Gay Times Reviews XV

Telling Tales  BBC2

It's strange to think that Alan Bennett may have ended up as a vicar or a librarian, yet having watched Telling Tales you realise that such a career, while an absolute waste of aesthete, would have been indubitably apt.

When it comes to playwrights, I'm rather partial to Bennett and his enfant génie Victoria Wood. I remember my mind being profoundly wrung by Doris (Thora Hird) in Cream Cracker Under The Settee, one of his Talking Heads monologues. Now, we have Radio For Television: Bennett, in a dark suit and civil-service-blue shirt, his tie knot slightly askew, placed before a darkly marbled set and framed by an indolently shifting camera. Thank god Bennett's prose is so bounteous!

The way Bennett's litany 'scans the unfeatured landscape' of his life, is a delight for the aural sense, yet a tad prosaic to watch. Ambling yet (in a confusion of the space-time continuum) moving fluidly from the 'dark and mossy chasm' of his Aunt Eveline's cleavage to the 'blizzard of obscenity' of conscripted soldiers at Pontefract Barracks. He leads from the most innocuous details – a sofa bought for £26 5s 6d, or the eating of a simple salad – and weaves a careful trail through the psyche of what I've always seen as a slightly fragile soul.

Those out there who exemplify the Guardian's recent 'Dumb' survey just couldn't appreciate this, and that I feel is a great shame. Having said that, the ten ten–minute monologues put me in mind of The Smith's "William It Was Really Nothing": pure brilliance for the length, a second longer and it would have been utterly ruined.

It's been said of Bennett that he is a "shy egomaniac" and this series is incongruous with his recent veto of a biography. As he talks of his Mam and Dad, Lil and Walt, his brother Gordon (the realisation of the sibling's name came late to me) and the smell of mimosa at Grandma's house, you can understand Bennett's acumen. Better to divulge once more his fixation on class and his self-deprecation at his own, measured, velocity, than let another dispense with his musty, dusty view on life.

Just as Doris had always yielded to an urge to keep things 'nice' and respectable, so Bennett regales us with tales of a cosier world, a place where the frightening spectre of Grandmothers called Tiff does not loom large. It all had a very teatime by the fire feel, the cadence of Bennett's glum voice lulling us back into a world of 'spectacular tooth decay', mottled legs and cakes 'filled with a species of cream' were served, where people 'lived life with the crust off'. Marvellous: the BBC aren't getting these tapes back!

©Dec 2000 Megan Radclyffe

Casualty   BBC1

Fifteen years of... bone-splittin' nose-bleedin' granny-topplin' spousal-stabbin' schoolgirl-chokin' CPR-in' glass-a-flyin' kiddie-fryin' projectile-pukin' wards-explodin' ever-bustlin' Holby-City A&E and frankly it was all getting a tad stodgy. When you realise that the most distinctive opener to a new series is to have Charlie Fairhead in black scrubs, a certain amount of consternation prevails over the institution that is Casualty. Of course, in the past the scriptwriters have consistently dealt with scenarios even EastEnders wouldn't touch. And in its 15th year, it's about to do it again.

Gay characters in Casualty are not a new phenomenon. The latest, Adam Osman (played by Pal Aron) showed up in Series XIII, is not only gay but HIV+ too: no one puts all their eggs in one basket like the BBC! Encouraged by Sam Colloby (Jonathan Kerrigan) to come out, declare his status and ultimately to Carry On Nursing, many envisioned a serendipitous ending for the pair, until Sam pitched off a balcony and put paid to that.

In Series XIV, a young dancer called Reuben ( - note, name to follow - ) who handily happens to be HIV+ too and fair won Adam's heart by waltzing him across the rooftop of the A&E. Since then, internet message boards and fan clubs have been ablaze with rumours: that Adam develops a crush on fellow nurse Barney ('Barney is straight and he always will be! Adam must leave Barney alone!') or the bellicose homophobe Dr. Spiller ('Now THAT would make for some interesting storylines!'), or that Adam 'dies when the HIV turns to full-blown AIDS' ('Noooooo!! Adam mustn't die!').

