Gay Times Reviews IX

Ferry Tales: Drag Act  BBC1

Seven million people travel by ferry across the Irish sea each year – cue the flutes – 'and behind each journey is a tale...' This one involved ex-scaffolder Leo McHale, a Dublin drag artist (not a term I use advisedly) and fellow 'artiste' Derek McCann.

Now the reason these two are together ('just friends' but in a tempestuous relationship) is due – at least in part – to a change in the law that previously forbade homosexual shenanigans. Once being gay was legalised (sic) there followed a flourishing of gay clubs, and drag acts germinated swiftly. Leo and Derek hopped onto the 'humongous' bandwagon as Annie Balls and Penny Bridge: apparently they are a walloping great hit on the Dublin drag scene.

The reason for the Ferry Tale? Oh they were about to unleash themselves (I would say talent, but...) on London – 'drag capital of the world!' – and more specifically the White Hart in Tottenham. 'So we start with It's Raining Men then S Club 7 then Agadoo,' said Derek while I prayed silently to the goddess to spare me. And praise be! The production team came up trumps and provided a montage of the act dubbed with some possibly popular techno music.

Onwards to the ferry, a crossing preceded by a night of crucial drinking: the excursion itself was championed with some lilting flutes and shots of similarly lilting passengers.

Watching them plummet like a lead balloon at the White Hart, I thought them no more than the bastard children of the Divine David, cast out because they were just too 'normal': too indigent and precocious to pull it off. But most ominous of all, 'Leo's ambition is undiminished.' Without a irrepressible script, Annie Balls is sunk and if the goddess is smiling on this reviewer, she'll take Ferry Tales down with her...

Paddington Green  BBC1

I'm a cynical bitch, I admit it. For example, I believe that the seemingly eternal trend in fly on the wall 'drama' is unequivocally past its sell by date. The first series of Paddington Green was enough for me: it was like raking through the bins on a squalid council estate searching for that elusive crock of televisual gold. I found the whole experience seedy and saddening. A synopsis for this series continued that spurious concept, with a camera trained unceasingly on two gay men, Denny, who was a quasi-professional singer until blinded as the result of a mugging, and his ex-boyfriend Gary, who was gravely injured in the Admiral Duncan bombing.

The main thrust of their story was Denny's 'comeback' for a benefit to raise funds for those mutilated and devastated by that neo-Nazi's bomb. After nine years, his appearance was to premier a tribute song he had written for Gary entitled 'You Went Away'. A rehearsal was shown 'falling apart' as Denny, a can of Red Stripe in his hand, hit a few false notes and complained, 'Bet Diana Ross doesn't have to deal with this...' I'm sure she doesn't, but then a BBC camera crew aren't breathing down her neck. The disquietude was as palpable as the subjects' frowns were visible. 'I'm sure we can get something out of this,' Denny said. 'Yes,' Gary replied. 'A headache...'

My guess is that they never could have known just how far reaching the repercussions of 'Dipteria documenta' could be. Denny was recently attacked by some feeble-minded wanker who said, 'You're that poof off the telly!' before he expressed his own critique by punching one of television's synthetic 'stars'.

Producers obviously cannot be held accountable for every homophobic pillock on the street thinking that he has some god-given 'right' to smash a queer's teeth out. But too many lines are being crossed: producers shove a camera into a life – whether invited or not – and it allows those with a decency level as low as their sloping foreheads to cross the next line. Where, I feel it prudent to ask, will it end? Deaths in the USA after normal mortals appeared on Jenny Jones and The Jerry Springer Show may not be isolated incidents, but may become the standard. Isn't it time to completely reconsider this paltry excuse for entertainment? And, might I suggest, pretty damned quickly?

The Last Of The Blonde Bombshells  BBC1

Now this was simply splendid! While The Last of the Blonde Bombshells could have been predictably dismissed as a 'chick flick' I only had to look at the press release to realise this was a televisual smorgasbord. Judi Dench, June Whitfield, Billie Whitelaw, Cleo Laine, Ian Holm, Joan Sims, Leslie Caron, Olympia Dukakis. Dames! Drag! Jazz! Who could ask for more? I mean, need I go on? Maybe not, but I shall.

This play is a venture that took playwright Alan Biederbecke Affair Plater thirty years from inception to fruition, and I haven't spent a more delightful eighty minutes since... well, that's private. It is a 'coming of (the third) age' piece, the preliminary being the 'incineration' of the recently departed husband of Elizabeth (Dench), and the realisation that their marriage was to say the least hardly ebullient. Fed up with going to the library, watching TV quiz shows and 'weeping where necessary', she retrieves a battered sax from the attic and – in constant flashbacks – relives her career in an (almost) all-girl jazz band that certainly cut up rugs fifty years past.

