Gay Times Reviews XXVI

A Woman Called Smith BBC2

Before They Were Famous BBC1

Beyond Fear Ch5

Generation E Ch 5

Surely Some Mistake BBC2

Performance: My Night With Reg BBC2

Witness: Tottenham Ayatollah Ch 4

Hoorah, it's Spring! New growth of flora and fauna, newborn creatures that frolic about and a brand new viewing schedule! There's even a fifth channel on air! I should be gambolling through fields of poppies in a gingham skirt, trilling and prancing. But, on a murky Wednesday last month, it dawned on me that television rarely quickens my heart now. As with anything you do on a habitual basis — sex, drugs, eating pasta, glossing woodwork — there are times when you need a break and refuse to indulge in what used to be provocative and stimulating pastime. On occasion, I'll flick through the listings and imagine that a programme will whet my appetite for a splendid cliff–hanger or farcical comedy. Only sporadically are my requirements fulfilled. Hence...

A Woman Called Smith (BBC2) is one of those quirky little series of 10 minute films that the BBC love. Not too much deep thought, or too much fiscal outlay. Give someone a camera, get them to film themselves talking about their life. Find some connecting thread and bingo! Fills a 599–second gap very nicely, thank you. Debbie Smith (she of Echobelly) was handed a camcorder to document a tour of Colorado, a brief sojourn at home and the miserable aspect of enforced celibacy from her girlfriend. 'It's not as glamourous as you might think,' she told us, as miles of arid desert flashed by. Camped out at home next to coffee, nicotine and an asthma pump, she revealed that she had 'fancied the next–door neighbour's niece' and that she used to be 'a bit of loose woman' but 'just can't do it like I used to.' She slapped her plank, crashed on a hotel bed, made a phone call. So yes, a dyke life is good for 10 minutes airtime, but don't bother to delve any deeper, and forget about Echobelly performing.

Before They Were Famous (BBC1) was another prime example of dangling the carrot to a viewing public that would gobble up hours of this stuff. Presented by Angus Deayton and his rather nice jacket, it charted the 'humiliating years in obscurity' of now mega–famous stars, to wit Clint Eastwood drinking milk and Dustin Hoffman flogging VolkswagenȘ. Naomi Campbell turned up in a vile shell suit on Orville's Gang (that nauseous green baby bird puppet in the nappy), Jeremy Beadle sans beard and clad in orange dungarees, Sharon Stone and Michelle Pfeiffer as wannabe beauty queens, Joanna Lumley ensconced in tartan cashmere, the first appearance of Roger Moore's eyebrow, Arnie flexing his pecs on Magpie and hepcat Jonathan Ross's TV debut in It Ain't Half hot Mum. Sights I would rather not have been privy to were Sue Lawley in a bikini probing seaside lovers about skin cancer, and Emma Thompson in ill–fitting beachwear and make-up even Abba's Agnetha wouldn't have been seen dead wearing. I'm sure Jeremy Irons must cringe every time his stint on 'Playaway' is repeated, as I'm positive Michael Barrymore regrets bopping around dressed as a kangaroo. But this is what the British absolutely venerate, that old pedestal syndrome: build 'em up to knock 'em down. Bring back the stuff that haunts them and gather millions of viewers around you to laugh hysterically at it all. There's probably more than enough here for intermittent specials (imagine, Before They were Famous 7...) and who amongst you wouldn't treasure a gay version?

And then there's Channel 5. I'm one of those who haven't been tuned in yet (only because my remote control is damaged, from too many times thrown in utter frustration at various walls) but I managed to catch the odd snippet here and there. Beyond Fear (Ch5) was the big opening night special (not as huge as the Spice Girls, but who is at the moment?), the melodramatic version of Mr. Kipper and the abduction of Stephanie Slater ('He gave me chips and Mars Bars — it was only a kidnap.'). Despite the pre–programme warning that viewers 'could be shocked' it wasn't anything spectacular. Maybe I'm immune to this style of drama after four years of intensive viewing (and 25 years of being a couch potato), watching carbon copy cops fight Xeroxed villains who have abused facsimiled victims, passing through familiar vistas, toiling through threadbare plots full of humdrum dialogue. Am I asking too much for something that will make me chew my nails, leap out of the armchair in fright and turn every light on before I go anywhere in the house?