And so to Series XV. And in true BBC style, in that world where you just cannot have a happy gay couple, I'm afraid to say that Adam is to be ousted, dragging Reuben with him and leaving a trail of pink balloons. At least he didn't get violated, impaled or asphyxiated: if anything his exit – a potentially ignominious one – is rather well handled.

As is the scriptwriter's way, the gay boys immediately shack up together, in a rather glorious orange flat complete with green lanterns and candles akimbo. 'I've never been happier,' Reuben coos during a huddled conversation. 'You ought to get out more,' Adam quips. The next obvious step is a proposal: 'Yeah I think that's what I'm doing,' Reuben tells Adam, deciding on 'the nearest gay equivalent' to marriage.

Back in Holby, that fictional area of Bristol that seems to be a crossroads for the nation's accents, a journalist is trying to gather information for an article on 'The New Face of the NHS' and is courting SHO Holly Miles (Sandra Huggett) with a slap up dinner. A tad tipsy she inadvertently mentions a colleague who is HIV+... 'But he was a nice man,' Holly blathers. 'He's a journalist,' Charlie replies, his tone exasperated. While Adam and Rube prepare for their oncoming nuptials – '3 bottles of vodka and a box of orange', what no designer beers in Bristol? – the journalist admits himself to A&E and – cogs a-whirrin' – realises that Adam is the scofflaw. 'Moral judgments don't come into journalism,' he tells Holly before deciding to drop this particular hot potato, claiming that 'the money doesn't matter and I can't mess up what you're doing here.' How magnanimous...

Little do they both know, but a patient overhears and – with Adam's unwitting assistance – calls a national rag. A backdrop of poisoning by rats, a warehouse fire, exploding aerosols, a landslide and Anita Dobson dying after an impromptu stroke pale before the onslaught of a media scrum, brought to a fever pitch by a 'AIDS Nurse Risked My Life' headline.

I take a moment here to wonder if this is fair depiction of real life: does such plebeian ignorance around HIV and AIDS still exist to a point where patients in A&E are impetuously screaming about 'getting AIDS'? And would Adam really have such a paranoid reaction, trying to disavow Reuben using the reason, 'You're pathetic! What use would you be?'

I promised the bod at the BBC that I wouldn't disclose the outcome of this two-part story. The only thing worth noting I feel is that throughout the entire media fiasco and nuptial escapades, not one single kiss is exchanged between full-lipped Adam and his Leporiade tooth'd lover. But then, it's all fantasy, right...?

© Oct 2000 Megan Radclyffe

Agony Again  BBC1

The Shane Ritchie Experience LWT

Mardi Gras '95 Carlton

Taxicab Confessions BBC2

The X-Men BBC1 & 2

Last month, the airwaves were swamped with queer-friendly slots, but as the cold winter nights began to replace that awfully stifling heat, there was a vertiable dearth of good ol' gay TV. And don't think it's an easy job hunting around for things to mention: either there's far too much or there's bugger all to get your teeth into.

After what seems like a decade (and is in fact over a decade) Maureen Lipman has donned her thick woolly jumper, flourished her scarf, pulled on her leggings and revitalised the role of Jane Lucas, Agony Aunt extraordinnaire. For those of you too young or too forgetful to remember, Agony (originally broadcast on Thames) saw Ms Lucas as a confidant on radio, with a Jewish mother from hell (Maria Charles), a wimpy but winsome ex-husband (Simon Williams) and two gay neighbours. I loved the original series (Friday nights, cup of hot chocolate, feet up and belly aching) and my fears for its descendent were relatively ungrounded. I must admit I'm truly disappointed that the fab opening music ("Aah-gon-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee" and repeat till fade) has been usurped by Elkie Brooks' lacklustre verison of that oft-recorded standard "Lean On Me". But then that's progress for you, I suppose.

