Against the Law

BBC Studios, directed by Fergus O’Brien

Against the Law, which premiered at the BFI Flare Festival in March, is both an important documentary and a powerful dramatisation of the story of Peter Wildeblood, the journalist who was convicted and imprisoned in 1954 for homosexual behaviour along with his more famous co-defendants, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and Michael Pitt-Rivers. The motive for the prosecution appears to have been Lord Montagu’s recent acquittal on a similar charge. The aim was to ‘rid England of this plague’ of ‘male vice’ in the words of the then Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe (later Lord Chancellor as Lord Kilmuir), whom we otherwise remember for having drafted the right to a private life in the European Convention of Human Rights.

Daniel Mays plays Wildeblood as amiable and well-connected but somewhat ineffectual. He goes to a pub one night to pick up another man but clearly has no idea how to go about it. Eventually he starts an affair with Edward McNally, an RAF corporal, and the exchange of letters between the two men is his undoing. McNally is cashiered but turns Queen’s Evidence to avoid his own prosecution. The film, produced by the BBC documentary unit, presents the trial American-style, with prosecution counsel addressing the jury while wandering around the well of the court. Montagu’s advice was to deny everything. Wildeblood, although claiming that there was no physical affair, admitted to his homosexuality. He declared it even more publicly, on his release, by publishing his own account of the events, also called Against the Law. In prison he refused the offer to ‘rid himself’ of his ‘vice’ through aversion therapy: both electrical shock treatment or lying in one’s own vomit for two days were on offer. In due course Wildeblood gave evidence to the Wolfenden Committee which was set up after the public outcry over the men’s convictions.

Interspersed between the dramatised scenes are several ‘talking head’ interviews with gay men in their 80s and 90s who lived through this period, some of whom went to prison (one of whom was a prison nurse during aversion therapy) and all of whom lived under threat. It was powerful testimony of the emotional damage done to men who were unable to be honest about their nature even to their own families. One man recalled that at the time of the report, he was having an affair with Wolfenden’s brilliant, homosexual, but short-lived son, Jeremy.

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.