Speaking of scary, dark places, there was a documentary (one definition: 'aiming at presenting reality') on Ecstasy, Generation E (Ch5). Starting with the premise that drug culture is 'visible if you know about it, but invisible if you don't know' (doh!) it carried on to chart the experience of one gay user. He was constantly threatened and assaulted by homophobes who he then saw in clubs, taking E. They turned from insulting, violent bastards into benevolent homophiles. One even turned homosexual! As if those poor parents didn't have enough to worry about...

These users (estimated at 500,000 who take 40 million tablets a year, or 80 each) swallowed the hype with the MDMA. 'If everyone could take a pill,' mused one, 'the world would be a better place.' Yeah, right. Peace man. Less people are getting smashed out of their skulls on beer (sales are down 20% since 1987) because 'E's much safer' and Wrigley's has enjoyed a 50% sales increase in chewing gum. The sprouting drug culture is 'now providing respectful, gainful employment' for thousands. It must be, because 80 pills a year equals £1,200 and that's without club entry and inflated prices for bottled water.

These children of the 90s are obviously being affected by the chemicals. One even claimed that parents 'can't deal with our drugs' seemingly forgetting that his parents were children of the 60s and probably downed the grandfathers of E — acid, speed and LSD. It must be kept in mind though (as one local copper point out) that 'we're talking about bright, young people with a bright future.' I think he's missed the point: many of these BYPs are stuffing E down their necks because they're astute enough to know the future isn't happy and shiny. They just don't give a flying fuck: 'Nuffin's bin proved yet. At the end of the day, yer dead anyway.' Too right mate. Don't bother buying a pension plan.

I believe Oliveri Toscani, creative director for Benetton, must have a similar philosophy on life. In Surely Some Mistake (BBC2), he talked about his successful advertising campaigns, conceived entirely independently of any market research. 'I can do whatever I want,' he blustered. 'I have the right to show whatever I want to!' then dismissed the ASA as 'a mafia — people who sell peanuts and sausages.' Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I was convinced the programme was supposed to explain campaign strategy disasters, not give oxygen to someone who claimed pressure groups 'terrorised' Benetton shops (I was there and we did not). Maybe, once again, my standards are too high.

I had no notion what to expect, however, with Performance: My Night With Reg (BBC2). I knew little of Kevin Elyot's play, which transferred to the small screen with the 'successful, original' cast, save that it went down a storm on stage. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere that greeted me, a tension forced upon the players by some unacknowledged secrets and the cause of faltering, stilted conversation.

A synopsis? Guy, a skitterish, bumbling man terrified by AIDS, is having a dinner party. He invites Johnnie, whose jockstrap has been the object of many a fantasy since his schooldays. In screams Dan, a foul queen with a nasty perm. Privy to these shenanigans is Eric, a sensitive decorator who's touching up the conservatory. A tedious, thin balding chap called Bernard and his rotund, sardonic lover Benny arrive. Dan leaves and returns after a year has passed and his unseen lover, Reg, had died (here was a funeral flashback). We ascertain that Guy TM Johnnie and Eric fancies Johnnie, but Johnnie TM Reg. Just to complicate matters, it turns out that Bernard TM Reg (as did Benny) and 'even the vicar said what a good fuck he was outside the crematorium'. Guy tells Johnnie he TM him, and Eric tells Guy he's shagged Reg and Johnnie. Benny TM Johnnie after Bernard flounces out and Eric tells Guy he TM him, Another year on, Guy dies, the result of 'an unsafe encounter with a mortician from Swindon'. Johnnie inherits his flat (and not only his own jockstrap, but a horde of objects Guy stole from him) and ends up shagging Eric, who's devoted to someone else.

So, there you have it. A wicked little web of deceit spun out in a sepulchral tale of aggregate infidelity that wouldn't have been out of place in the late 80's. Sterling performances from everyone though, and dialogue that smartly conveyed the hopes and fears inherent in their ethical and moral dilemmas. I'm sure Kevin and the crew would like some awards please, and they'd be deserved.

One man who gets far less than he actually deserves is 'Sheik' Omar Bakri Mohammed. One of 28 children, this exiled Syrian lives in North London and is a fundamentalist extremist terrorist who advocates strict Islamic law. In 1995, he called for a Holy War against the west, suggesting that homosexuals, fornicators and adulterers should be stoned to death.