I could have bemoaned the removal of those "lovely young men" from upstairs, but the character of Jane's son (Sacha Grunpeter) allows a modicum of gay interest. It's enough to prove that the 90's Jane is thoroughly AIDS-aware, but it's certainly unlikely this particular bobble-hatted bender will warrant any love scenes. Not only will the programme probably upset most of the shire counties with a gay character, but a large percentage of North London will porbably be in fits over Maria Charles' fearsome Jewish matriach. She seems to have gone totally over the top this time round, with outfits and an attitude that any self-respecting drag queen would scratch her eyes out for. And if that's not bad enough, ex-receptionists across the land will drop their nail files in disgust at Doon Mackichan's portrayal of a frantic TV producer. Appallingly crass and with a strangulated grip of Franglais, she is the epitome of stupidity but manages to utter some classic lines, possibly on a par with Ab Fab's Bubbles. And the straw that could just break any camel's back comes with Jane embarking on an affair with a black housing officer (David Harewood).

Agony Again (BBC1) could well be hated by all and sundry on the grounds that the original will always be the best. So shoot me but I quite enjoyed it. Okay, so it veers between the mediocre and the sublime with a script that provides rollicking lines one minute then dips into tried and tested ripostes even the captain of the Titanic would have seen coming. It isn't quite in the same league but it's a damn sight better than some of the so-called sitcoms doing the rounds at the moment.

If you want a real definition of agony, watching The Shane Ritchie Experience (LWT) would get my vote. A vertiable barf fest of heterosexuality, its aim was to get one lucky couple to tie the knot live on television. If the poor blighters lost, they were given toasters, which I though was by far and away the better deal. The programme was packed with "gorgeous, cuddly couples" prancing around a garish purple and pink set and surrounded by dancers in spangled bridal outfits.

Hosted by the legend himself - a "Matchmaker General" who had boarded the "love train" - the experience was one I would never, ever wish to repeat. Richie patronised the women (sorry - "girls") and came over all matey with the lads, weighting the stereotypes of the male-female divide by asking the men what their best features were and challenging the women to reveal their most unappealing aspects. He proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that heterosexuals are woefully uninspired when it comes to sex (sorry - "making whoopee") in odd places. He forced the poor women to kiss the hunkiest chaps from Home and Away and Neighbours and Reg Holsworth to determine if they recognised their boyfriend's technique. He sang a tribute to Elvis that would have had the King rolling in his masoleum (if he wasn't working as a lollipop man in Streatham, that is).

If that wasn't the icing on the wedding cake, one game saw the potential bride atop a huge chicken which fired eggs out of its rectum. Call that entertainment, because I don't. I call it a fucking affontery. It's been tried before (I refer you to that lamentable effort from Bob Monkhouse in 1994 on the same channel) and Richie has to win any award for the most asinine and odious hobbledehoy in showbusiness and believe me, there are a lot of contenders for that particular prize.

Just to cool off, I dug out a tape of Mardi Gras '95 (Carlton) which had been screened in the wee small hours to avoid offending any of the more sensitive bigots. But hot diggety dog, I found myself aggrevated once more. Not because of the programme itself because that was truly marvellous - one full hour of the parade with a few snippets of the huge Fair Day, a smattering of local projects and people, a month-long arts festival and Julian Clary - "especially imported" - as the erstwhile host.

The coverage of the floats was totally fab and it was a treat to watch them all pass by: the homage to the sacred mirror ball, the Patsy float, Poof Fiction, In Bed With Nana, the Locker Room Boys, Vintage Men and Bears, Leather Pride ("not necessarily as frightening as they look"), the Bond women, a tribute to vamp, AIDS carers, the clean and sober group ("marching to the 12-step"), lesbians in business, Sweeties of the Sea, sequinned cowgirls, Tranny Pride, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Grunge Against Homophobia, trade unions, a gay Pope (spreading the safer sex message) softball teams and Mephisto-style drag queens galore, boot scooters and synchronised pom-pom waving, and even uncomfortable politicians in grey suits. The costumes and floats (and the time, effort and thought behind them all) were astounding. So why, after spending an hour revelling with the brethren, was I consumed with such a fit of pique?

