I do remember John Curry’s Olympic Gold medal at Innsbruck in 1976 but I don’t think I took much notice at that time. I didn’t follow his career as a professional skater who then took skating into theatres and opera houses as well as arenas. I was therefore surprised and intrigued to discover Curry’s story in this documentary directed by James Erskine, a prolific director of film and TV documentaries and fictions, many with a sports background. The film was released in February this year in the UK just as the Olympics in Pyeongchang were ending. It also coincided with the UK release of the American film I, Tonya (US 2017) based on the experiences of another, rather different, Olympic skater Tonya Harding. The Ice King opened on 5 screens, I Tonya Harding opened on 338 screens. The Ice King struggled to find audiences in cinemas despite excellent reviews, mainly because Dogwoof only placed it in only a handful of cinemas. Their strategy is to use the release profile to promote it on other platforms. It screened in the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ documentary slot this week and is currently available on iPlayer in the UK as well as online and on DVD from Dogwoof.
The Ice King is a conventional sports ‘biodoc’ that benefits from some excellent film archive research and the use of material which on-screen titles suggest is “the only known record” of the various ice dance performances by John Curry and his company of dancers. Some of this archive material is presented inside a form of masking that signifies its status – and preserves its aspect ratio – the mask allows the jagged edges of the film frame to show, suggesting it is running through a projector. Most of the TV material appears to have been cropped to fit the 16:9 ratio, but there might be some slightly squashed images. Overall, I didn’t find this a problem.
Research also finds home movie footage and clips from Curry’s appearances on well-known TV programmes of the time (i.e. in the 1970s) on the children’s programme Blue Peter and The Michael Parkinson Show (chat show). Looking at these clips now, of John Curry outside of his performance arenas, I recognise him as a gay man and simply a very beautiful and charming interviewee. I didn’t see those clips at the time and it’s difficult to think back and try to re-discover the attitudes of a time of transition when, in the UK, consensual sex between men (over 21) was no longer illegal but being forced ‘out’ was still a major issue, especially for athletes and sports personalities. It was also the period just before AIDS terrified populations in the early 1980s. The documentary leads us into this story by showing a clip of the British TV series Man Alive and American film from the 1960s when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. The American clip is simply terrifying when a large audience of children is warned (especially the boys) that same sex relationships are dangerous and that they could ruin lives forever (“1 in 3 of you could turn queer and the rest of your life will be a living hell.”. This clip reminded me of those propaganda films warning of nuclear attacks and instructing small children how to behave when the sirens go off.
In John Curry’s case his problems began with his father who refused to allow him to train as a ballet dancer but accepted skating because its athleticism could be seen as more ‘manly’. Curry was able to train as a skater from an early age but he found that the skating competition authorities were also prejudicial in how they constructed and judged performances. The sport was dominated by Cold War antics and the film suggests that it was a Czech judge who broke ranks and voted for Curry that helped him become a champion. Curry would become a pioneer of an expressive dance style which gradually moved ice skating from purely ‘figure skating’ exercises towards the idea of the ice dance. When in 1976 he won Olympic Gold to go with his European and World titles, he retired from the sport and moved into professional presentations of ice shows in which he hired well-known classical and contemporary dance choreographers and was able to pursue his love of ballet. The second, and longer, section of the documentary deals with the highs and lows of his career as dancer, choreographer and promoter. I was unaware of this career and it was a revelation to watch the beautiful and imaginative performances that he and his dancers produced in the most unlikely places (the Albert Hall in London, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York) and to marvel at how ice rinks were constructed on an opera stage. The film suggests that Curry accidentally ‘outed’ himself in an interview with an American journalist and was then subject to tabloid coverage in the UK. Since he left ‘sport’ as such and became a dance ‘performer’ he didn’t suffer the UK media pressure that had a more damaging impact on the footballer Justin Fashanu when he confirmed he was a gay man in 1990.
Although the documentary is generally conventional in format, it does begin with John as a competitive dancer who is lucky to find a family of skaters in New York in 1971 who provide a room and friendship for a lonely young man. Later he finds an American millionaire who becomes his sponsor and helps him with expenses. Flashbacks to his childhood then fill in the background. There seems to be a conscious decision at this point to avoid further discussion of his father’s negative feelings and his death when John was only 16. There is no mention either of his schooldays. His father was an engineer who owned his own small factory and John was sent to independent schools, boarding for a period. This must have had an impact on a lonely teenager, whose only outlet seems to have been competitive skating. There must be a reason for this omission but since a large part of the film is John Curry’s struggle with his own demons and his sometimes difficult relationships it seems odd. His ‘inner thoughts’ are expressed in the film through passages from his personal letters which are read by Freddie Fox and appear on screen as hand-written text.
In her Sight and Sound review Hannah McGill suggests that the title ‘The Ice King’ refers to both Curry’s prowess on the ice and to his emotional state. I can see this but several of the interviewees suggest that once you got to know him, this ‘iciness’, proved to be false. Loneliness and the memory of his father’s rejection (his mother later became his biggest supporter) that created insecurity seem to have been the main drivers of his perfectionism. The Ice King is based on a book Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry by Bill Jones (Bloomsbury 2014) which offers more revelations than some of the earlier accounts of Curry’s life. He died of an AIDS related illness in 1994. McGill suggests that director Erskine tried to make a film like Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010) or Amy (2015) but seems to leave too many gaps in the story. She suggests that Curry was never the kind of global star that Ayrton Senna became, nor was there the social media material about Curry’s life so there perhaps wasn’t enough ‘extant material’ to tell the story in the Kapadia way, i.e. without a commentary or explanatory talking heads. These are good points and it is perhaps significant that the film is relatively short – 83 mins on TV. Still, I think Erskine succeeds in thrilling us with the material he has found and perhaps performing a service by suggesting that John Curry did have friends he loved as well as enjoying the gay scene in the late 1970s/early 80s before AIDS struck. I’ll certainly remember him now and I recommend The Ice King.