Gay Times Reviews I

Screen Two: Nervous EnergyBBC2
I'll Be Your Mirror
The Big Snog
Screen One: The Affair
Screen Two: Priest
Up Radio 4

Blow me down. It's been two years since I started this malarkey by scrutinising World AIDS Day television, and here we are again. I complained then that "Twelve years after AIDS hit the headlines... TV coverage is certainly failing in its self-appointed task of educating the masses." It seems that the Powers That Be have learned valuable lessons in the intervening time.

Take Howard Schuman's magnificent Screen Two presentation, Nervous Energy. Did I only say magnificent? It was deeply moving, stark yet very rich and "tough, clear and spiky" to boot. Cal Macininch was stunning as Tommy Kelso, a London-based Glaswegian in the final stages of AIDS. He doesn't want to lose control but was about to go a purler. Is it dementia, or just his "natural wild energy" contorted by the maniacal nature of the disease?

His radio host lover Ira - played with extreme sensitivity by Alfred Molina - is a tower of strength toppled by Tom's increasing agitation and desire to go home one last time. An uneasy peace exists between Tom's family and himself, but their true colours show through fairly quickly and they dismiss him as little more than a "perverse little brat." Tom - who is insistent that he can cope without his drugs - ends up abandoned by both gay and straight friends and has to call Ira to rescue him once more. A decidedly upbeat ending for an AIDS-based drama was another surprise as was the amount of very loud opera...

I must say I didn't necessarily enjoy Nervous Energy but then it wasn't entertainment. I did however find myself completely wrapped up in what was happening, and wholly stirred. Words fail me, but if this isn't nominated for a whole plethora of awards next year, I'll want to know why.

A new strand of arts programming turned up with Tx. (BBC2) and came up trumps early on with I'll Be Your Mirror which profiled New York photographer Nan Goldin. Way back when, Goldin decided to embark on a visual diary, hoping that she'd "never lose the memory of anyone again." She wanted to document the drag scene during the 1970's discorama of NY and put drag queens on the cover of Vogue. Her pictures became the only way to remember what had happened the night before, despite euphoric memories from friends who were all "bonded" by the heavy drugs culture of the time. But after her rehabilitation for drug addiction, Goldin realised that some of the "superstars" she knew were dying: she photographed one in a coffin, resplendent in gold lame and surrounded by gardenias. She set out to record the final weeks, months and years of the many friends she had who were dying from AIDS, and a more upsetting chronicle hasn't been presented since last year's Silverlake Life: The View From Here.
Goldin herself eventually realised that photographs preserve very little. Once the enormity of this sank in, the pictures took on a completely different significance, assisted by some extremely redolent music from Patti Smith, Television, the Velvet Underground and Eartha Kitt. Goldin was surrounded by a truly amazing group of people, but we know nothing about them: the photos are virtually useless as a tool of history - and especially in the saga of HIV and AIDS.

It was a very disorientating experience to watch Goldin's diary on screen - whether before or after the impact of AIDS. Her photographs are without a doubt evocative of a recently bygone age of indulgence and excess, but for all the high jinks they seemingly capture, the subjects look as if they've had the spirit punched out of them. I'll Be Your Mirror was a highly dolourous reminder of just how much has been snatched away

On the other side of the AIDS education fence - and one I don't want to sit on - was The Big Snog (Ch4). In an attempt to raise oodles of cash for HIV and AIDS, a veritable galaxy of stars assembled at the Astoria Theatre in front of a huge audience. Broadly speaking, the acts fell into two categories: student and middle-class. The Great Unwashed were treated to Phil Kay, Jim Owen, John Thompson, "Pauline Calf" and Dale Winton (with his trolley) and the Green Belt got Lee Evans, Lenny Henry, the new golden boy-girl Eddie Izzard and Julian Clary's "A Question of Spurt".

