Gay Times Reviews VIII

Queer As Folk Ch4

Avid watchers of British television will no doubt have observed a gentle swell in the number of consistent gay characters and the upward gradient of gay programming over the last five years. Channel Four have been a harbinger, writing the first chapter in the 1980s with In The Pink and now heralding the next phase with the rather remarkable Queer As Folk.

When I first read about this eight-part, 320-minute series from a new production company called Red, I was a tad dubious. Following the lives of three licentious and viable gay men in Manchester, the PR trumpeted that all of the protagonists were actually straight. I am always skittish when it comes to heteros playing homos but I have to say, right off the bat, that this trio have done an exceptional job and I'm not going to start throwing rotten tomatoes.

So, having taken the cameras up to Manchester during the worst October on record, and plucked the cream of gay society to wander around haphazardly in the background, just how queer is Queer As Folk? Well, it's as queer as the proverbial nine-bob note... with no spare change.

Written by Russell T. Davies, who gained considerable prestige with The Grand, and directed by Cracker man Charles McDougal, the series is definitely a landmark. Not only is it realistic, but the portrayals are utterly believeable, the sound track is fucking sublime (check out the first five minutes of episode 2 and say you don't believe me), and the dark lighting is just on the right side of lascivious. This is the full-on queer version of This Life we've all been craving for the last two years.

Rarely am I so intoxicated by a television programme that I want to wax about it. And believe me it's a much more arduous task to be propitious than it is to criticise, but Queer As Folk has it all. A fuck-you attitude. Babes and bastards. Some rather broiling sex scenes (there's definitely sweat on those upper lips!). Even the underlying anti-lesbian rhetoric ('That's not homophobic, it's good taste') is well-rooted in fact! There's even spunk (probably watered-down vaseline but a graphic shot - excuse the pun). There's cybersex, drag, cottaging, American porn, death, underage sex, obsession, drugs, supermarkets, mobile phones.. all of those critical components of 1990s gay lifestyle. The Canal Street backdrop is unavoidable. Never been there myself but does everyone really snog that much?

So here's a bit of the story, set in that sharp, contemporary, image-conscious world, just to whet your appetite. We are introduced to Stuart Jones (Aidan Gillen) - described in the press release as 'rich and drop-dead gorgeous'. Personally, I think he's the long-lost brother Martin and Gary Kemp kept locked away in the attic, but I digress. He's so invidious, a selfish bastard, audaciously arrogant and extremely lax in moral fibre. And of course, all the boys absolutely dote on him, particularly Vince Tyler (Craig Kelly), a sweet lad harried by the truly conflagrant torch he's carried for Stuart for 15 years.

While Stuart is that predatory and promiscuous homosexual that Middle England fears. He has shagged his way through some 1560 men without a blink ('Just shag 'im blind and chuck 'im owt'), Vince reckons he's managed 250. 'He's 'ad a football stadium and I've 'ad a small buffet!' The 251st should be Nathan Maloney (Charlie Hunnam), a 15 year-old schoolboy (think Paul Nicholls' younger sibling with a John-Boy Walton mole) but Stuart gets there first. While Stu lingeringly licks Nat's bum cheeks, Vince is resigned to lip-synching his way through videos of Doctor Who.

In the two episodes I managed to sneak a peek at, Stuart is the cadre of this gay universe. He is also the father to Albert, son of two lesbians Romey (Esther Hall) and Lisa (Saira Todd), and 'the most expensive wank' he's ever had. But he's not the 'star'. No one person is. The real calibre and charisma of Queer As Folk lies in the fact that it is tenable.

The writer, Russell T. Davies, has said that he was adamant that the series would not be 'issue-led. Gay characters invariably walk in with a subplot on their heads: "Ooh I've got AIDS. Ooh I want to be a gay parent". They do not exist as three-dimensional people.' This philosophy is exceedingly blatant in the finished product. Davies also 'had to overcome the feeling that I should represent the whole "community" - every age, every scene.' And by George, he's done it.

What other reason do you need? Oh okay... episode three promises cocaine, a plethora of pecs and group sex. Sold! To the wide-eyed homosexual sitting on the couch!

