A Very British Sex Scandal mixes drama with documentary testimony to tell the extraordinary story of the high society court case that scandalised society, electrified the nation and changed the course of British history.
In 1954, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his friend Peter Wildeblood were arrested after a concerted effort by the police to ensnare them for homosexual offences. Their subsequent trial and conviction were to mark a sea change in public opinion, which eventually led to the Wolfenden Committee’s landmark recommendations for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.
IF THE Montagu case of 1954 was the highest-profile gay trial since Oscar Wilde’s, then Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law, the published account of one of its protagonists, is its De Profundis. And, like Wilde’s text, Wildeblood’s book appeared both apologetic – perhaps for the very existence of homosexuals; and at the same combative – for their human rights.
Wildeblood was born in Alassio, on the Italian Riviera, in 1923, son of a retired engineer with the Indian Public Works Department, then secretary of a local tennis club; and the daughter of an Argentinian sheep-rancher. His mother was considerably younger than his father, and Wildeblood later wondered if the fact had affected his development.
Brought up in London, “I was . . . a remarkably unattractive child, exceedingly thin and clumsy, with spots and a mop of carroty hair.” When, at boarding school, he was nearly hit by the departing Rolls-Royce of another parent, he heard the mother exclaim, “Who was that hideous small boy we nearly ran over?” At 14 he went to Radley, where he increasingly retreated into a romantic, isolated world.
Wildeblood won a scholarship to Oxford in 1941, but instead volunteered for the RAF, where he worked as a meteorologist. He enjoyed its camaraderie and the blurring of class barriers. Stationed in Rhodesia for three years, he had a number of heterosexual affairs, but returning to take up his place at Trinity College, Oxford, he gravitated towards a homosexual milieu in the theatre and arts. He met an old schoolfriend who told him most of the officers he had served with at a naval station in Ceylon had been “gay . . . I had not heard the expression before,” wrote Wildeblood, “but apparently it was an American euphemism for homosexual. He was, of course, gay himself, and took it for granted that I was, too.”
Wildeblood now began an affair with a foreign prince – “I would not dream of embarrassing him by giving any clues to his identity” – mixing with cabinet ministers and brothel mistresses alike.
After Oxford Wildeblood drifted into journalism, working for the Daily Mail’s regional office in Leeds, then in Fleet Street itself. In Against the Law, published in 1955, Wildeblood portrays himself as a post-war product with a distaste for class distinctions: his first meeting with Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, then working in PR, stresses the peer’s lack of social pretences – “He was one of the most completely unsnobbish people I had ever met.” But it was class distinction that would, ironically, prove their downfall.
Wildeblood had also met Edward McNally “on a rainy night in Piccadilly Circus”. A 23-year-old corporal in the RAF, he was “weak . . . effeminate and – worst of all – he was one of those people whom I have described as an upside-down snob”, wrote Wildeblood – after the event. McNally complained of the privileges his “betters” had enjoyed, at his expense. “He annoyed me intensely, but at the same time I felt sorry for him.” It was not a good basis for the passionate relationship which developed between them
In the summer of 1953, Wildeblood arranged to holiday in a beach hut near Beaulieu owned by Montagu. McNally asked if an RAF friend, John Reynolds, could come, too. In London, the four of them, including Montagu, went to see Dial M For Murder at the theatre, destined for supper afterwards at Wildeblood’s, calling at Montagu’s Mount Street flat for a bottle of cider – not champagne, as was alleged in court, “typical of the false veil of sinful glamour subsequently thrown over the affair”, as Wildeblood wrote (although, as Patrick Higgins notes in his recent book Heterosexual Dictatorship, Wildeblood and Montagu were very much part of “fashionable London”).
The four reconvened at the soon-to-be infamous beach hut, along with others staying at Beaulieu that weekend, including Michael Pitt-Rivers, a Dorset landowner. “The party which followed has achieved more notoriety than any other since the days of Nero, but I feel bound to confess that it was, in fact, extremely dull,” wrote Wildeblood, although the airman attested to dancing men and abandoned behaviour. Some weeks later, in August 1953 Montagu and Kenneth Hume, an assistant film director, were arrested and charged with offences against two Boy Scouts whilst bathing near Beaulieu.
The new Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard, Commander E. A. Cole, encouraged by the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe’s call for “a new drive against male vice”, was effecting a clampdown on homosexual offences. Although Montagu was acquitted of the serious charge, a hung jury prompted a retrial. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the police involved appeared determined to secure a conviction; Wildeblood’s relationships – revealed by an RAF investigation into the airmen’s private lives – would provide them with the catalyst.
At 8am on 9 January 1954, Montagu, Wildeblood and Pitt-Rivers were simultaneously arrested in Hampshire, Dorset and London. Two police officers arrived at Wildeblood’s Canonbury house, searched it without a warrant, and charged him – five hours later – with homosexual offences. The three men were also charged with conspiracy to incite acts of gross indecency – the first time this charge had been used since the Wilde trials (as Patrick Higgins notes, “The lawyer who drew up the charges possibly had been studying the Victorian case from the many accounts which appeared in the early 1950s”). Kenneth Tynan, a friend from Oxford, stood bail for Wildeblood.