All very laudable I'm sure, what with top pop stars (well, Ant & Dec and Craig Mc-whatsit) and top TV celebs (erm... Cindy from EastEnders and Mariella Frostrup) pleading for your cash but I'm sorry, I have a few questions. Why were viewing audience given no idea exactly where the money would go? Why do heterosexuals insist on saying "safe sex" when there is no such thing, short of complete celibacy? Why do the producers continue to film true life stories with the implication that these people are poor sods, deserving only of pity, so give us your moolah? Why do people believe that telling jokes about condoms and safer sex will precipitate an understanding of this disease and a tolerance of those who contract it? And why do advertisers give us the impression that people who are HIV+ can run 80 miles a week and complete 10 marathons a year if they wear Nike trainers? Finally, why can't we have more action rather than all this inane chaffing and smutty wisecracking?

Kerry Fox seems to be highly prolific at the moment, what with Saigon Baby, Friends and Rocky Star. She popped up again in a period-style pinny for Screen One: The Affair (BBC1). It was the seemingly simple tale of a rather passionate liaison betwixt a woman in the little village of Brackenbury and a black GI Joe who had been billeted nearby. "These soldiers will be quite a curiosity to English women," the Colonel informed his officers. Frustrated by the lack of action and having to "fight fucking potatoes" all day, the GI slowly became involved with Ms Fox, a middle-class housewife and mother.

As you might guess, his intended paramour was reluctant and he was oh-so subtle. The slow advance to the inevitable was aided by the fact that the absent husband was an utter cad so obviously he deserved to have his illusions shattered. And oh, the indignation of his wife porking a black man! The script allowed everyone to say "nigger" and "coon" without recourse because it was a historically-inclined piece. Square-jawed red necks laid into their "black bastard" colleagues and the top brass allowed it to continue, while the conservative lady and the gum-chewing squaddy literally rolled in the hay.

Of course, the hubby had to find out ("You flaunt your whoring with a nigger soldier!" he cried) and Ms Fox was threatened with banishment from the village. Seem familiar? The Private ended up on a charge of rape, the hubby bribed the chief, her friends lied, his army pal was treated with derision and of course, the damned floosie got him hanged with her silence.

Produced by none other than Harry Belafonte, The Affair had a very fresh look to it, lots of misty focus and leafy glens, fabulous swing and - in cunningly shielded by nostalgia - a heavy moral message. Just in case you didn't get it, a "50 years on" scene had been slotted in with the guilt-ridden woman regretful and distressed that she hadn't opened her mouth as wide as she had her legs.

And yet more quandries with Screen Two: Priest (BBC2). There's a conservative, traditional, idealistic young cleric, a seemingly pious soul who is instantly at odds with his brethren because he preaches Bible lore. How strange. Suddenly, and without much warning, our lad drags out a leather jacket from his wardrobe and toddles off to the local gay bar. (You'd be forgiven for asking yourself where he got the leather as most Christians only wear polyester and wool.) Meanwhile, back at the church, the Father hears that a young girl is being regularly abused by her father. Dilemma! Does he break the sanctity of the confession and confront the perpetrator?

No, in fact he's rather distracted by a persistent chap he picked up at the club. The affair may be just a bit of escapism but it was never meant to be serious, right? Never mind. Still, the priest ends up spiralling in ever decreasing circles and ends up being nabbed by the fuzz for fumbling about in a car. After a brief burst of "You'll Never Walk Alone" there comes a suicide attempt by paracetomol, a threat from the Bishop to "Piss off out of my diocese." On top of all that, his best mate throws a wobbler, so it's no wonder the poor chap is churned up. He builds huge walls and rejects any attempt to help him out of this quagmire although he's desperate to make amends.

Continually throughout Priest there were heavy hints for compassion from the Church and individuals, but all in vain it seems. The extent of Christian "understanding" (confusion) was brilliantly shown when a snarling church-goer and the holy man spat Bible quotes at each other in an escalating row. The religious scenes brought a lump to the throat and I'm a bloody Atheist. If only they hadn't done that final frame, showing two despairing souls clinging to each other with a piano reprise of "You'll Never Walk Alone". Left me with a slight feeling of disquiet but it was still totally tremendous.

Cracker (Carlton) had much the same effect on me with the two-part Brotherly Love. I got it into my head that it gave a bad image of kids in care as the main protagonist was hell bent on revenge because he hadn't been adopted. His intense connection with a superior at work ascended into a curious kind of love and descended into a frightening murder spree.