A sudden twitch of 'madness' and she's off busking alongside a skating rink, much to the horror of her decorous, middle-aged children. She encounters Patrick (Holm), the cross-dressing, draft-dodging drummer of the Bombshells (revealed as a hedonistic but coquettish cad of the first order), and resolve to relive their glorious past by playing a school dance.

After finding the old dance hall is now a carpet warehouse, they recover various band members: they find alto-sax player Whitelaw in prison, Whitfield 'in the arms of Jesus' playing trombone for the Sally Army, Sims bangin' out tunes on a seaside joanna, Laine still thriving on a talent for diddly-dat-scat, and Dukakis drunkenly loving her Lairdship. Caron's late arrival is due to her 5' 3" frame having to lug a double bass across Europe... The resulting cacophony brought me back to my second initial reaction 'pon reading the BBC blurb: it had crossed my mind that the women's triple tonguing and fingering skills might not survive close scrutiny. It appears they all had some rather top notch tuition and while June Whitfield did look faintly ridiculous, they all got away with it.

I did have another small, piddling really, reservation. As the whole shebang is based on little more than 'having one last gamble before we shuffle off' I did wonder if the script would be a tad rarefied: the magnitude of the cast alone should have given reason enough to switch on. It did have wisdom and edicts that come only with age, tinged by the regrets of 50 years (as Elizabeth says, 'If I admit those were the best days of my life, it's admitting I wasted my life') and the delight of rescuing yourself in later age.

I liked Last of the Blonde Bombshells: it left me with something akin to a zip!-adee-doo-dah spring in my step (those who know me will know how uncommon this is), and warbling Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree all day. To me, that's a far more satisfying doctrine for producers to be plying. Definitely one to Watch With Mother, once you got past the utter ignominy of Dame Judi Dench saying 'Fuck'... There'll be letters to the BBC, I'll be bound!

© Oct 2000 Megan Radclyffe

Big Brother   Ch 4

Six million people tuned in to this 'innovative' Dutch programme when it aired in late 1999. The brainchild of TV producer John De Mol, it was a survival programme of sorts: a fly-on-the-wall documentary crossed with a game show doctrine, pitting people against one another for a grand monetary prize and all that attendant Fame and Fortune (record deals, Playboy shoots ad infinitum). The concept has been sold across the world: more people watched the Spanish version – Gran Hermano – than viewed the Champions League semi-final. The sapient ones amongst us might think this a nightmare scenario, but it's one that appears to have gripped a viewing nation, and one set to be a globalised experience: even the US (home of The Real World which is boredom personified now) and South Africa have their own Big Brother. It was inevitable that Big Brother would arrive on our shores.

Whittled down from 40,000 applications, ten people were chosen (based on a criteria of being over 18, 'interesting, charismatic people' and having passed a police screening) to spend nine weeks trapped with 'complete strangers' in a one-storey prefab house, a barrage of cameras trained on their every move and their every utterance recorded. 'Ten people. Nine weeks. 24 cameras. One house. £70,000' – it's like a (badly scanning) mantra.

The Big Brother experiment – this frightful part documentary/part game show hybrid – started on the Internet on 14 July, and had attracted over 7.5 million hits before the TV audience got a peak inside this media laboratory. Getting a decent connection to the website is equally as nightmarish as the original concept. Attempts to load the live cameras are greeted with redirection to plug-in libraries. And even if you do have Real Player 7, FlashPlayer 4 and the correct browser (I could only access the webcams via Netscape 4.72) the picture is no more than 2" square. Efforts to vote encountered a terse message advising that I was not registered, which came as a surprise after a number of apologetic emails saying 'Sorry for the delay but you're now a member of the Big Brother club!' News that Intel was having to cope with "the heaviest load any server facility has ever had in this country" didn't compensate me as my eye strain grew steadily worse while my blood pressure rose as the words 'Net Congestion... Buffering' scrolled repeatedly across my monitor.