In the eight-day trial at Winchester McNally and Reynolds turned Queen’s Evidence against the three accused. Wildeblood’s letters to McNally were read out, with their embarrassing endearments. As he later commented, “If my interest in McNally had been merely physical, I should never have gone to prison. It was the letters which I had written to him, expressing a deep emotional attachment, which turned the scales against me.” Higgins, however, finds Wildeblood’s account “extremely misleading”; the case did not rest solely on the much-vilified airmen and their evidence: “The existence of the letters and the nature of the association between men of such diverse backgrounds were what ultimately secured the conviction.” Class, as much as sexual prejudice, was their downfall.
On 24 March 1954, Wildeblood was found guilty of conspiring to incite acts of gross indecency. He was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. His name was splashed across headlines by reporters he knew, his face in photographs by photographers he knew; “I had ousted the Mau Mau, McCarthy and even a pair of Siamese twins from the front page.” Wildeblood complained that they used only one photograph, which made him look deathly white – ironically, 45 years later, exactly the same photograph would be used in his obituaries.
The notion of a 1950s gay witch-hunt inspired by the MacCarthy purges in America has since been doubted. Higgins demonstrates in Heterosexual Dictatorship that Wildeblood and his “conspirators” were in fact victims of a generally increased awareness of homosexuality, and an appetite for its sensational exploitation in the press; the McCarthyite witch-hunt was a myth in which Wildeblood was complicit; there was no evidence of a “set-up”, merely an effort to vindicate the Director of Public Prosecution’s decision to prosecute Montagu.
Even as they were gaoled, movements were afoot to reform the law (as well as disquiet about the manner in which the police had prosecuted the case). In prison, Wildeblood received smuggled accounts copied from newspapers on to lavatory paper (his sometimes hilarious account of prison life occasionally resembles an out-take from the television sitcom Porridge). On his release – he was met by the Earl of Longford (who had been visiting him in prison) and his daughter Antonia in one car, and Patrick Thursfield, Wildeblood’s loyal college friend in another – Wildeblood gave evidence to the Wolfenden Committee on Homosexual Offences. Wolfenden and other committee members were hostile to Wildeblood, whose testimony they found bitter and unreliable; other prominent gay men thought likewise, and were keen to make representations to the committee to balance Wildeblood’s “self-hating” stance.
But it was Wildeblood who received the publicity and, it must be remembered, made a personal stand. When Against the Law appeared in 1955, its account of his experiences, not only at the hands of the law and the British establishment, but the appalling conditions in Wormwood Scrubs, encouraged a campaign for prison, as well as homosexual, reform. C.H. Rolph wrote in the New Statesman that it was “the noblest, and wittiest, and most appalling prison book of them all”. To Wildeblood, “it was merely part of the story which had been implicit in me from the day when I was born”.
Having been sacked by the Daily Mail, Wildeblood opened a drinking club in Berwick Street, Soho, and wrote a fictionalised biography, A Way of Life, published in 1956, followed by two novels, The Main Chance (1957) and West End People (1958), which was made into a musical. In 1959 he co-operated with Peter Greenwell – later to become Noel Coward’s accompanist – in a gangland musical, The Crooked Mile, produced in Cambridge and London. Greenwell recalls that it had “universally good notices . . . Peter and I got on terribly well . . . I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life.”
Their second collaboration, House of Cards, was less favourably received, although Greenwell notes that it became “one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s favourite musicals”, and one of its numbers, “If I Ever Fall in Love”, was recorded by Webber’s then wife, Sarah Brightman.
The critical reception disillusioned Wildeblood, and in 1969 he joined Granada as a television producer. A third Wildeblood-Greenwell musical, The People’s Jack, based on the life of John Wilkes, was televised in 1969; a series, Rogue’s Gallery, appeared in 1968, followed by Six Shades of Black, six black comedies written by Wildeblood for which Greenwell also composed music, as he did for Victoria Regina, an adaptation of Laurence Housman starring Patricia Routledge as the Queen.
As late as 1993 Wildeblood wrote to Greenwell suggesting they collaborate again. Greenwell held his work in high esteem. “I really think his facility for lyric writing was second only to Noel Coward. After Against the Law people expected his writing to be terribly deep, but it wasn’t, it was very light and amusing.”
Wildeblood was appointed executive producer of plays at LWT in 1969, but in the early 1970s, increasingly disenchanted with England, he moved to Canada to work for the CBC in Toronto. He spent the rest of his life there, moving to Vancouver and occasionally travelling: encountering Wildeblood in the 1980s, Hugo Vickers was impressed by a “nice, civilised, straight” man amongst the sometimes shrill cafe society of Tangiers. In June 1994 he was paralysed by a stroke, but bravely learnt to access a computer using his chin.
Wildeblood’s legacy, still debated, is clear to such friends as Edward Montagu and Patrick Thursfield, who thinks the current generation owes much to “Peter’s coming clean . . . Against the Law was about facing it, accepting it, and having it permanently with you, but getting rid of the nightmare.” Thursfield felt that the case “remained very much a part of his life, but, after Against the Law was published, he expected not to have to explain it all. He remains the person to whom a lot of that change was due.”
“I had chosen to be myself,” wrote Wildeblood in Against the Law, which, by coincidence, was republished only days before its author’s death as a mark of its historical importance, “and I must go on to the end; there must be no abdication, no regret . . . In a world of hypocrites, I would at least be honest.”
by Philip Hoare
Peter Wildeblood, journalist, writer and film producer: born Alassio, Italy 19 May 1923; died Victoria, British Columbia 13 November 1999.