“You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss…” But not if it’s a kiss between two blokes. Then it becomes a national scandal and disgrace – at least in the dysfunctional world of the tabloids it does.
There was an element of déjà vu about The Sun’s “Casualty Gay Kiss Outrage” story last month. According to the report, the BBC’s switchboard was “swamped” by outraged viewers after “two men shared a passionate gay snog on Casualty.” This did not, of course, discourage The Sun from carrying a large picture of the incident, the sight of which had caused them so much anguish. So if the kiddies didn’t see it at quarter to nine at night, they would have seen it at quarter to nine in the morning, over breakfast.
According to The Sun: “Bosses held crisis talks about how to handle the complaints” – which an “insider” had numbered at 400.
Crisis talks? What are we talking about here? World War III? A nuclear test ban treaty? Abolition of the licence fee?
No, just two rather delectable young actors locking lips as part of an on-going story line in a Saturday night soap opera. What’s so “outrageous” about that?
Anyway, the nation seems to have survived the horror of seeing Lee Warburton and David Paisley playing gay, although “Mum” Emma Rawlings told the BBC Points of View website: “My main worry is what are we going to be shown next? So much for family viewing.”
I know what I’d like to be shown next, but we’ll have to wait for the Casualty R18 DVD for that.
But haven’t we been here a hundred times before? Haven’t all the soaps had this treatment at some stage in their history? EastEnders used to specialise in it when Colin and Barry were extant, and for a village of its size, Emmerdale has far more lesbians than the national average. Brookside made a few front pages with the occasional gay tongue-fest – particularly the one between Beth Jordache and her female neighbour in 1994. A couple of months ago The Bill was getting the treatment when two of its male rozzers fell for each other.
Now The Sun tells us that even the Simpsons is to feature a “sizzling lesbian kiss”.
The Daily Mail meanwhile, claimed that there had been 340 complaints about the Casualty episode, which was far from being a record. The Brass Eye spoof on paedophilia attracted 2,500 complaints in 2001. But even that paled into insignificance when, last year, several thousand complaints were made when a Wimbledon tennis match was cut short because it had over-run its slot.
Fortunately, although the BBC were said to be holding an internal enquiry and threatening to “carpet” the producers of Casualty, the controller of the BBC’s ongoing drama department, Mal Young, was standing firm. He was quoted as saying: ““Gay relationships have been part of television drama for some time. Contemporary drama should reflect the society we live in and this story line does that. It was handled in the same way a straight relationship would have been.”
On the other hand, the director of BBC television, Jana Bennett, revealed to a seminar organised by the BSC and the National Family and Parenting Institute, that: “It is hard to make assumptions about what children are aware of. I recently had to steer my eight year old away from a music channel showing the pop duo Tatu kissing, kissing and kissing some more. My eight year old informed me they were kissing because they were lesbians. I didn’t even know she knew the word.”
Explaining why the BBC decided not to show the Tatu video on Top of the Pops but had screened the Casualty kiss, Ms Bennett said the BBC had a duty to make parents feel safe and not court controversy for the sake of it. “Top of the Pops is an early evening programme watched by children. The kiss on Casualty was part of a legitimate drama for a mixed audience. Neither decision was taken lightly.”
Richard Madeley and Judy Finegan tried to find out what their viewers thought of the kiss, by discussing it on their Channel 4 programme and inviting people to ring in. Writing about the incident in their column in The Daily Express, Richard Madeley said: “Do you feel a frisson of discomfort when you see two men on the telly kissing each other on the lips? And does that feeling increase when such scenes are shown before the nine o’clock watershed?” (Notice the assumption that everyone reading it is heterosexual).
He pointed out that not only had the Casualty kiss upset people, so had the Marmite ad where a lifeguard tries to revive a half-drowned man, only to find his efforts at mouth to mouth resuscitation being turned into an apparently passionate kiss by the swimmer. It is then revealed that the lifeguard has recently eaten a Marmite sandwich. The Independent Television Commission rejected that batch of complaints on the basis that the kiss had a “clearly jokey scenario” and did not “portray homosexual intimacy or, indeed, sexual or romantic activity of any sort.”
Madeley wanted to know why man-to-man affection is such a turn-off, while Sapphic expression seems acceptable, even enjoyable to the average viewer. “We don’t turn a hair when we see men and women kissing on the telly,” said Richard, “Why should man-on-man passion be so suspect?”
He admitted that they had been unable to come up with an answer during the discussion, but the vote revealed that 75 per cent of those who phoned in found male snogging “completely unacceptable.”
“So, perhaps on Casualty at least, the kissing will have to stop,” he concluded.
Lynda Lee-Potter in The Daily Mail said she wasn’t so much worried by the gender of the kissers as the fact that “they were snogging on duty in a busy overstretched hospital.”
In the letters columns, too, there was raw homophobia on display. Writing to The Daily Mail, M.E. Ridley of Morpeth revealed: “I complained to the Broadcasting Standards Commission last year when there was a similar kiss. The response was: ‘We feel that it was well within the story line and therefore didn’t breach any acts of decency’”.
Mr Ridley then lapsed into classic Daily Mail mode: “If, as Mal Young says, it is a representation of the society we live in, then it is a very sad time in Britain’s history. The real casualty is the vast majority of decent people in Britain.”
Countering that was Andy Burrage of Chester, who also wrote to The Daily Mail: “How predictable – there is one gay show of affection on our screens and 340 people complain to the BBC because the kiss between two male nurses was lingering. Was it any more lingering than any heterosexual liaison we see day in day out on TV? The gay lifestyle is so accepted by most people in society that nobody gives it a second thought – apart from these complaints. When you compare those 340 viewers with the ten million who watch Casualty, it puts the matter in perspective.”
If you don’t mind, I’d like, at this point, to become a shade Daily Mail-esque myself.
What does it say about our society when the most watched programme last month was the episode of Coronation Street featuring two women having their heads bashed in by a crow-bar wielding maniac? Which is more repulsive – a gay kiss or bloody murder?
I’m happy to report that the Broadcasting Standards Commission can tell the difference between honest shows of affection and grotesque violence. It revealed that it had received 21 complaints about the scenes in Coronation Street and upheld them all. It said that the scenes were “unsuitable for a time when children would be watching.”
Where is The Sun’s outrage over that? There was none – they positively revelled in it.
It is unlikely that the complaints about the Casualty kiss will be upheld by the BSC. It has a long and honourable record of supporting the depiction of gay people on TV, despite the never-ending “scandals” generated by the tabloids and the complaints from reactionaries.
Gay kissing on pop videos, too, seems to be all the rage at the moment. The aforementioned “lesbian” duo Tatu feature all over the place eating each other’s face, and everyone seems to enjoy it. But when Christina Aguilera’s new video featured two young men with entangled tongues there were bleatings about the horror of it being shown on children’s television. In fact, the kiss was edited out of the BBC version shown pre-watershed, although it remained uncut on MTV.
All this may seem like a storm in a bedpan, but it tells us something very important about just how far perceptions of gay people have come in society, and how much further they still have to go.