© Feb 2000 Megan Radclyffe

At Home With The Braithwaites ITV

So those TV millionaires are back for a second bite of the cherry. Wahoo. To be honest I didn't really warm to this lot the first time. But praise be the god of TV, because I was sent what was labelled as an 'Electric Press Pack 2000': a taster tape, a 20-minute snippet touted here as 'an update for all you hacks sat there with your booze and fags'.

Bristling slightly, I viewed on. First a recap: Alison Braithwaite (Amanda Sexy Beast Redman) won £38million on the lottery. Bitch. She kept the whole thing a secret. Husband David (Peter Woof! Davison) had an affair with his secretary. Bastard. The eldest daughter Sarah is pregnant. Middle child Virginia is a lesbian styled vaguely on Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen who fantasies over her straight neighbour, Megan (Julie Dirty Tricks Graham). The youngest is a hamster-cheeked, spectacled, cynical swot called Charlotte.

Now onto the second series. Alison files for divorce and falls for her brother in law, the rather smarmy Graham. Virginia is flabbergasted by Megan's attentions: didn't surprise me at all... that dyke's got a walloping great bank balance now. Charlotte decides she must! (must! in a way that would honour Enid Blyton) get her parents back together by 'exhibiting signs of madness'. Of course in a family 'as normal as the friggin' Borgias, frankly!' you could understand why this fails...

So there you have it. Oh a lesser detail about Virginia (Sarah Bliss Smart) embezzling her mother's money to woo the covetous Megan away from her hubby and then passing the blame onto family friend; and a subplot about Charlotte's implied plan to murder her Uncle may peak some interest in a viewing audience coddled into a coma by Barrymore, Black and 'hilarious' camcorder clip shows. The inclusion of Lynda Bellingham and Sylvia Syms in the cast would be a gold-plated bonus if they were on screen for longer, but I remind myself this is an 'electronic press pack'. Let's call it silver-plated then.

Still at least it means I won't have waste my oh-so valuable time to watch all eight instalments of this rather humourously-challenged 'traumedy' because the twenty minutes I saw didn't make me chuckle or contemplate. And puh-LEASE!, dykes do NOT wear bow ties anymore!

Who Killed Mark Faulkner? BBC2

I'm certain this wasn't intended to dampen the impending festive spirit, and was probably designed as a 'timely reminder' of those less fortunate. Not to seem mean (in spite of my Yuletide nickname being 'The Grinch') but this slopped on the guilt with a thick trowel.

Mark Faulkner was found dead on the underpass at Charing Cross station in late 1998. He was 'symbolic of a lot of kids out there' – a child who 'didn't seem interested in life', who 'lacked the mental power to cope', a young A-grade student who was bullied at school, who turned to gambling on fruit machines before trying (then bungling) burglaries, self-harm, and sleeping on the streets.

His family seemed either oblivious to Mark's problems or eliminated them from memory. While friends told of how they slammed the door in Mark's face, the family maintained Mark was 'always welcome with open arms'. Cracks appeared in their veneer. I doubt anyone could have 'saved' him.

I realised I may well have walked past this man anytime between 1991 and 1997 on the thoroughfares in and around Soho, Leicester Square, St Martin's and Oxford Street. His scraggly beard and wolfish features weren't alarmingly familiar, his sleepy eyed constance to life would not have been obvious.

This was not a whodunnit as the title suggests. Bob Boyton, who has worked with homeless people for 15 years, and ex-street sleeper Michael St Paul, scoured London talking to the variously dislocated to try and find out about Mark and his life. They talked of drug-soaked parents, buying five cans of lager for £10 or a rock of crack in order to 'jist get aht of me 'ed, fink abaht nuffink'.

Rather, it was indictment of those who 'failed' a 25 year-old man who might have been gay, definitely took illegal [sic] drugs, and suffered from grand mal seizures. Unfortunately, it wasn't until 100 minutes into this three-part 'investigation' that this anomaly became clear. What killed Mark was a bout of pneumonia followed by a dip in a chilled St James' Park lake, resulting in an epileptic fit. The only thing that pulled me up short was that 180 homeless people died on the streets in the capital last year. And for what? Who Killed Mark Faulkner couldn't tell us why either.

