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Hugely controversial on its initial release in April 1978, Nighthawks was one of the first British movies to accurately depict the life of a gay man in London. The film is still available on DVD as a digital transfer with fully restored image and sound supervised by the original Director Ron Peck. The DVD also features a specially commissioned documentary on the making and and impact of Nighthawks presented by Matt Lucas from Little Britain. Second Run DVD's Andy Townsend explains more about the importance of the film, which first reached our screens
Nighthawks is the story of Jim, a geography teacher at a London comprehensive school. Living alone in a cramped flat, his sexuality a half open secret to everyone but his pupils and his parents, he spends the evenings at gay bars and discos looking vainly for 'Mr Right'.
As early as 1975, Ron Peck conceived of a film that would break with the stereotypical 'camp' and/or problematic representation of homosexuals (or 'inverts' as they were described in 1961 British film 'Victim'). Nighthawks would show gay life as it was experienced by gays in an everyday, contemporary context: non-actors would appear in the film, only gays would play gay characters, and their experiences would inform the screenplay. Predictably, funding took years to secure. In 1976 Paul Hallam joined the project and collaborated on the early drafts of the script with Peck. Pre-production and video workshops were only just kept afloat by small contributions from individuals and groups, but the collaborators managed to shoot a short test sequence and this secured an offer of free facilities and equipment and finally a modest but barely sufficient budget of 60,000 that enabled shooting to go ahead in 1978.

Over the long pre-production period, as their central character, Jim, began to take on a life of his own, the film makers scaled down their original rather naive ambition to make 'the definitive gay movie'. Nevertheless, Peck rejected the strictures of both a closed narrative and the closed morality that goes with it. With its extensive use of long takes, real locations and emphasis on lived experiences, Nighthawks brings an unprecedented emotional and physical authenticity to the subject.

It can be said that Nighthawks laid the foundations for subsequent gay feature films in the United Kingdom. The sharp eyed will spot Derek Jarman (whose Butlers Wharf studio was used as a location in the film) loitering hopefully in the background of one disco scene.

On release in 1979 Nighthawks proved commercially successful running for 9 weeks at London's Gate Cinema and hugely controversial. It polarised opinion within the gay and critical communities winning praise and condemnation in equal amounts.

A similar pattern repeated itself throughout Europe and the USA when the film was released there. In certain territories the content seemed less controversial but Peck's filmmaking style was both lauded and dismissed in equal measure:

"There is not one redeeming cinematic element in the film. Suffice it to say that if there is no word for negative talent, one should now be invented to talk about Ron Peck and Paul Hallam." David Overbey in Paris Metro September 1979

"As it turns out Nighthawks is a sensitively acted and broodingly directed meditation on the day-by-day and night-by-night realities of the gay scene in London.... The acting is so fluent, graceful and accomplished that an unbearable intimacy is created." Andrew Sarris in Village Voice July 1979

The film was banned in Greece and even 5 years after its release continued to cause controversy when it was broadcast on Channel 4 as part of a series of films programmed by the respected critic David Robinson. The British tabloids, already gunning for Channel 4, had a field day further cementing the films notoriety.

As well as being an important film in both its style and content Nighthawks stands apart as a crucial archival record of 1970's London. A London of browns, greys, nasty shirts and crappy beer. Not the London of endless 'I Love The 70's' nostalgia fests. It is a London that is pre-Ikea, pre-gastropubs, pre-'lifestyle'. In their desire to present an authentic story Peck and Hallam also presented an authentic picture of a long gone capital on the cusp of Thatcherism that was about to undergo a seismic change.

Nighthawks is now available at DVD stores around the country and online from Amazon.

The entire film can also be watched on the BFI Player.

 

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