By Tom Ue.
The title cards of Sam Ashby’s first film The Colour of His Hair (2017) take us to the year 1954, with the sentencing of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Michael Pitt-Rivers, and Peter Wildeblood for homosexual offenses. This scandal, we learn, led the government to establish a committee to report on homosexuality, though the findings of this inquiry, the Wolfenden Report (1957), were dismissed. The Homosexual Law Reform Society was established the following year, and Elizabeth Montagu, Lord Montagu’s half-sister, was commissioned to write a film. The result, a 26-paged script titled “The Colour of His Hair” was deemed unsuitable and the project abandoned. Ashby’s film is more than an adaptation of Montagu’s script, though it forms an important centrepiece. Ashby offers a bricolage that creatively juxtaposes the narrative film with footage from and about The Lesbian and Gay News Media Archive at the Bishopgate Institute in London.
Shortly after we learn that John (Sean Hart) and Peter (Josh O’Connor) have become victims of blackmail, for instance, Ashby shows us newspaper clippings and reports about analogous, real-life crimes. The film’s interest thus rests equally on John’s and Peter’s plight – they cannot turn to the police and are pressured into suicide when they receive a ominous call from the inspector asking to see John – and on how we attend and respond to archives. Ashby is a British artist, graphic designer, and publisher. Since 2010 he has collaborated with writers, academics, and artists on his publication Little Joe, “a magazine about queers and cinema, mostly.” Ashby continues to work as a film poster designer, designing artwork for independent and arthouse films for the UK and international markets. The Colour of His Hair premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2017 and recently earned the Best Documentary prize at London Short Film Festival 2018. In what follows, we explore the film’s influences, its texture, and its metacommentary on archival research.
Congratulations on the Best Documentary Short prize! This is a well-deserved honour for a very important film. What attracted you to this project?
Thank you! It was a very lovely surprise indeed. My work has been exploring queer histories for some time, mostly in relation to film through my ongoing publication Little Joe, so it felt like a natural progression for me to explore these narratives through film. This script kind of fell in my lap and was crying out to be adapted. I feel very lucky that I was able to do it some justice.
What were some of your influences?
I’m a huge fan of Stuart Marshall, who was making some really smart and fun videos in the 70s and 80s which dealt with queer history, politics, and the media’s misrepresentation of AIDS. I also love the films of John Greyson and the early TV documentaries of Ken Russell which are so bold and inventive in their approach to factual stories, inspiring me to push beyond traditional modes of storytelling. In terms of developing the look and feel of the narrative sections of my film, I looked at Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Vincente Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy (1956), both of which create so much drama within limited confines.
The film interweaves narrative story with interviews, film clips, and images. What led you to format it in this way?
This was something that led from Elizabeth Montagu’s script. There was really no way I could feasibly adapt it in full with my budget, but I wanted to create something that took the viewer through the alternative timeframes which she had written so effectively. She didn’t confine the story to a linear narrative and shifted between different temporalities in order to build upon the central drama taking place between Peter and John. Rather than expanding the narrative and characters directly as she had written, I wanted to help the audience understand their story and the story of the script within a broader context of queer life under the law, the activism that helped change the law, and the queer culture that developed after it. The archive was the place that the script came from, and so it became important to see what else I could find there to tell this story, so elements such as oral histories and archive film became integral.
Tell us about your research at the Bishopgate Institute.
While I was researching the story behind the script, a friend recommended I go to the Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA) at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. Upon visiting the archive and meeting its larger-than-life manager Stef Dickers, I quickly realised that there was another story to tell, one that explored the history of this archive and the questions that arose from my working there. As archives go, the Bishopsgate is certainly one of the friendliest and most open I have encountered.
Were there any stories that you considered implementing but didn’t? Why?
The archives I worked in are full of untold stories. LAGNA’s collection alone has over 200,000 cuttings taken from the non-gay press on all manner of LGBT subjects and dates as far back as the late-nineteenth Century. I wanted to focus on stories that related directly to the script, so articles about blackmail, the Wolfenden report, and the law were key. I start the film with these clippings and end it with the media and ephemera created by LGBT people, in order to show how we have had to reject the mainstream media’s image of us and define our own narratives. There is so much more that I could have included, but with anything like this you need to draw a line. I hope it’s a good balance.
Having worked extensively at archives, I agree with you that they only provide us with limited access to the past and that they require more complex kinds of engagement. How did you try to move towards this in the documentary?
Me and my editor had initially placed that great final insight about the incomplete nature of archives – from my interview with Matt Cook – at the beginning of the film, as a way to frame the story that comes after. As we worked through the edit though, it really became clear that this idea at the heart of the film. Moving it to the end became a way to unravel the structure and narrative we had built up; to say this story is incomplete, a fabrication of sorts.
