Against The Law is part of the BBC’s Gay Britannia season. Michael Fenn finds out from those behind the factual dramatisation, including actor Daniel Mays, how it was brought to the screen

The decriminalisation of homosexuality is a topic at the heart of new factual drama Against The Law, which depicts a time when men were imprisoned, and subject to a series of inhumane treatments, for having same-sex relationships.

It is part of the BBC's Gay Britannia season marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which will feature stories that celebrate the LGBTQ community, as well as challenging existing preconceptions and prejudices.

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Against The Law follows the true story of Peter Wildeblood, a journalist who in 1954 was one of five men charged with homosexual acts.

It is directed by Fergus O'Brien, who in 2013 made a documentary with Stephen Fry exploring what it is like to be openly gay around the globe and how public attitudes differ from place to place.

On covering the theme of homosexuality, he says: "Well, you make these programmes and you kind of hope they will make a difference and maybe they do. But sadly, I think things are getting a little worse. I don't want to get too political."

O'Brien feels we need to keep a check on bigotry.

"I just think what's going on in Chechnya is a horrific example, putting gay people in concentration camps," he says.

"Now, that's happening. And there are things a little closer to home that make me feel uncomfortable."

Writer Brian Fillis, who adapted Wildeblood's book of the same title, also voices his concerns about the need for vigilance.

"We've just depicted (in the drama), I hope quite graphically, the evils of aversion therapy. America has a vice president who actually holds some faith in the notion of chemical aversion therapy. That's quite scary I think."

Wildeblood, who had served in the war and worked as a Fleet Street journalist, is played by Daniel Mays, and we join him as he first meets Eddie McNally (Richard Gadd) through to his trial and subsequent testimony.

The Montagu Trial, as it came to be known, involved the trial of Conservative politician Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, prominent landowner Michael Pitt-Rivers, and Wildeblood himself.

The three men were all found guilty of a string of offences, following testimonies of two RAF servicemen - one of whom Wildeblood had fallen for.

When Wildeblood was finally freed from prison, he was so incensed with the unjust laws that he sought to use his pen to help bring about change.

His book, Against The Law, was largely influential in effecting huge change, both legally and socially; as was his testimony as part of the Wolfenden report - a committee which decided that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults should no longer be deemed a criminal offence.

Mays, who has starred in The Bank Job, Mrs Biggs and Line Of Duty, admits the role pushed him out of his comfort zone, but saw the real value in highlighting this story.

"This is a really timely piece and I agree with you we should be constantly reminding ourselves to live in an accepting and tolerant society as much as possible," notes the actor, 39.

He believes the drama is "a profound, important piece of work" and an example, as an actor, of "feeling the fear and going for it".

"At this point in my career, I want to be involved in projects that obviously entertain us but enlighten our minds as well," he says. "I had to think about it but in the end, once I'd committed, it was a wondrous thing."

Despite his legacy, Wildeblood was a fiercely private man.

"It was his worst nightmare, the fact his private life, his sexuality, was spilled out all over the front of the newspapers," highlights Mays.

"So once he'd testified, once he wrote the book, he slipped into obscurity again. He just wanted to state his case really."

Wildeblood was also not without fault.

"It was great to be able to portray Peter as a hero, but a flawed one," O'Brien remarks.

"And I think Danny did such a good job of bringing that to life and seeing all the cogs turning in his head and how internal a lot of that struggle was for him. And trying to keep a brave face on it."

He had thought long and hard about how to aptly commemorate the anniversary, but admits he always had Wildeblood's book at the back of his mind.

"I'd read it years ago and so I managed to get a copy of it again and read it. It seemed to me that his story really summed it up in a way that was personal and that people could relate to," he says.

"You could put yourself in his position quite easily and the power with which he wrote his book really transported you back to a time which is hard to believe was only 60 years ago where it was just so impossible to be true to your sexual self."

Woven through this powerful drama is real-life testimony from some of the men who lived through those dark days.

The power of these men articulating how laws once forced them to lead clandestine, lonely and chastised lives is both stirring and heart-breaking.

"It's not just a story where you can sit down and think 'oh, that was a cosy drama that happened a long time ago'. These are things that were happening to people who are still with us," says O'Brien.

"It feels an incredibly important time to be able to make this film, and for the BBC to allow us to make the film. To show us how much things can change (in 50 years) but things can change for the worse and we need to keep an eye on it."

  • Against The Law airs on BBC Two on Wednesday July 26. It will then be available on iPlayer.