The subtitle to this delicious book is ‘A Chronicle of an Unusual Friendship’, and it would indeed be difficult to imagine two more unlikely companions than its author and his subject, the 80-year-old gay Irish film-maker Brian Desmond Hurst.
The straight and very English Robbins was young, green and broke when he was first introduced to Hurst by a bogus Count he’d met in Spain, as a possible scriptwriter for a forthcoming film. It was an unusual interview, conducted at a drunken lunch party in Hurst’s grand but shabby Belgravia drawing-room. To his astonishment, with no questions asked and no scriptwriting experience, Robbins was offered the job. The film, he learned, was to be a great religious epic covering ‘the events leading up to the birth of Christ’.
During the coming months as Robbins struggled to get his head round this fantastic commission for which he knew he was spectacularly ill-suited, he began to realize that he had indeed entered a fantasy world. Hurst, he discovered, really did have a distinguished past as a prolific if maverick film-maker who had worked with all the leading British stars of his day. Now he was old and on his uppers and living in the past. Yet with a fearful inevitability, the innocent Robbins was gradually drawn into Hurst’s louche and irresistibly irresponsible world, where rent boys mingled with dodgy members of the upper classes, and where champagne flowed but the milk bill was never paid. (‘Are you bi-sexual?’ he asked Hurst, after one particularly puzzling episode. “I’m tri-sexual,’ was the answer. ‘The Army, the Navy and the Household Cavalry.’)
Haughty, outrageous, infuriating, manipulative, Hurst was all those things, yet he was also witty, spirited, clear-eyed, often generous and always entertaining. The great religious epic was never made of course, Robbins was never paid and the script was never finished. But in The Empress of Ireland he produced a comic masterpiece, a picture of a particular kind of gay life in the 1970s, and of a wickedly unapologetic old rogue it’s impossible not to like.
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