Jealousy, pure and simple jealousy - and for two reasons. Firstly, why can't Pride in this country even come close to what Mardi Gras achieves? Secondly, why doesn't Pride get the kind of TV coverage that a homophobic country like Australia gives to this cavalcade of perverts? In addition, nearly everyone who had a camera shoved in their glowing face reminded the viewer of the political battles that are still being waged (and Pride shows far less respect for people with AIDS and HIV than the Aussies do). Even the recent spate of gay-friendly TV programmes failed miserably to include Pride on the grand scale it could feasibly demand. Maybe it's simply because Pride is such a piss-poor affair compared to the splendour, sheer panache and amazing wit of Mardi Gras.

A far more basic fare (excuse the pun) was provided by Taxi Cab Confessions (BBC2). Over a period of one month in New York, New York - a wonderful town - a bunch of "carefully selected" cabbies picked up passengers and encouraged them to chat. Unbeknownst to these people, each cab had five lipstick-sized cameras planted to capture their every utterance and movement. First up, one of yer original NYPD officers, a charming chap who said fuckin' this and fuckin' that while graphically describing how bodies on the subway get twisted when caught between the platform and the train. Even more picturesque was his detailing of what happens when the train is lifted off them...

Next up, a thoroughly drunken lesbian who tried to chat up her female cabbie. She wanted full-on desire. The cabbie wanted none of it. The atmopshere became slightly uncomfortable, and the dyke's appraisal of why she loves women was almost pornographic, but not as bad as the transsexual male to female who hopped in. "I fuck and suck like a Kirby vacuum" she crowed, before disclosing her operation cost $27,000. She kept on and on about how much she liked her newly fashioned pussy. Even the prostitute who was en route to a trick (15 years on the job, drugged up to the eyeballs, shot at, kidnapped, jailed 50 times and scared of herself) didn't talk about sex so much. One of the pierced community took a ride, chatting loudly about her 13 visible rings and barbells (and shyly about her one clitoral puncture) while a beardie weirdie and a woman with deep clevage discussed a recent bar brawl with a man who stole money set aside for a funeral: "They had to hose the fuckin' blood away!"

It's said that every city has a million stories, but some are less enthralling. The five skinny airheads (one of whom spent some $400 on make-up alone) wasted my time with all their screeching and giggling, and two French lads who wanted to fuck "your beautiful American girls" were tedious. A promiscuous Philippino settled in to describe how he liked "tight, taut" young boys and that he traded boyfriends with his best friend. "That's the way gay life is," he chortled, but his achievements paled before those of a wizened chap of about 70 who volunteered to play "Yank My Doodle - it's a dandy" on his violin. He claimed that he'd bedded some 10,000 women, bragging that they "like to fuck my brains out." I began to think that native New Yorkers were positively obsessed with sex, and didn't give two hoots about who they told, seeming instantly candid from the moment their bums hit the seat.

All in all Taxicab Confessions was like a car crash - morbidly fascinating but revolting at the same time. The travelling shots that cut up the dialogues showed NY night life in all of its Caligulan glory, but it certainly put me off taking a bite of the Big Apple.

Lastly, a huge thank you Children's BBC for showing The X-Men (BBC1 & 2) seven days a week during the school holidays. I enjoyed every single laser-blastin' moment of it and I would beg on bended knee for it to return. The quality of the action and script were far superior to about 90% of the crap that's churned out nowadays. And a fond farewell to Toby, who left the Broom Cupboard on its 10th Anniversary.

© 1993-2001 Megan Radclyffe

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