The stylish actor’s 1975 conviction has been quashed and removed from the record books.
In some unexpected news, the Official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society has today announced that the fantastically debonair actor – best known as the flamboyant sleuth Jason King in both Department S and spin-off series Jason King and for his iconic role in the classic Sixties horror film Night of the Eagle – has had his 1975 conviction for gross indecency quashed. It might seem too little, too late, given that Wyngarde died in 2018 and the conviction saw his career – built on the image of a womanising playboy that was really just the character he played on TV but which people tended, with his encouragement, to blur into the actor himself – effectively destroyed. The quashing of the conviction might’ve been more of a vindication when he was alive, but still. It has now been “removed from all official documents and must be treated by the media & public as if it never happened”, a demand that might be rather hard to enforce – and perhaps shouldn’t be. Bear with me on this.
The convictions for ‘gross indecency’ that littered the 1970s and beyond – for the famous and unknown alike – were the result of police stings in public toilets and other spaces used by gay men to meet for casual sex. Homosexuality had been decriminalised in 1967 but, in a typically British bit of mean-spirited bigotry, enough laws remained in force to allow homophobic police forces and courts to harass, torment and ruin gay men who stepped out of line. Arresting people for gross indecency – which was basically any sort of non-penetrative sexual activity, from masturbation to (more often) oral sex – was an easy win for police forces that would send officers into public toilets in search of such activity. Then, as now, the police like an easy arrest – often, dare we say, a completely trumped-up arrest with only a police officer’s word that anything was taking place – that sends a stern moral message rather than investigating serious crime, which is much harder work and a bit more dangerous.
Men arrested for gross indecency were unlikely to fight back. Many of these men were still in the closet – perhaps even married men – and were keen to get the legal procedures over and done with as quickly and quietly as possible, which tended to mean pleading guilty in order to avoid a court case and so hopefully stay out of the newspapers. For a high-profile person like Wyngarde, that was never going to be an option. He pleaded guilty and was fined £75 by magistrates. That might not seem like much and today, it would hardly be an issue – as George Michael showed years later, you can turn an unwanted public outing and embarrassment like this into a career boost by showing no shame and instead attacking the ludicrous laws that allowed such cases to go to court in the first place. But 1975 was a very different time and – as ludicrous as it might seem now, looking at how camp the Jason King character actually was – Wyngarde was seen as the ultimate ladies’ man. After his conviction, he went from being a household name to a nobody overnight – he didn’t work in the UK again until 1980, when he appeared in Flash Gordon, behind a mask.
I understand the desire to expunge these convictions – I assume that Wyngarde’s friends and supporters have been lobbying for this over the years, as unfortunately, these cases are not being quashed by default. There has obviously been an effort to clear his name and well done to all involved in that. I understand why they are delighted with this result, and so am I. Why, then, do I say that these convictions shouldn’t be treated as though they had never happened? Well, there is a major difference between saying that a conviction was unfair, outrageous and the result of a bigoted and homophobic law, and saying that we should all pretend that the events “never happened at all”. That wording makes me uneasy. Whitewashing bad law out of existence, pretending that these arrests, trials and convictions never happened – and that the victims of it never suffered – seems dubiously revisionist. We can acknowledge that convictions were unjust and that laws were horrific without pretending that they never happened. These shameful convictions are a warning from history and we need to be careful about any effort to pretend that they didn’t exist – or, indeed, pretending that we have moved on all that far.
The crime that Wyngarde was convicted of was (and is) a disgrace, one used to police the behaviour of consenting adults by a moralistic society, and it is only right that these convictions are quashed. But let’s always remember that the law existed, the arrests happened and the court cases had real victims – relationships ruined, careers wrecked, families destroyed, lives lost. Treating these convictions as though they never happened does nothing for the people who were convicted but fits nicely into the government agenda that any dreadfulness of the past was an unfortunate mistake that we can all just forget about – but we gain nothing from rewriting history. Wyngarde was innocent of anything that a civilised society would consider to be criminal behaviour, yes – but we should always remember that he was wrongly convicted under a dodgy and moralising law by people who resented the fact that homosexuality was no longer a crime and were out to get gay men by any dubious legal means possible. Let’s never forget that, or the fact that these laws – and others like them – remain on the statute books of several countries, where they can still be used. Until all laws controlling the activities of consenting adults are removed and all such convictions quashed, we should not celebrate the cleansing of any individual case too much.
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