HUGH RYAN: Let’s situate Tommy and David’s story for an American audience a little bit. I think most people here have a vague understanding of American queer history, which gets boiled down to: “It got better.” But how does that relate to English queer history? The Nutters are born at the end of World War II and the book goes up through the start of the AIDS crisis and into the 1990s. What was that time like in England?
LANCE RICHARDSON: Right, that’s an interesting question. So the Nutter Brothers by nature of where they lived actually straddled the gay history of both countries. They were born in England just before and during World War II (they’re three years apart), and at that time, just like in the United States, it was illegal to be gay.
As you had the Lavender Scare here in the United States, the same sort of thing was happening over in Britain. There was a big purge — a government minister named David Maxwell Fyfe led this really horrendous crackdown on gay people. There were stories about entrapment, which actually almost happened to David.
There was a very famous scandal that became known as the “Montagu case,” which involved the youngest peer in the House of Lords, who was basically accused of having immoral relations with a Boy Scout. He was acquitted because there was no real evidence, but the police decided they were going to get him and he got pulled into a subsequent scandal pretty much immediately, which involved a couple of other men. (Last year, this story was the subject of a miniseries called Against The Law on the BBC.)
These three men were put on trial and their reputations were shredded. But the government overestimated the public’s homophobia, I suppose, and there was a blowback against the way that the men had been treated, particularly Lord Montagu. In response to this blowback, the government convened a committee, the Wolfenden Committee as it became known (the guy who led it was Sir John Wolfenden). The purpose was to look at the laws against homosexuality and prostitution.
The committee basically advised that the government should decriminalize homosexuality, but nothing was done for a couple years. This was the early ’60s — that’s when the Nutters were coming of age and going to these amazing gay spaces — queer clubs like the Rockingham — when it was illegal to be in them, to be fraternizing with those people. What’s really interesting is that when I talked to David Nutter (who is still alive), I expected him to say it was a scary time. But he actually loved it. He loved that it was illegal. He felt like he was part of a secret club and that they were all essentially part of this brotherhood.
And then, in 1967, homosexuality was decriminalized.
Was there a Stonewall Riot moment?
No. The government just finally decided to act on the Wolfenden Report. Tommy and David Nutter were both still in London at the time. But David had visited New York before the Stonewall Riots, and found that same sense of being in a secret club. Then, after Stonewall, he liked that you could be yourself here in the city. He talks about feeling like New York is very erotic and that drew him to it.
David left London for New York for good in 1971 and got caught up in the sexual revolution, which didn’t really happen to the same extent in Britain. It’s really interesting to read the letters between these two brothers. Obviously New York became quite famous for these incredibly hedonistic clubs in the ’70s, whereas there was a real lag over in London.
Later, Tommy visited New York, essentially to get a fix, at the bathhouses and on Fire Island — London had had its swinging ’60s moment and it had passed. By the ’70s the baton had been handed over to America, where the culture felt more adventurous and licentious. But then AIDS came along and put a stop on things here, or at least made everything scarier. That also happened in Britain, but in a different way because there was a lag with AIDS as well. AIDS was in Britain pretty early but not to the same extent. It was the American disease —
Yeah. It was like this thing: don’t fraternize with the Americans. And you would have people from American activist groups in New York go over and tell the Brits, “It’s coming, the train is coming and you need to be aware of this.” Of course, it was already there at the time.
But there was a lot of dismissing it as just an American thing.
Then you had Margaret Thatcher trying to pass pretty horrendous anti-gay legislation. So England had a reactionary moment again in the late ’80s, which I touch on lightly in the book.
I want to go back to something you said, this idea of being gay as being part of a secret club. There’s this running thread in queer history, where queerness enables class jumping, or acts as a secret route through society and up. Was that true for the Nutters?
Absolutely. Let’s take the example of the Rockingham Club, the nightclub that they went to in the early ’60s, every Sunday night. It wasn’t exactly lowbrow, but it wasn’t exclusionary to the point where these young kids who didn’t have very much money couldn’t get in. So they were fraternizing with movie stars and people who worked for the royal family, Grenadier Guards and things like that.
They mixed with a huge spectrum of people across the social classes in a way that I don’t think people their age in the straight world would ever have. A straight club reproduces the social structure and the mores of wider society. At a gay space, at this time, you’re outside convention, outside of respectability — those things are temporarily suspended, because everyone had to go to the same places.
Did being queer help them in their careers? In some ways it held them back, I know. But did it also help?
In terms of connections, for sure. Tommy Nutter got involved with the Beatles because his boyfriend was Peter Brown, Brian Epstein’s personal assistant. In fact, the day after Epstein died of a drug overdose, Peter Brown was standing in his apartment in shock when Tommy called and asked if he needed someone to come over and look after him. He did, and that’s how they started their relationship. And through that relationship Tommy ended up getting all these incredible professional leg-ups. He was given opportunities because of his talent, but also because of his relationships.
It was really important to me to illustrate how the relationship between Tommy and Peter functioned. Even though by the time they were together it was legal to be gay, they did not immediately assume a heteronormative relationship. It was very much a queer relationship and I wanted to illustrate for readers what that meant at that moment. When Tommy went cruising in the park, it didn’t in any way diminish the legitimacy of their relationship, it did not mean that he was cheating, it was just their arrangement.
That’s why I put in the stuff about him going cruising in Hampstead Heath. Not because it’s titillating, but because it says something about his sense of freedom and what it meant to be a gay man in London at that time, that he felt that he could do that.
Did researching this history make you reflect differently on your life or on queer life in the United States as it is right now?
It definitely made me more appreciative of gay clubs. A gay bar is not just a place you go drinking; it is this incredibly special environment. So much that we enjoy now started in these special sacred places — Fire Island, for example. Spaces that fall outside the mainstream where people could and can let their hair down and show who they really are.
And then the AIDS crisis. To follow two people through that period brought it to life for me. I hadn’t really understood what it meant to watch all your friends die, and to survive. We tend to think of AIDS as having happened in the past: a lot of people were devastated, and then we moved on. But there are people walking around today who are still dealing with the fallout — here in New York especially. And that was eye-opening for me.
I found writing the book to be emotional. The research was fascinating, but when you write a biography like this one, you tend to write chronologically. You follow these people through their lives and you become attached.
So in the later chapters, when Tommy gets HIV and ultimately dies of complications related to AIDS, I felt like I was living through that myself. I sat at my computer every day for weeks on end and trolled through these raw and searing transcripts with his friends talking to me about what it meant to be in his hospital room, and I had to construct that story — to bring it to life for the reader. It’s a lot to do that. There were days where I was like I really just need to not do this any more for a little while. But it was important to be completely honest to his experience, as awful as it was, so I just pushed myself into the dark spaces.
I think if Tommy had survived, if he’d lived maybe three more years to get that cocktail, and he had managed to find someone who was sensible with money to give him the resources he needed, he would be Paul Smith. He was a creative force, but a completely rubbish businessperson.
And what about David?
David watched his brother and all his friends die around him, and it shocked him so deeply that he really became a recluse for 20 years. He’s a little like a ghost — he floats around New York, photographing strangers on the subway. People don’t see him but he’s there.
When I met him a few years ago he really didn’t appreciate the value of his life. The process of working with him was, I think, a bit of a tour through his own history. It made him realize what he’d been through and how amazing his life is.
Hugh Ryan is a writer and curator in Brooklyn, New York. More at hughryan.org / @hugh_ryan.