One of the affordances of working in archives is that you can also gain a sense of the history of the readers who have used it. Did that resonate with your experience?
I think archives do offer that, but for me the prevailing sense is one of discovery, which seems somehow counter to this idea of open access and past readers. I think this feeling of discovery, of opening up a story within this highly controlled institutional space, is one of the purest pleasures of research. Feeling that you are the first to find something is perhaps naive, but you are the first to see it from your perspective. I hope to be able to convey that feeling of discovery in my work, too.
Oftentimes, I was tempted to pause the film to read the different clippings, something that one can’t do in the cinema. How did you settle on the pace on the film?
This is a question I got from a couple of my friends when I showed them early edits of the film, who felt frustrated that they couldn’t read everything on screen. Rather than lead the audience into every story in the clippings I filmed, I wanted them to get a sense of the overwhelming weight of these oppressive media representations of homosexuals, and the sickness one feels at seeing oneself only represented in terms of disgust and shame. Perhaps this works best with the more graphic, bold headlines which one can parse more quickly.
What are some of the gems that we might have missed out on in an initial viewing?
I hope people don’t miss too much on first viewing, but I love the badges, photographs, and scrapbooks in the last section of the film, which open up the story into a more utopian landscape of queer activism and self actualisation.
At the heart of this film is a story about John and Peter. How did you come to learn about Elizabeth Montagu’s script?
I had hit a dead end with the research on an entirely different subject when I met a journalist called John-Pierre Joyce, who generously agreed to share his research into queer life in Britain before 1967 with me. In one of his notes he briefly mentioned a treatment for a film called “The Colour of His Hair,” but when I asked him he didn’t remember much about it. I went to visit the Hall-Carpenter archives to take a look for myself and discovered that the “treatment” was a fully-formed 26-paged script. It was such a unique text with real historical weight that it felt absolutely necessary to do something with it. I wanted to honour the original intent for the film – which was as an educational tool to help change public perceptions of homosexuality – whilst bringing in my own experience of encountering the archive and the various questions that my research brought up.
How did you cast the story?
I’m afraid with my limited budget I couldn’t go through a traditional casting process with an agent, but I’m lucky to count some very talented actors amongst my friends. Sean and Josh just fitted Elizabeth’s descriptions of John and Peter so well, I couldn’t have found better.
This embedded film’s colour scheme works very well with the rest of the film: how did you decide on the colours without making it look too much like heritage cinema?
So much of the colour palette was defined by the location, which was the home of my friend Peter Parker. Peter has created a timeless space which is a testament to his excellent taste and enduring interest in queer history. He had recently written a biography of the poet A. E. Houseman, whose poem “Oh Who Is That Young Sinner” gives the film its title, so it was all too perfect really. He and his partner Christopher kindly let me and my crew take over their home for a couple of days, where we shifted the furniture and artworks around to create the set. My colourist and I spent a long time unifying this with the archive sections, but they just seemed to be cut from the same cloth somehow.
It’s striking that John and Peter never know, for sure, who blackmailed them, though they suspect Luke. Have you thought about ending the story differently or giving it some kind of resolution or closure?
The script reveals more about Luke, but he remains fairly elusive. I think Elizabeth was quite bold in hinting at a sexual relationship between Peter and Luke, even though Peter states that Luke isn’t “queer,” which in turn implies that this relationship involved a financial transaction. The script ends with a shot of a man being led towards a prison, with some didactic narration in voice over about the necessity to change the law. It felt too on-the-nose to include the narration and the finality of the prison sentence. By not resolving the scenes between John and Peter I was trying to question why certain narratives are deemed acceptable and worthy of re-staging and others are simply never told. At the time, John and Peter represented the only acceptable face of homosexuality: young, white, male, upper-middle class, attractive, successful, victims. Thankfully things have evolved since then.
As the film says, there’s a sense that we take possession of history and subvert master narratives when we create archives. Did that resonate with your experience of creating your own archive with this very original documentary?
I think it’s vital that we create our own archives. If I have been creating one, I have been doing it very haphazardly, so I like the idea that the film is itself an archive, however partial it might be. I hope that the film opens up a space for people to think about the nature of archives, and to consider how their own stories can be told.
What is next for the film?
It’s a year since the film first premiered at International Film Festival Rotterdam, and with the LSFF award it seems to be gaining momentum, so I would love to be able to share it more widely. I’ve had some interest from a couple of online platforms, so I’m hoping that will happen soon.
What is next for you?
I’ve just started writing my first feature. It’s another queer-historical story, involving lots of archive research. I’m going further back in time than I have before, and it’s a very unusual story, so it’s proving fun and challenging to adapt.
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.