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BFI LLGFF FILM REVIEW: BETTE BOURNE – IT GOES WITH THE SHOES
On 9 September 1971 Mary Whitehouse took her Festival of Light to Methodist Central Hall, Westminster. As Whitehouse and other religious fanatics (including the anodyne Cliff Richard) spouted from the bible, chaos erupted when founding members of the Gay Liberation Front, some disguised as nuns, began to unleash porn from the balcony. Among those present was performer Betty Bourne. Later in court, the judge asked Bourne to remove his elaborate hat. “No,” Bourne flatly replied, “It goes with the shoes.”
This is just one of many delicious anecdotes to be found in Jeremy Jeff’s and Mark Ravenhill’s homage to the gay activist who was at the forefront of the fight for gay rights in the UK.
This gem of a film is centred around footage from conversations between Bourne and Ravenhill from the 2010 Soho Theatre play A Life in Three Acts and further interviews with Ravenhill. It opens as Bourne prepares to accept a fellowship from the Central School of Speech and Drama, where he trained as an actor before going on to a successful career in television and theatre throughout the 1960s.
We learn that Bette, who was born Peter Bourne in London’s East End in 1939, had a growing profile from appearing in TV hits such as The Avengers and The Prisoner, before leaving all this behind to join a Gay Liberation Front drag commune in Notting Hill. An off the cuff remark by a lover (“you’re not being yourself”) led Peter to rename himself Bette and form the hugely successful drag group, The Bloolips, who went on perform in Europe and New York.
Archive footage and interviews with other founding members of the GLF are interspersed with shots of Bourne walking through present day London with Ravenhill as we get a glimpse into the city’s secret history and changing landscape. Wisely, Jeffs and Ravenhill choose to conduct their interviews in their subjects’ homes, rather than the usual soulless white backdrops. This only adds to the humanity of the piece.
Bourne is a natural performer with impeccable comic timing. His sparklingly witty stories are tinged with infinite wisdom and an aching poignancy. Reflections on his relationship with his father are especially powerful and in the subtle twist of a mouth, or a close-up shot of a flickering eye lid we’re given an insight into a history of conflict and pain. It’s fiercely honest filmmaking.
The strength of this film is that it resists slipping into mere nostaligia. This is largely due to Bette Bourne’s exuberant personality. In his seventh decade he remains as razor sharp as ever and dominates the screen. Yet what we’re getting here is not empty theatricality, but the truth. There’s a hard-earned integrity behind his observations on a time when gay people had no choice but to be pioneers fighting for survival.
Jeffs and Ravenhill have created a tender evocation of a bygone era, yet also one which remains as relevant today as ever. It’s difficult not to come away from this film without wondering where today’s gay role models are, and indeed, what will become of us without more Bette Bournes. In documenting Bourne’s life, however, the hope is that perhaps the younger generation will break with the current tide of political apathy to take up the mantle and continue to forge new, brave ways of living.
Words: Alex Hopkins