had no idea that Tatchell came from Melbourne, had parents who were members of the Pentecostal Church, had a stepfather who would beat him and then left Australia in 1971 to avoid the draft at the time of the Vietnam war of which he disapproved. It is interesting to learn that it was the example of the Black Civil Rights Movement in America that drew him to see the importance of protesting. His arrival in England coincided with the establishment of the Gay Liberation Front and from then on right up to the present day Tatchell has been a leading figure in the fight for gay rights.

 

However, describing that career effectively in a film proves to be far from easy. There are, of course, elements here that are personal in character. They range from Tatchell's trip to East Berlin in 1973 to support the first Gay Rights protest in a Communist country to the notorious occasion in 1998 when he was the leading figure involved in a demonstration that interrupted a sermon by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. However, that leaves much ground which needs to be covered in a general way for the sake of viewers who may be unaware of the history of the gay rights movement. It's a familiar list: Gay Pride marches in London, the onslaught of Aids, Thatcher's government and the legislation to outlaw any positive teaching in schools regarding gay lives, the formation of OutRage! with its overt activism, the setting up of Stonewall equally dedicated but less aggressive, homophobia in the military and police entrapment of gay men in toilets. In his 53 years of civil disobedience, Tatchell was a strong presence in most of this, but the film often misses the personal focus for which one is looking. With the generalised history having been covered admirably in the 2019 documentary Are You Proud? one is here longing for more detailed information about Tatchell's role than the film seems able to deliver. In truth perhaps it needed the length of a television series to set out adequately the keynote events while also delivering a fuller portrait of Tatchell himself - it might even have allowed insight into such matters as the extent to which the conflicting approach of OutRage! and Stonewall in which Tatchell and McKellen were on opposite sides is now no more than old history yielding to shared admiration by two men equally dedicated to the same ultimate aim.

 

Some of the film's shortcomings arise from attempting to put all this across in a documentary lasting only 91 minutes. For example, we never learn anything about the Peter Tatchell Foundation and when it comes to his personal adult life all we get is a single undated comment in which this workaholic claims that he has at least managed five meaningful relationships in his life. What the film does show is how the public perception of Tatchell changed. There was a time when he was caught up in headline arguments over his belief that he was right to out bishops and others who hid the fact that they were gay (in this connection the film makes it clear that Tatchell's view was that those who hypocritically spoke out against gay rights although being gay themselves deserved exposure). It was at this time that it was apparently said of Tatchell that he was the most hated man in Britain. Subsequently, though, when he embraced the idea of seeking a citizen's arrest of Robert Mugabe, he became something of a hero to the general public, a view also encouraged by his obvious courage. Often threatened (it had started at least as early as when he stood unsuccessfully in a 1983 by-election as a labour candidate for Bermondsey openly supportive of gay rights), the significant injuries he sustained in 2007 at the hands of Neo-Nazis with police collusion while supporting a protest march in Moscow underlined the risks that he was willing to take.

 

The film seems to have been in hand by 2018 since it shows Tatchell daring to return to Moscow at the time of the FIFA World Cup to protest against Putin's anti-gay agenda in Russia and in Chechnya. The late material also shows his mother partially reconciled to her son's sexuality despite her connections with a disapproving Church. But, if she now sees it as only a minor sin, there's no detail about this partial alteration in her outlook. As for George Carey, the hostility he felt back in 1998 has been indicated already but now in footage shot for the film he suddenly switches and declares that Peter Tatchell is a good man and almost Christ-like. Alas, it is all too typical of Hating Peter Tatchell that he is neither asked to explain this change of heart nor to elaborate on his views of homosexuality as such. Many a chance to go deeper into the material has been lost here and that's a shame. Peter Tatchell deserved a better film than this one and, even apart from the music, I am prepared to say that I regret the appearance of this piece because in all probability it eliminates the chance of anybody else giving us the documentary that would have captured his complexity and his steadfastness in a way that would have done him justice.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Peter Tatchell, Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Tom Robinson, Chris Smith, George Carey, Angela Mason, Adrian Arbib, Heather Kniese, Helen Hill.

 

Dir Christopher Amos, Pro Christopher Amos, Veronica Fury and Lee Matthews, Screenplay Christopher Amos, Ph Christopher Amos, Jim Ashcroft and Ian Chisholm, Ed Bergen O’Brien, Music Andrew Barnabas and Paul Arnold.

 

Chrysaor Productions/Wildbear Entertainment/Screen Australia/Screen Queensland-Netflix.
91 mins. Australia. 2021. Rel: 20 May 2021. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.