The second of this apparently final set of Cracker suffered slightly because the writing didn't allow Robbie Coltrane his usual idiosyncrasies. In fact, most of the regular characters seemed singularly flat, but the intrinsic spark between the two men made the final confrontation superb. I have my fingers crossed that Granada are lying through their teeth when they say no more Cracker.

Lastly, a bit of radio! As one of my few New Year Resolutions is to delve deeper into the world of the wireless, I'll begin with a mention of David Goodland's play Making Up (Radio 4). For a full review you'll have to hang about until next month but tune in on 22 January for this yarn of a drag queen (Ronald Pickup) whose act is in need of inspiration, provided by his old stage partner (John Duttine) and a karaoke machine.

©Megan Raclyffe Publ. Millivres 1996

Crapston Villas Ch4
This Is Your Life: Tony Warren
The Good Sex Guide
My Secret Life: A Priest's Tale
Ricki Lake: I'm Angry Because People Think I'm Gay
The Shooting Gallery: The Disco Years, Scarborough Ahoy & Linger
Horizon: AIDS - Behind Closed Doors
The End Of Innocence
Freedom FM

It's so much more difficult to praise than be disparaging, and animation still isn't quite considered a high form of art, so I've been chewing over how on earth I'd start to describe Crapston Villas (Ch4). Brilliant, extraordinary, astounding? Dark and dingy? All of this, stupendous and horrendous as well. The focus for "the first-ever animated adult soap-opera" is a crumbling Victorian house in London SE69. There's a deliciously fucked-off woman who lives with a perennially stoned and suitably paranoid psudeo-film director. Their roost is ruled by the stomach-churning malignity that is Fatso the cat. Crashing into their lives comes a lodger, Flossie (voiced by Jane Horrocks). She is an absolute hoot: an ultra-excitable bubble-brained would-be actress who is desperate to impress and be adored. She flirts with her landlord and latches onto the two gay boys upstairs, Robbie and Larry, who live in an impeccable flat at complete odds with the surrounding squalor of the area.

There's tons of general depravity, some neat running jokes, fabulous opening titles and rich vein of sarcastic humour. Although Crapston Villas might not accurately represent real life - and could even stand accused of bromidic stereotyping - Sarah Ann Kennedy's animation series is an utter delight.

After the fiasco that was the re-telling of Pam St Clements' "life story" last month, This is Your Life (BBC1) tried again, this time with Tony Warren MBE, the creator of Coronation Street. After springing the poor lad at a fake photo-shoot, he and his partner were whisked off for the celebratory drive down Memory Lane.

Tony's partner sat in the Official Partner's Chair but said nary a syllable, while June Brown, Auntie Renee and Judith Chalmers heaped praise on the "daft 'aporth". Betty and Vera were sniffing and sobbing, Mike Baldwim winked, Alf Roberts beamed and Gail flicked her hair. It were luverly.

Michael Aspel revealed Tony's former life as a victim of bullying, a rabble-rouser at stage school, and his disappointment at having still not heard from the BBC about Coronation Street. Julie Goodyear swanned on, pledged undying love and was followed by Jean Alexander who, according to Ceefax, received "warm applause" while making an entrance as the Grand Dame of the Street. Tony came across as sweetly bossy, greeting the adoring masses with huge hugs, and acknowledging tales of old with gales of laughter. Okay, so the boyfriend said nary a syllable, and the word "gay" was never uttered, but what do you expect? Still, Auntie Beeb certainly scored more Brownie points this time round.

The Good Sex Guide (Carlton) is constantly trying to score (on more than one level) but never quite manages to hit the target. Margi Clarke is still lolling around in taffeta and feathers on a velvet-crush chaise longue, trying her hardest to be seductive, but only ends up looking like a worn-out fag-hag fairy godmother.