© March 2001 Megan Radclyffe

40 Years of Coronation Street Granada

Narrated by none other than Sir John Mills, this programme was the televisual equivalent of a hallowed commemorative mug. Not one of those cheap china jobs with a transfer stuck on it, but a lovingly produced piece of pottery with handpainted detailing. It is, after all, the longest running drama in world television history. What was supposed to be a 13–week series, first broadcast on 9th December 1960, has clocked up over 4,000 episodes, 89 deaths (including those of budgies Harriet and Harry), 44 barmaids, 55 marriages, 26 births, 12 potmen and 9 landladies, revolving around 26 households, businesses and the planet's most renowned rathskeller, the Rovers Return. No wonder that, while a little saccharine, the sentiment that the community of Weatherfield 'has entered the home and hearts of the nation' is incontestable.

Now, I wouldn't call myself a Corrie fan – maybe it's the soft Southerner in me – but I love watching Street clips! What better excuse to settle down and watch the ultimate classics than the (slightly premature) celebration of the show's 40th Anniversary? Along with überý–fans Frank Skinner, Cilla Black, writer Lucy Soldier Soldier Gannon and Sir Cliff (who bemoaned the fact that he's not been proffered a plum role), twenty of the past and present personalities – from Hilda, Ken and Betty to Dierdre, Maxine and Mike as well as creator Tony Warren – did the usual trawl of what life is like and the mergings of character and self on the world's most cherished kitchen sink drama

It's difficult to write about an Anniversary show. Those of you who watch the Street will see no need for me to chronicle the best snippets. Those of you who don't could probably care less about the 'endemic humour' or the 'wonderful feuds'. You may not give a hoot for the stories based on 'realistic details that sometimes come from unrealistic situations', or that the Street 'retains its ability to surprise' its audience.

To be honest, I rarely care, either for characters or plot lines. Aligning the drama and comedy of a TV soap opera with Shakespeare may seem a tad indulgent, until you view these clips. Of course, they're not going to show the flotsam. Of course they're going to show Elsie and Ena slugging it out, the disclosure of Sarah-Louise's underage pregnancy, Sally whacking Denise in the kisser, Vera and Jack's incongruous marriage, the thrust and whack of Ken and Mike's 24 year rancour, the shotgun death of Ernie, Hilda and Stan's poignant and cantankerous relationship, Raquel tottering away over t'cobble stones... Of course they showed the melodramatic and the susceptible aspects: woe betide any clip compiler who missed any of these out.

And of course, while I'm focused on the shocking, a slight aside: can anyone confirm that Julie Goodyear was in pantomime costume, and not filmed at home in her day wear? But I digress...

And of course, it's the nostalgia, the earthy substance, the theatrics, that makes the Street what it is! You can add or subtract all the attendant appeal of it breaking down barriers of class and accent. You can remember or forget that Coronation Street is 'deeply working class, but without sloganeering' or that the programme 'captures life as it is.' The important element has always been that the viewing public have a real affection for this, and that is indeed very rare.

What's more astonishing is that the next big bash will be 50 years of the Street. 50 years! It's gobsmacking to think that in this country, there is just the one place that for this long has maintained a 'proper sense of community'... and it's on t'telly...

© Jan 2001 Megan Radclyffe

Soap On A Rope BBC1, Carlton, Ch4, and Ch5

As I was milling around after the Big Brother press conference, I was cornered by a journalist from The Observer. He was writing a piece on Anna Nolan, and – for what earthly reason I can't see why – espied me and asked my opinion on lesbian icons. I mentioned that we'd come a long way, especially in terms of visibility on television, adding that I had been compiling a list. 'Ooh, can you send it to me?' Surely (and rather stupidly), I replied yes. I duly emailed him the list, but when I read the article, he'd only specified BBC2's lamentable Rhona and 'the lesbian kiss' in Brookside, circa 1994.

