The Extraordinary Life of April Ashley review – the trans icon steals the limelight yet again

<span>Photograph: Vic Singh/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Vic Singh/Shutterstock

For a character as fabled as April Ashley, this is the way to frame a documentary about her – through other people’s eyes. For Simon Callow, who always says (and enunciates) it best, his beloved friend – the model, London socialite and restaurateur who was among the first to undergo gender realignment surgery – was “a self-made woman in the most literal sense”. When Ashley came to his house for supper or parties: “It was like meeting a character from a novel … She was queenly. She had exquisite manners and diction. And behind that magnificent exterior there was a scouse fighter.”

For Boy George: “It wasn’t drag. April was a woman.” Grayson Perry, who briefly dated her, remembers walking into a party in 1983 and “there was April Ashley in all her glory … Seductive. Vampy. There was a lot of alcohol involved.” Juno Dawson notes how Ashley passed not just as a woman but “as a woman of the upper classes”. For Peter Tatchell: “The idea that she might be trans never entered anyone’s head.”

There are lots of stellar contributors in The Extraordinary Life of April Ashley (Channel 4), which airs seven months after her death at the age of 86. It’s a zippy, entertaining, slightly superficial documentary, though perhaps one that’s also grimly apt for a woman so fundamentally unseen for much of her life. It does its best to cover as much of Ashley’s incredible trajectory as possible: from working-class Liverpool to the Lancashire psychiatric hospital where she was tied to a bed and treated with male hormones and electric shock therapy; to Paris; London high society; a brutal divorce trial; tabloid annihilation; exile in Hay-on-Wye; and, finally, as these only-in-Britain fairytales go, to Buckingham Palace to collect her MBE.

Ashley performing at the Astor Club, London, in 1962.
Ashley performing at the Astor Club, London, in 1962. Photograph: Keystone Press/Alamy

Much is barely touched upon as a result. I could do with a whole other documentary on the Parisian transvestite nightclub Le Carrousel, where Ashley finally met her kith and kin. It was a friend at the club who recommended she go to Casablanca to meet the pioneering surgeon Georges Burou. She ended up being his ninth patient. Waking up after the surgery, she felt the most “extraordinary happiness”. She returned to London and became Vogue’s favourite underwear model, having the best six months of her life while she lived in stealth. Until, in 1961, a so-called friend sold her story to the Sunday Post for a fiver.

I knew almost nothing about this “great lady of the manor”, as Paul O’Grady calls her. Most stomach-churning of all is the trial, evoked through disjointed reconstructions, after her husband Arthur Corbett’s 1967 petition filing for annulment of their marriage on the grounds that Ashley was “a person of the male sex”. Two senior gynaecologists were appointed to examine her body, reporting back that she had an “artificial vagina”. In a powerful scene, Lord Justice Ormrod’s bigoted 1970 verdict is read out as the camera pans over each contributor’s face. He ruled that Ashley was “at all times a male”, and there could be no marriage between two men – a precedent that lasted 30 years.

What comes across is Ashley’s “astounding bravery and courage”, as Callow puts it. She grew up George Jamieson in a strict Roman Catholic family, one of six children. “A very tough area”, she recalled decades later in her cut-glass accent. Her siblings “were all terribly ashamed” of what they saw as their “terribly feminine” brother. Her mother beat her mercilessly. “[She] couldn’t stand me because I was an embarrassment,” she says with perfect poise. Every night Ashley ended her prayers with a plea to God to “let me wake up a girl in the morning”.

Related: April Ashley obituary

Of course she didn’t describe herself as transgender at the time. “There was an enormous battle going on inside me,” is how she put it. “I was growing up to be one thing and yet I was supposed to be another.” Her close friend Tony Singleton gets choked up talking about her legacy as a trans pioneer, which he feels is yet another misfire. “She’s not a trans woman,” he insists. “What she really believed and wanted to become was a woman.” For the trans contributors, though, the fact that she was a woman is precisely why she is a trans trailblazer and, as Dawson points out, we have not come so far. The same question that preoccupied the trial more than half a century ago – namely, what constitutes a real woman – is still being debated daily in this country.

It’s Ashley, though, who steals the limelight. The strength, humour and sheer guts of a woman dragged over the coals for daring to become herself is breathtaking to witness. As is her grace and articulacy when answering the relentless barrage of nasty, thoughtless, fetishising questions through the decades. The archive footage is marvellous and telling. “Are you still an object of curiosity in England?” a male interviewer cheerfully asks her. Cue laughter from the audience. “Oh, I think so,” Ashley replies with impeccable timing. “Why do you think they’re all staring so intently?”