Jon Ronson (ex–Time Out) asked if he could trail after Omar for a year for Witness: Tottenham Ayatollah (Ch4) and surprisingly, he agreed. He started by handing out leaflets. 'Be careful for homosexuality! It's not good for you!' he called. He was followed to Office World, where pig capitalism allows him to photocopy his leaflets very cheaply. we watched him 'suffer' looking at the picture of a woman that comes with a clip frame. He trawled around a record shop crying, 'These Spicy Girls must be arrested immediately!' He told how Islam would ban nightclubs, pubs, gambling ('No free mixing') and the Union Jack (he wants to see an Islamic flag flying over Downing Street). He claims state benefits of £150 per week ('I get what I deserve') and breaks wind in the direction of the non–believer. He held a demonstration outside the Stick E Bowl in Kensington and tried to arrange a 'conference' at the 14,000 capacity London Arena, but, although stymied by the press attention it garnered, he crowed that 634 journalists wanted to interview him. During secret meetings (he'd been banned from doing so) in a Mosque, he used many mobile phones (which is not allowed). He arranged an impromptu protest in Hyde Park, to be greeted by OutRage's 'Queer Fatwa' demo. As the year of filming drew to a close, we saw Omar dashing to the UB office to plea for emergency payments as his dole had been stopped. His 'conference' had been cancelled (because of an £18,000 security bill and not because only 3,000 tickets had been sold), had been evicted from his offices, and was off to undertake Jihad training in a scout hut in Crawley.

If Ronson's film intended to poke fun at Omar, his remit was redundant. Omar did a noble job himself. If, however, the point was to show how dangerous this man (and his followers) could be, it failed. Omar has vowed, despite adverse or critical publicity and ignoring his outlaw status within his own community (an Islamic Peter Tatchell?) to carry on his ideological struggle to destroy democracy. This man 'gets dizzy' when not furthering the cause of Islam. How about we spin ourselves into a frenzy to stop him? See, I'd like to think TV can instil such vigour in people, but sadly I'm sure it won't. Roll on Summer...

© Megan Radclyffe 1993-2001

Pebble Mill: Doris Day BBCl

Film 95 Special: Tom Cruise BBCl

Metropolis BBC2

World In Action Carlton

Equinox: Beyond Love Ch4

Liberation Ch4

Cinefile: Pier Paolo Pasolini - Heretic Ch4

Everyman: Simon's Cross BBCl

Dr Finlay Carlton

Oprah Late: Gay Men Who Only Date Married Men Ch4

Ricki Lake: Why Does My Fat Friend Date More Than I Do? Ch4

Roseanne Ch4

Tears Before Bedtime BBCl

The Plant BBCl

Three Salons At The Seaside BBC2

Brett Butler: The Child Ain't Right Ch4

The Red Queen: A Portrait of Barbara Castle BBC2

Heroes & Villains: Queen Of The East BBCl

The Buccaneers BBC1

Deadlines hang like the bloody Sword of Damocles over my head this month, so forgive me if the programmes are a little elderly. And speaking of matters geriatric, Doris Day is back in the limelight in her 70th year. In her first interview in 25 years, the original Miss Chastity Belt chatted amiably with the equally hoary Gloria Hunniford on Pebble Mill (BBC1). She rattled on about her forgotten LP of love songs, her lost Southern accent and the "shattering news" of Rock Hudson's death. Now, I'm an enormous - nay, colossal - fan of Miss Kappelhoff but this was weirder than the legendary Winfrey and Jackson. Despite the fact our Doris looked like a giant fried egg (and just as dribbly), she admitted to buying three trolleys of dog food every week. "I can't leave my little four-leggers," she wailed while refusing to number her canine offspring: "They might put me away!"

It's a shame they couldn't do exactly that to Barry Norman. His cordial natter with Tom Cruise on Film 95 Special (BBC1) turned into a festival of arse-licking the likes of which have never seen before: while Tom sat, greasy-haired and goateed, Barry puckered up and bent down. Cruise's response was an occasional raised (but neatly combed) eyebrow and an extraordinary amount of waffling on about his "emotional foundation" and "mechanics and motivation." Far too prosaic for my liking. Perhaps an excess of red-hot action next time... please?