I was disillusioned to say the least. It's been 15 years since the first regular gay character appeared on a British soap opera, and over 5 years since Beth Jordache finally ascended to the Soap Bubble in the Sky. Since then, there have been over 35 others - nearly half a queer a year. And although EastEnders first dared to tackle this 'sensitive yet shocking' issue, Brookside and Emmerdale are currently at it hammer and tongs to reach a zenith when it comes to gay quotient.

After Colin Russell (Michael Cashman) threw in the towel and left Walford in 1989, there was a hiatus until Emmerdale launched the first ever teatime lesbian, Zoë Tate ('the luscious Leah Bracknell') in 1993. But down went the vet after the uproar come rapture that surrounded überfemme Beth Jordache (Anna Friel) locking lips with nanny Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson, whatever happened to her?) and assisting in the backyard burial of her abusive father.

Over in the Woolpack, Zoë was seen to stagger, then recovered and start ploughing through a succession of lovers: first, interior decorator Emma (Rachel Ambler), then rebel dyke Susie (Louise Heaney) then bedding down with nanny Sophie (Jane Cameron). Brookside jabbed away and introduced an unprecedented second lesbian couple! But Zoë munched – sorry, punched – on, dumping the nanny and hitching a lift with trucker Frankie Smith (first played by Gina Aris, usurped by Madeleine Bowyer).

But it doesn't end there, oh no! Brookside fought back, revealing that its minty fresh lesbian duo, Lindsey Corkhill (Claire Sweeney) and Shelley Bowers (Alex Westcourt) were to be undone by Shelley's passion for Lindsey's mother, Jackie (Sue Jenkins)! By the count of 8, those in the Dales had adjusted the gum shield and smashed back with Paddy's gay cousin, Jason Kirk (James Carlton) who is about to give his immigrant boyfriend Joe away to barmaid Trisha in a marriage of convenience! But then came Brookside with a last ditch attempt that leaves Susannah dead at the hands of Max who then dies in a fire along with Shelley while Lindsay escapes! Oops! Should I have said that? Anyway... sorry, Emmerdale... guess you'll have to 'beef up the grief' with the imminent split between Zoë and Frankie.

This all makes these other soap sagas of male rape (Hollyoaks), HIV and AIDS (EastEnders and Casualty, not technically a soap but might as well be) and homophobia (Casualty once more, and stalwart EastEnders), bisexual flings (Hollyoaks again, oh and Family Affairs), and a transsexual attempting to adopt children (Coronation Street) kind of pale in comparison.

We all know that the world of soap is placed in a parallel universe, but come to think of it, Coronation Street is just in another universe, full stop. The mother of all soaps is celebrating 40 years of mithering, yet we still have to see a regular gay character walk the cobbles, down pints of the Rovers, exist even! If a soap is life (and that conversely, while frightening to consider, life is a soap) then were are the queers? The producers had one bash at it: a hairdresser who disappeared after a virtual mince on, rinse, mince off again, a character whose name didn't even make it to the oft-referenced Soap Archives that proliferate the Internet.

I can only assume the producers on Coronation Street don't feel they need to stump up the ratings by introducing tokenistic characters. Would have been a fine, unassailable argument a few years ago (oddly, around the time that hairdresser appeared) but now? It seems redundant. The programme has a recent national television award for being considerably more dominant in the viewers' minds, and still regularly hordes 15 million viewers every week, a market share of 65%.

A recent attempt to redress the balance came with 'Joe Soap' who became quite annoyed by this situation after receiving a missive from 'AB in Kent'. 'AB' asked sixty 'well-known' people if there should be a gay on the Street. According to an email press release, the question was 'greeted with stony silence' by such entertainment notables as Sir Cliff Richard, Julie Goodyear, Graham Norton, Lily Savage, Dale Winton, Jeremy Spake and Sandi Toksvig. Startlingly, many political luminaries claim they never watch soaps, while Richard and Judy were "...unable to fulfil your wishes [and] sorry to reply with such disappointing news" – obviously not hoist with their own petard...

Ah well, there's always the chance that the return of Crossroads might add a few to the quota...

© Dec 2000 Megan Radclyffe

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