This review contains spoilers.
Director Fergus O’Brien combines drama and real-life testimonies in this superbly performed and deeply moving one-off drama that will make your blood boil.
Against The Law is one of the many dramas to come out (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the BBC’s ‘Gay Britannia’ season, a collection of programmes that mark the Fiftieth anniversary of Sexual Offences Act of 1967, the first legislative step towards the complete legalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom. The drama tells the true story of Peter Wildeblood, a journalist who found himself imprisoned for ‘buggery’ alongside friends Lord Montagu and Michael Pitt-Rivers in the famous 1954 ‘Montagu case’.
Using interviews with gay men who lived through the Montagu case to intercut the dramatisation of real events, we are offered both a gripping story and an insight into life as a gay man in the 1950s. This format may feel a little unorthodox in the drama’s opening minutes but what results is a multi-faceted and emotional exploration of what it was like to be homosexual in a time when it was a punishable disability. Against The Law is neither just drama nor just documentary, it’s something far more powerful for having elements of both.
Against The Law depicts the social climate of the time through real newspaper headlines, interviews and the dramatisation of the fate of Peter Wildeblood (Daniel Mays), who finds himself imprisoned for 18 months for engaging in sexual activity with another man. It was a time in which being a gay man was perceived an illness and the media generated fear-mongering propaganda against homosexual men. It was also a time in which gay men were encouraged to turn over their fellow gay friends or partners to the police with the promise of a lighter sentence for themselves as a result. The latter is played upon a great deal within the drama, with Mays depicting Wildeblood’s dismay with moving subtlety as he finds himself the victim of another gay man “saving his own skin”.
Daniel Mays delivers an astonishing performance as Peter Wildeblood, a man who is palpably lonely and endearingly shy when hesitantly announcing to a man in a gay pub “I’m a homosexual”. As one of the men expresses in his interview, there was something exciting about having to hide from the law to pursue a gay relationship and the love affair that takes place between Wildeblood and airman Eddie McNally (Richard Gadd) is imbued with all of the passion of two men forced to hide their desires. Their relationship is not only wholly believable but utterly heartbreaking and Wildeblood’s hurt and betrayal is present in every flicker of Mays’ eyes as he stands trial for the most harmless thing in the world: loving someone.
Mark Gatiss makes a brief and reliably strong appearance as the stern Dr Landers, a figure whose presence prompts the most disturbing and upsetting accounts of being gay in the 1950s from the interviewees. Wildeblood is sent to Landers to ‘cure’ his homosexuality and is offered therapies that range from psychiatric help to electrical and chemical aversion therapy, explained in horrific detail by the unflinching doctor to the terrified Wildeblood. If nothing moves you greatly up until this point, this segment will hit you with its pure shock factor. Oh, the things we humans are capable of doing to each other.
Against The Law is an essential watch that aptly airs on the very same day that the President of the United States of America has forbidden the inclusion of transgender individuals in the armed forces. It is a painful reminder that anyone who is not heterosexual and gender normative continues to fight prejudice even with the law on their side. The drama offers an important look back at how far we have come and praises the power of words: only when a taboo is discussed can it begin to slowly break down.