There was certainly no lack of that in Metropolis (BBC2). The tale of London's effluent was absolutely fascinating. Call me anally retentive, but this history of "sanitary insanity" - bursting cesspits, putrid gases, choking rivers, self-emptying toilet pans, and floating condoms - was the perfect "dedication to defecation". It combined some horrifying facts (275% increase in sewage output) with witty, inventive visuals (an Andrex® puppy deluged by paper debris). Pity the people of Barking, Essex. Since 1858, they've suffered immensely because of your ablutions.

More wretched viewing (oh when does it ever end?) with that old current affairs stalwart - teenage poverty. World In Action (Carlton) offered up the usual fayre of 14 year-old rent boys, fresh-faced girls on the game, fearful OAPs, concerned vice-squad bobbies and interviews with social workers in darkened alleyways. I'm not saying this flippantly. One quarter of these "throwaway kids" are assaulted, 1 in 7 sell sex for money and the Social Services are pleading ignorance. I just wish programme producers would knock their heads together to impart their message in a far more powerful but less salacious way.

The same could be said of the Equinox: Beyond Love (Ch4) special on a relatively new clinical condition - paraphillia. Caused by "abnormal brains and chromosomes" and "elevated levels of testosterone", it means that person's "sexual target" could be a rather bizarre one - plucked chickens, finger rings, leather shoes, amputees, dead men or auto-erotic asphyxiation. American shrinks claim that it could be a "neurological component behind the psychological drive" or it could simply be brain damage but the assembled experts implied even mild fetishes are forms of paraphillia. If you find yourself "helpless to resist" an urge, watch out: you could end up on Prozac or - as the recipient of "radical intervention" - castrated. The scare tactic style of television, coupled with the desire to satisfy a curious and morbid viewing public, made for frightening and confusing programming. Shame on Equinox - the scientific excellence once displayed is losing out to tabloid-style sensationalism.

They could have learned valuable lessons from Liberation (Ch4). Detailing the Allied Forces' deliverance of POWs from Hitler's concentration camps, it was... well, words aren't adequate. I watched only 10 minutes before being overwhelmed with a lugubrious feeling of utter repulsion. Soldiers desolately recalled how they discovered corpses stacked like cord wood, opened doors to see 7 tons of human hair, ate bread made from sawdust and cornstarch, unlocked torture rooms containing lamps of human skin, and released those from the "barracks of the living dead". The pictures created a grim and nauseating backdrop of the desecration. Days on, and I'm still replaying those images in my head.

Simon Callow presented his "personal appreciation" of a man who was vilified (although exonerated) in Cinefile: Pier Paolo Pasolini - Heretic (Ch4). Tracing the career of a director who was "too damned clever", Callow waxed enthusiastically about this "homosexual of a particular persuasion" who used non-professional actors - "the repositories of authenticity" - and was indicted then acquitted on charges of obscenity and blasphemy 33 times. Strictly aimed at film buffs, Cinefile ably documented Pasolini's tempestuous career until his assassination in 1975 but Callow's virtual oblation was unscripted and haltingly executed.

Formulaic scripting played a part in Everyman: Simon's Cross (BBCl) which chronicled the trials of an HIV-positive priest in a sleepy South Yorkshire town. Simon Bailey's video-cam journal portrayed him as an equally troubled and placated, describing AIDS as "a self-inflicted wound" which "pales into insignificance" in the light of routine stress. The usual round of Bishops, local bigots and advocates. Bailey has jolted traditional assumptions, but conflict still exists because of a distaste for gay clergy vying for attention with admiration for this reserved, bookish "bachelor priest". It's just a pity that Everyman uses comparable visual and vocal tactics every time its subject matter is tinted pink.

It's not often that established soap dramas tackle issues around homosexuality, and even more unusual to see queerbashing as a central storyline. Not only did Dr Finlay (Carlton) include anti-gay rhetoric with gay stereotypes (a Sassenach "nancy-boy" and his lover trapped by their tearoom and tending to Mother) it fought the taboo of domestic violence in gay relationships. While old Dr Cameron was busy over-prescribing sleeping drafts, Finlay traipsed across hill and dale, talking of "unsavoury comments" and how "sexual preferences aren't relevant" backed by a melancholy trumpet accompaniment. And this was set in 1949! Commendable stuff indeed.