The show concerns itself with that horribly messy business of heterosexual sex, ramming it down your throat, week in and week out. One exception to this continual diet of human toad in the hole was a two-part piece from "that Mecca of love" San Francisco, entitled "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" - how fucking original? The GSG reporter crept around the shelves of a vibrator shop. It seems that women in that fair city are "less likely to have a flower in their hair than a vibrator in their handbag" but our reporter wasn't convinced. She looked suitably aghast when presented with a humming-bird clitoral stimulator and a fish-shaped dildo - just two in a range moulded in every possible shade of pink and lilac. She then sneaked into a women-only vaginal massage session (complete with bongoes and clenching buttocks) which taught women how to "gently open that flower" and "rock around the clit clock". The "teacher" fondled her groaning subject, asking her "May I please put one finger in you?" The embarrassment factor was acute, but the intrepid reporter admitted to feeling "genuinely jealous" because she hadn't joined in. Back in Margi's love hut, the item ceased to be of any interest to lesbians and became a hint for married women. Not scared of anything to do with lesbians, are we Carlton?

My Secret Life: A Priest's Tale (BBC2) came as part of a new strand of 10-minute disclosures about "issues rarely explored on television." This particular priest used to cottage before entering the priesthood (no pun intended) and "became an expert" at knowing which toilets to use. He lied about his job to men he met and became wary in case he'd seen any of his congregation at gay clubs. Although he said he had considered his position in the church, we were left not really knowing where he is now, spiritually or physically.

A stock shot of a shaven-headed man in teeny-tiny shorts enter a cubicle and peer through a glory hole was used to accompany the priest's confessions. This format was hardly novel, given the secret element of each life, it's no wonder the programme makers resorted to this kind of visual time-filling, but can't they think of something a tad more inventive?

Ricki Lake came up trumps again with I'm Angry Because People Think I'm Gay (Ch4). Where does she get them from? These forlorn sods spoke of the "constant battle" of having to introduce themselves as straight. My heart bleed. The women bemoaned the fact that they can't wear boots and jeans; the men complained that they shouldn't have to prove themselves. Tears rolled down my cheeks. A murmuring audience applauded both anti- and pro-gay statements, and they whooped it up when one woman warned a potential wife "You better be sure for when he be bringing home the AIDS to you."

The problem with talk shows - American or British - is that's there is no depth to the discussion, with little positive response and hardly any answers. Lake presides over a more raunchy, more vocal audience who sit firmly on the fence and are easilt swayed. Everyone's attitude stank on this one. I'm curious to know: will Ricki do a similiar show on I'm Angry Because People Think I'm Straight ? Now that would be interesting.

I had hoped to lay my grubby little paws on The Shooting Gallery (Ch4), which provides a chance for new cinema to get an airing, but no luck. This season of short films includes Billie Eltringham's Linger, The Disco Years by Robert Lee King and Tania Diez's Scarborough Ahoy! The first is a tale of drunken passion between two women many years ago; the second sees a gay teenager trying to sort his feelings out over a classmate at gym; and the last stars Frances Barber as a barmaid who enjoys a bit of promiscuity and sets off to the coast with her "extremely gay" friend.

Sight unseen for December, in amongst all that festive family fodder, is Horizon: AIDS - Behind Closed Doors (BBC2) which gets a backstage pass to an international conference set up to "rethink the global strategy against the disease". No tapes were available (unlike the rest of Christmas, which arrives in late October) for this or for The End Of Innocence (BBC1), a documentary based on Simon Garfield's "powerful and painful" book of the same name. Fear not, brave reader, I shall return to these.

And finally. Freedom FM returns on December 9th for 28 days, and there's a pretty snazzy press pack to announce it. But what about the content? Danny Cowan and Copstick over breakfast, Matthew Walter for some afternoon delight, Dean Hill and Jean-T for the twilight hours, the Poz Zone (an "honest, upbeat" programme for those with HIV and AIDS), plus interviews with Boy George, Peter Cunnah and Andy Bell - subject to commitments, of course. And if that's not got you twiddling your knob, then there's The Adventures of Dorothy, a Boxing Day panto with original music, sound effects and special celebrity guests. You can even advertising on Freedom FM's very own Internet web site! Yes, the press pack does tell you everything... except the bloody frequency.

©Megan Radclyffe Publ. Millivres 1995

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