The webcam pictures, shot from any one of ten static angles, gave jerky, pixilated coverage, with the audio channel either patchy or raucously loud, surprisingly low quality in a world plagued by MP3 technology. Still it was rather hypnotic watching these guinea pigs scurry around under the scrutiny of 'pore-close' TV. I cannot imagine how I might cope in a house with no outside contact: no news via radio or television, no music, no email, no telephone calls – let alone 25 cameras, 30 radio-microphones, two-way mirrors or tripping over 15km of wires. Come to think of it, I can't imagine dealing with these ten people either. Maybe it's the age range, maybe it's because of what I believe to be a chronic amount of flesh on show. Maybe it's the £1.50 per day you get for food (that's only enough for two Kingsize Mars Bars!) or sleeping five beds in a room, or the mixed sharing of one shower and toilet!

The spread of contestants – it is, after all, akin to a human version of Pets Win Prizes – was an uncritical proximate representation of the UK (excluded, it seems, were upper age and disability) with five men and five women aged between 27 and 37, of whom there are nine English and one Irish; one black man and a bi-racial woman; a lesbian, one bisexual and seven straights (well six and half I suppose: one was 'bi-curious' - whatever that is) and it's early days, ladies and gentleman – this dynamic could change, and it's in your hands! You, the viewer, can change the physical and emotional demographics of the house by casting the final vote for one of the participants to return to Civvy Street: 387,000 voted for the first to leave – that willowy, avaricious Sada – after two weeks. And while we can all see how much of a scheming bastard Nicholas is, we can't do anything until the housemates nominate him for eviction.

Is this why are people watching? Has the power of Interactive Television warped our fragile little minds? Are we making choices based on gut instinct or valued judgments based on the psychological profiles provided once a week? Are we watching because deep down inside we're waiting for the potential failure of the group in their weekly task, or the inevitable finger-pointing for each person voted out? Does that make us feel better about ourselves? And why then did I spend 10p voting for Sada to be kicked out?!

I'm no expert, as you know, but I have an uneasy feeling about this concept. Yes I know it's been done before, but not on this scale, and not with the camera so far up yer arse. We've gone from partially realistic sitcoms about cozy marriages to authentic life dramas about brawling families to a supposedly friendly version of 1984. If you believe the axiom that your focus defines your reality, aren't television producers – in their dogmatic role as an influence on the nation, alongside the tabloid print media who venerate this kind of event – in danger of overstepping some integral boundaries here? While I believe the whole assay brings up many more questions than it could ever answer, one can see how attractive a proposition Big Brother was, especially here in a country renowned as equally for its twitching curtains as for its position of keeping everything behind closed doors.

I'd be loathe to think this really is the future of television. To me, it really is a nightmare vision, one you cannot turn away from. I believed the viewing nation has become jaded because of all the real life police dramas, the real life hospital dramas: my hope is that we'll eventually grow weary of this and demand some more from television, rather than just vegging out and wondering who'll be evicted next. Until then, it's just another thing to talk about other than for example, EastEnders. But then, what next? Knickercams? Anal probes LIVE! on your set? Oh my god! I hope no one suggests that to Channel 5!

© Aug 2000 Megan Radclyffe

Big Brother: Two per cent?!

Watching the final day of Channel 4's 64-day summer blockbuster Big Brother was a strange experience. Anna Nolan, a 29 year-old originally from Crumlin in Ireland, was in with a chance of winning! The skate board company office manager was into the final three and could sweep the £70,000 first prize! Secretly, we lesbians were in with a chance of winning too, and not only having made bets at odds of 9/4. The impact that this ex-nun, now resident in London, had on lesbian viewers was tremendous. Those of us who didn't fancy her probably would have voted just because she was a lesbian. Some called Anna's number up to 120 times. Even 91% of the Irish vote – nearly 48,000 people (probably including a fair few who would never applaud lesbianism) spent 46p a minute to vote for the girl with the craic.

But at the end of Friday 15th September, it wasn't enough. As the host Davina McCall announced that Craig had won, my heart sank. Just under 3.5 million calls added up to 49% of the vote, a scant 2% less than garnered by builder Craig Phillips. Two per cent... A TV-induced schizophrenia took over as disappointment at her loss was replaced with televisual nirvana. Just audible over the din of a 2000-strong cluster of Big Brother nuts, Davina was heard to yell, 'Let Tania go!' This was the first eviction in the nine weeks where a partner was allowed onto that hallowed turf and experienced being dazzled blind by the press photographers' bulbs. Cynics might say Channel 4 had 'arranged' it all: irrespective, it marked a huge shift. For the first time, we saw a real-life lesbian couple, ecstatic to be in each others' arms again, and a camera that didn't recoil after two seconds. Oh, admit it, there was a lump in your throat too!