Less so was dear Oprah's show. Stuffed away in the late-night slot, Oprah Late (Ch4) told tales of 'Gay Men Who Only Date Married Men'. Besuited, "respectable, tax-paying" men sat on a plinth and defended their relationships while a highly clamorous crowd displayed both shock and delight at their proclivities. Oprah still believes that people are "born gay" but now adds they "choose to have homosexual experiences" thereby appeasing both Left and Right factions. The issue here is honesty. The Ricki Lake Show (Ch4) also blew some cobwebs off in the interminably-titled 'Why Does My Fat Friend Date More Than I Do?' Women who were "tired of being skinny" spewed forth venom over this topic, merely to be swatted away by 90% of a sarcastically-toned audience: "Well boo-hoo, you can't gain weight!" By jove, it made my heart swell to see Ms Lake (herself having dropped over 120lbs) admit to having "a real problem feeling sorry" for one emaciated panellist. The issue here was attitude. Ah, pop psychology. Smother me in it.

In the same vein, Roseanne (Ch4) tried once again to prick the world's conscience on gay stereotypes, with Dan and Fred pretending to be lovers to trick her. To assist this education, we were treated to the sight of Leon flapping his wrists as Hillary Clinton, drag queens and mincing party-goers. If that wasn't enough, bloody Sandra Bernhard boo-boo-de-doop'd as Marilyn Monroe. I call it sacrilegious. Much more sinister was the portrayal of nannies in Tears Before Bedtime (BBC1) which saw a self-styled "nanny mafia" colluding with their bright, squeaky charges to infiltrate North London with herbal cigarettes and foul bubble-bath. Meanwhile, fathers were fucking their waif-like but zesty employees, mothers were shagging their husband's best friends and estate agents were creaming huge profit off divorce settlements. The Plant (BBC1) was a far simpler hypothesis. A live gardening show called Down To Earth (not to be confused with Richard Brier's ghastly new sitcom) had a leery chap turn the sod in North London suburbia, only to turf up a fresh body. "If he's a killer," cried a TV Executive, "the show's buggered!" This sci-fi yarn failed because the eccentricity and ingenuity of the script was wasted by a trite and convenient conclusion.

It might not have been an original concept, but Three Salons At The Seaside (BBC2) was an absolute home-grown delight. Blackpool's tiny world of coiffure management was awash with pink rollers, nets and pinnies. It was strangely amusing to hear aged matriarches talk about colostomy bags, strokes, by-pass operations and impending death over a £9 bio-perm. On the subject of hair, Barbara Castle's crowning glory gained undue attention in The Red Queen (BBC2). The Grand Dame of British politics has been active for 60 years, and was bathed in a fiery yet dignified light, with a variety of sepia-toned films and scratchy recordings. It's odd that we can be affectionate about only a few of them. More politics, with Brett Butler: The Child Ain't Right (Ch4). The "Socialist with a gold card" flicked her hair and poured fuel on the fire of Southern mentality - "You can make fun of Jesus, but leave the King out of it!" I thoroughly revelled in this intellectual and faintly aggressive style of comedy, awarding Butler the The Golden Girls Medal of Drollery.

Heroes & Villains: Queen Of The East (BBCl) gave Jennifer Saunders a rare chance to reign over wandering tribes in 1836. It was a wickedly stroppy piece. Saunders played the part of Lady Hester with Thatcheresque fervour, while her dumpy maid Williams sneaked into group shots and a bumbling, clumsy Dr Meryon rushed hither and thither to keep up. Her sexual appetite for a young "wet and hot" man was unsurpassed and extremely noisy, she harangued little donkeys and "lambasted" her way across Eastern landscapes. Although Saunders never quite managed to majestically flail her robes, but her almost tyrannical manner was tinged with sadness. Despite the appalling make-up (excused as "swollen by age, tightened by the sun") Queen Of The East was a treat.

Not so Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers (BBC1). Yes, it boasts a fabulous cast (Rosemary Leach, Connie Booth, Jenny Agutter, Cherie Lunghi and Ronan Vibert) and it's sumptuous, well-acted and beautifully filmed. However, the saga of American debutantes gate-crashing the London social set in search of husbands was a tad too flouncy and frilly for my liking. As one character succinctly put it, "It's enough to make you giddy."

© Megan Radclyffe 1993-2001

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