Gillian Freeman, who died on February 23rd 2019 aged 89, is perhaps not the best known literary name of the 1960s, but she wrote novels and screenplays that were surprisingly revolutionary in that decade and beyond. Her best known work is The Leather Boys, a 1961 novel that was filmed in 1964. Written originally under the pseudonym of Eliot George, the novel and film have often been promoted as proto-biker stories (just check out the New English Library cover below), which in a sense they are, but the real theme of the story is a gay love affair between a married man and a biker – edgy stuff indeed for the time. Freeman’s very successful book was one of several works that helps push the case for the legalisation and acceptance of homosexuality, and it does so within the context of a gripping story. This would become Freeman’s great strength – the ability to tackle big themes within novels that are commercially popular.
As important as The Leather Boys is, for us her most impressive novel is The Leader, first published in 1965. This is the cynical and continually prescient story of the rise to power off a new far right leader in the UK. Vincent Wright is a feeble, insignificant little man who nevertheless captures the public imagination through populist rabble-rousing for his party that Freeman named, rather remarkably, Britain First. It’d be nice to think that the real Britain First later took their name from the novel is some sort of self-aware moment, but I rather doubt that the organisation’s leaders were great readers. The novel is at times chilling, at others pithy and cynical, and although it deals with the far right, the message is clear regarding all cult-like political leaders of every stripe who manipulate the prejudices and resentment of their followers.
Freeman’s other well-known book was Nazi Lady: The Diaries of Elisabeth von Stahlenberg, 1933 – 1948, a great example of the fake diary, initially sold without Freeman’s name on the cover and purporting to be the memoirs of a Nazi social climber. The truth was soon exposed and Freeman was unfairly condemned as a hoaxer rather than a satirist, with critics who were taken in feeling foolish and so lashing out at the writer.
Our personal favourite of Freeman’s books is, in fact, not a work of fiction. The 1967 publication The Undergrowth of Literature is a vital and positive study of pornography and sexual fantasy in print, and is a fantastic time capsule of fetishism, men’s and women’s magazines and gay and lesbian publications from the pre-hardcore days – much of the book is devoted to what is described on the cover as ‘minority interests’ and is all the more impressive for it. For anyone interested in the evolution of erotica in the 1960s, or those with a taste for vintage kink, this book is essential reading, and Freeman’s sensible, liberal approach to the subject is admirable.
As well as writing books, Freeman worked as a writer some of the most interesting films of the 1960s. As well as writing the screenplay for the film version of The Leather Boys, she also wrote the unsettling and dark psychological drama That Cold Day in the Park, directed by Robert Altman, and provided ‘thought sequence’ dialogue for the fantastic The Girl on a Motorcycle. Not a bad career, all in all.