Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepgaelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

The BBC's Torin Douglas looks back at an extraordinary life
 real 28k

Sunday, 21 November, 1999, 15:05 GMT
Crisp: The naked civil servant

With his mauve hair and flamboyant dress, Quentin Crisp was unmistakable.

An openly gay man in a much less tolerant era, he became a best-selling author and a great British eccentric.

In 1976, the television film of his autobiography, 'The Naked Civil Servant', in which he was portrayed by John Hurt, turned the 68 year-old Crisp literally into an overnight celebrity.

Quentin Crisp was born Denis Pratt on Christmas Day 1908 to, as he called them, "middle-class, middle-brow, middling" parents in Sutton, Surrey. He was sent to boarding school in Derbyshire. It was, he said, 'a cross between a monastery and a prison.'

A young Quentin Crisp
Moving to London in the 1920's, he changed his name and worked as a nude model, book designer and prostitute. But his appearance and manner were frowned upon by 'respectable' society and he was was frequently beaten up.

In 1968 a radio appearence led him to write his autobiography. It was anything but an instant success, selling only 3500 copies. But, eight years later, the Granada Television adaptation of his book thrust Quentin Crisp into the limelight.

Never keep up with the Joneses; drag them down to your level. It's cheaper.
He became a regular on chat shows and had a simple formula.

"All you have to do is look pleased to be there." he said, "It's like going to a party. All you have to do is look as though as you're expected to enjoy yourself."

The stage beckoned. In 1978 he made his off-Broadway debut in 'An Evening with Quentin Crisp' and followed this with his Lady Bracknell in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'.

The self-proclaimed "Stately Homo of England" also appeared in a number of films including, most memorably, as Queen Elizabeth I in a big screen adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel 'Orlando'.

The author in his beloved Manhattan
He moved to New York in the early 1980's and lived, as ever, alone in a one room apartment which he famously never cleaned. "After four years," he quipped, "you don't notice the dust."

He continued to write, producing books like 'How to Have a Life-Style', 'Manners From Heaven', 'How to Be a Virgin' and 'Resident Alien', his acclaimed New York diaries.

Quentin Crisp was a man of impeccable manners and a slightly world-weary philosophy. His gently cynical wit was laced with memorable epigrams and he became something of a guru to a far younger generation who delighted in his individualism.

The man who once called himself 'invincibly peculiar' had triumphed over prejudice to become, paradoxically, part of the establishment that had once so cruelly mocked him.

Quentin Crisp: Some Memorable Quotes
  • "Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It's cheaper."

  • "If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style."

  • "It is explained that all relationships require a little give and take. This is untrue. Any partnership demands that we give and give and give and at the last, as we flop into our graves exhausted, we are told that we didn't give enough."

  • "It's no good running a pig farm badly for 30 years while saying, 'Really, I was meant to be a ballet dancer.' By then, pigs will be your style."

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites
Links to other UK stories are at the foot of the page.