Huw Lemmey in collaboration with Onyeka Igwe


Ungentle is a major new film commission based on a new script by Huw Lemmey and co–directed with Onyeka Igwe, exploring the complicated relationship between British espionage and male homosexuality.

Based on extensive historical research, the film is narrated by an imagined, enigmatic auteur whose fraught position as both a spy and gay man in the mid–20th century is troubled by sex, secrecy, politics and imperialism. The film edges at a fluidity and an atmosphere of unknowability, where the protagonist directs the scenes of the film from outside of the camera lens. Lemmey and Igwe employ the expansive potential of artist film, using the fictional and factual to challenge the nature of authorship and agency.

Filmed in 16mm, Ungentle is a visual journey through the history-laden British landscapes where these infamous stories emerged. It moves from St James’s Park, a historical cruising ground at the centre of British power, to Beaulieu, a historic country house in Hampshire that served as a Special Operations Executive training school, and its surrounding countryside.

Ungentle draws on the life stories of a number of important homosexual figures in British espionage, including famous Cambridge Five “traitors” Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, and loyal operatives Denis Rake, Noël Coward and Hardy Amies. The film also makes reference to the literary and visual languages of British spy movies and the literature of John Le Carré, while also seeking to trouble the styles and historical assumptions that have developed from them.

What emerges is a portrait of the shared experience of subterfuge, community and secrecy between homosexuals and spies, an unlikely common ground. Ungentle is a thoughtful reflection on the psychogeography of spy histories from multiplicitous perspectives, exploring the tensions between loyalty and lust, authentic selves and adopted beliefs, status and desire.

This is Lemmey’s first institutional exhibition, and the artists’ first collaboration.

Ungentle was commissioned and produced by Studio Voltaire. Supported The Studio Voltaire Council and The Ampersand Foundation, with additional support from Cockayne – The London Community Foundation and The Elephant Trust.

  1. Huw Lemmey is an artist and writer. He has published the novels Unknown Language (2020) Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell (2019) and Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse (2015). With Ben Miller, he hosts the highly-successful podcast Bad Gays, ‘about evil and complicated queers in history’. Their book, Bad Gays: A Homosexual History was recently published by Verso Books. Lemmey writes on digital culture, sexuality and politics for publications including Architectural Review, Icon, Art Monthly, L’Uomo Vogue, The Guardian and The White Review, among others. This new film work has developed directly from a walking tour by Lemmey, commissioned by Studio Voltaire in 2018 as part of the offsite project Rainbow Aphorisms.

  2. Onyeka Igwe lives and works in London, England. Her work has been presented in solo exhibitions and screenings at LUX, London, England (2021); Mercer Union, Toronto, Canada (2021); and Jerwood Arts, London, England (2019). Her video works have been screened at institutions and festivals including KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Germany (2020); London Film Festival, London, England (2020 and 2015); Rotterdam International Film Festival, Rotterdam, Netherlands (2020, 2019, and 2018); CC Matienzo, Buenos Aires, Argentina (2019); Smithsonian African American Film Festival, Washington, DC (2018); The Showroom, London, England, (2018); Institute of Contemporary Arts: ICA, London, England (2017); and Edinburgh Artist Moving Image, Edinburgh, Scotland (2016). She has been featured in major international presentations including the Dhaka Art Summit, Dhaka, Bangladesh (2020); and Berlin Biennale, Germany (2018). She was awarded the 2020 Arts Foundation Futures Award for Experimental Short Film and the 2019 Berwick New Cinema Award.

  3. A Film by Onyeka Igwe and Huw Lemmey
    Narrated by Ben Whishaw

    Writer Huw Lemmey
    Editor Onyeka Igwe
    Producer Pinky Ghundale

    Director of Photography Morgan K Spencer
    Assistant Camera Alex Lobsang
    Steadicam Operator James Thomas
    Driver Taz Sanusi

    Equipment hire McX Films
    Lighting hire Pixipixel
    Film Stock Kodak
    Film Laboratory Cinelab Film & Digital
    Colourist Joshua Callis-Smith
    Titles Artwork Alasdair MacKay
    Sound Design & Mix Stefan Smith

    Filmed at Locations
    Beaulieu Estate
    Dolphin Square, London
    Institute of Contemporary Arts, London
    Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
    Museum of Cambridge
    Palace Theatre, London
    St. Ermin's Hotel, London
    St James’s Park, London

    Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad: Is My Team Ploughing?
    Performed by Bryn Terfel, Malcom Martineau
    Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon
    Under licence from Universal Music Operations Limited

    Extract from
    A. E. Housman, “Is My Team Ploughing”. A Shropshire Lad, 1896.

    Laura Brown
    Paul Browne
    Christine Cowling-Jones
    Amy Cross
    Johnny Freitas
    Rachael Goldstraw
    Yiannis Koutsakos
    Stuart Leckie
    Gemma Mellish
    Tim Fordham Moss
    Komal Patel
    Habda Rashid
    Holly Roberts
    Alex Smaridge
    Becci Snape
    Eliza Spindel
    Tom Walsh
    Jane Yapp
    The Royal Parks

    The artists would additionally like to thank
    MJ Harding
    Jennifer Jones
    Peter Lemmey
    Tamar Shlaim
    Virgil Benjamin Goodman Taylor

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