So imagine the state of my underwear when¸ I got the call to attend the Big Brother press conference! After fending off vicious finger-nail attacks from Anna fan friends, I got to Bromley by Bow to clamour with the rest of the hacks over Anna, Craig and 'Big Daddy' Darren Ramsey. Looking calm and surprisingly rested, the three sat with luminaries from Channel 4 and Bazal Productions, and were faced by some seventy-odd journalists, cameras and other remora.

After a brief run through of the viewing figures (rising to 10 million in the final 15 minutes, an astounding 56.5% of the audience share) Anna was wheeled out first. 'I'm not good at making speeches,' she said. 'Sometimes I'm not articulate, sometimes I ramble on...' As for her new iconic status? 'I didn't know what to expect,' she replied. 'I just went in as myself.'

And as for her reunion with the lovely Tania? Anna's neck then face reddened. 'We had a party, then back to the hotel and chatted. That's all we did! Honestly!' Did she think being out worked in her favour? 'I don't know.' At the question, 'What had the last 64 days teach you about yourself?' she paused for a second. 'I don't like being in enclosed spaces,' she replied. 'And I don't like blue walls.' A gurgle of laughter swept the room.

Some freelance hack representing Gay Times poked her hand in the air. 'Did the crowd outside the house freak you out?' (Oh! good question... idiot!) 'I was completely overwhelmed by the people,' she said. 'especially as they'd all stayed through the rain!' She seemed very surprised anyone would do that, but no doubt being isolated from the frenzy that was Big Brother could be a reason...

And how did the lovely Tania feel about it all? 'She knew it would be difficult, but she supported me in what I wanted to do,' Anna stated. 'But it was strange for both of us. It was hard.'

Darren was asked what stopped him from leaving. Anna leaned to whisper, and Darren broke into a huge grin. 'Anna says, the door was locked.' Later, when Craig was asked about what he thought would bring most in the Big Brother auction, I saw Anna lean to Darren and whisper, 'Mel's g-string...'

A tour of the camera run around the house itself followed, and by God, the place was a tip! Knickers left on Mel's bed, a pack of cards thrown higgeldy-piggeldy, empty wine bottles, decorations strewn everywhere, unmade beds, and a lightly grubby Diary Room chair, all protected by some burly guards in dayglo jackets. My cheap little Nikon camera failed me completely, but I have some authentic Big Brother mud if anyone's interested...

© Sept 2000 Megan Radclyffe

Rainbow Television Network

Given the amount of media coverage the story has received, no doubt you will have heard that Britain is to have its first lesbian and gay TV channel.

Pencilled in for a launch during 1997, the Rainbow Television Network hopes to broadcast between 6pm and 2am every day, initially on cable, and it has been made quite clear that the channel will not show gay pornography. Instead, a 50-50 mix of previously seen material and new commissions and buy-ins will be presented in a "completely freewheeling format". It has been stated that Rainbow TV "will not be a political crusade".

Spokesman Brian Thomas claims, "We're trying to find a natural home for our programming, but also trying to reflect something that we feel is missing and that's the sense of real fun that's out there. A lot of the programming you see is very issue-driven, and we will try to be a lot more light-hearted, camp, kitsch... call it what you will."

The aim is to attract people from all walks of life who have three things in common: "they're fun-loving, they're consumers... and they're gay!" They estimate 7 millions viewers, broken down to 2.5m gay men, a "similar number" of lesbians and 2m from a "wide youthful gay-friendly heterosexual following".

Curiosity has been roused by the lack of information being given at a point some eight to twenty months in advance, although the application to the Independent Television Commission will be for a ten-year licence. Rumours that straight porn emperors Northern & Shell were putting up a substantial amount of the minimum of £10 million needed to fund the application have been strenuously denied by the company. In addition, it is estimated that the channel will need some £2,000 per hour to run programmes and could cost viewers up at £10 a month to tune in. At the time of writing, the channel has 15% of its stock left to off-load.

Whatever form Rainbow TV takes, they are virtually assured a unique niche in the market, albeit one that targets "young, hedonistic but ultimately sensible and involved" viewers.

The announcement by the Rainbow Television Network somewhat overshadowed news that a second lesbian and gay station called QTV will also be launched next year. On a smaller budget, QTV will be on air for three or four hours a day, its schedules packed with entertainment-based programmes. As with the competition's efforts to raise finance, the precise details of the QTV bid are firmly under wraps, but spokesman Barry Redfern has only been drawn enough to say, "Running a TV station is expensive. Gone have the days when television was a licence to print money. We're not going to operate like ITV or anyone else who thinks of setting up a niche channel. There's not that sort of money around to do it."

© 1993-2001 Megan S. Radclyffe

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