Contrary to popular opinion, there wasn’t a great deal of fuss about Queer As Folk in the tabloids. In fact, there was more space devoted to comment on how outraged the tabloids were than there was actual tabloid outrage. Any uproar that the producers of the drama serial had hoped for turned out to be quite muted.
Naturally, The Daily Mail didn’t want to disappoint its strange readers and brought in Lynda Lotta-Pee to pen the standard condemnation of (a) Channel 4 and (b) homosexuality. “Queer as Folk proves that we need censorship,” she wrote. “Certainly we shouldn’t be at liberty to watch naked actors having relentless homosexual sex.”
This kind of fulmination is traditionally the province of Paul Johnson, who could have knocked off the requisite 1,000 words of bile within seconds. Regrettably, this time round, we have been deprived of his profound insights.
The explanation for his absence from the fray came from Ben Summerskill, in The Express: “Only one red-faced polemicist will be missing from the roll-call of famous names participating in the denunciation [of Queer as Folk]. Paul Johnson, for years The Daily Mail’s ‘family values’ columnist, has gone strangely quiet since it emerged last summer that he had been carrying on an adulterous affair with a flame-haired floozie while lecturing the rest of us so sternly for almost two decades on the sanctity of monogamy.” Not that he would have needed to actually write anything. We know it off by heart.
And, of course, the TV critics of The Mail and The Telegraph thought the whole thing was straight out of the gutter and ought to be returned there forthwith. Peter Paterson, The Mail’s critic, wrote: “What is beyond comprehension is why C4 should have allowed this sordid material the unnecessarily long run of eight weeks (assuming that they do not bow to pressure and remove it before the eight weeks is up) and, more critically, why they needed to screen it at all.”
The pressure that Mr Paterson mentioned seemed to be centred on the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which claimed that it has received 30 complaints by telephone and a good many more by mail. So many, in fact, that it was instituting a special inquiry into Queer as Folk.
But what is the Broadcasting Standards Commission, anyway? And who are the people making the complaints? We know that Christian pressure groups have telephone trees and organise write-ins to TV stations whenever there is something gay on telly, and the BSC is usually quite good at politely telling them to get lost. So why has it risen to the bait this time?
David Aaronovitch in The Independent thinks: “The difficulty with the BSC may be… to do with its function. It is there to adjudicate on complaints, not to take a proper view of what is good and bad on television. So it is always the letter-writing pudendaphobes whose laments are being considered. Very few people put pen to paper (as well we might) to argue that, in fact, there is too little proper sex on television, and that ‘nudity levels’ are far too low. There are no erections (even late), almost no masturbation (despite its universality), and very little good foreplay.”
However, beyond the routine shrieking from the usual suspects, Fleet Street’s Department of Sanctimony had relatively little to say about Queer as Folk.
The real issues that the programme raised were, firstly, that some journalists don’t seem to be able to separate fact from fantasy and, secondly, that gay people don’t seem to be able to make up their minds how they want to see themselves represented on television — if, indeed, such a thing is possible.
Queer as Folk is drama. It is fiction, an invented tale. It is not a documentary. That may seem self-evident to sensible people, but right-wing journos are not as other people. They seemed to think that a real fifteen-year-old had been deflowered, and that actual anal intercourse had taken place in front of them in their living rooms.
Kevin Myers in The Sunday Telegraph wrote: “Queer as Folk was a self-indulgent, self-justifying delectation of the sodomisation of under-age boys. The events portrayed were criminal events, and even though the boy was shown as a ‘consenting’ partner, he was violated by an adult male who knew that he was just 15. Nor was there any admission that something monstrous was going on. Quite the reverse; buggery was seen as liberation, after which the boy was confidently indifferent to the sneers of his school fellows. Anal sex was merely a rite of passage.”
Myers also claimed that Queer as Folk’s portrayal of what he said “amounted to statutory rape” of the 15-year-old would “incite” gay men up and down the country to rush out and do the same.
Mr Myers then put forward the hoary old myth that young straight folk would abandon heterosexuality immediately when they saw how appealing gay life was (perhaps he was working on the assumption that Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler had been watching the programme and that is what had caused him to invite Graeme Le Saux to “Come on, then, give it to me up the arse.”).
But Ben Summerskill in The Express had an answer for that one: “We have worked out for ourselves that if exposure to homosexuality made children gay, the Government wouldn’t need to take an axe to hereditary peerages. The aristocracy, almost all of whom attended all-boy boarding schools, would already have phased themselves out.”
In the story, the boy was a willing participant in the sexual activity — he had gone out looking for it. But, of course, in the prescriptive world of moralistic journalism, we are not allowed to even imagine that teenagers’ sexual feelings are legitimate, let alone that they might want to express them. No, those such as Garry Bushell, who have their own axes to grind, were anxious to present it as “paedophilia”, and upon mention of that word all sensible discussion goes out of the window.
Anyway, we don’t often hear the critics crying in such demented terms about the slaughter and violence which is the staple fare of TV drama. Where would all these interminable detective shows be without gruesome murders? Nobody objects to old ladies being strangled in Agatha Christie films, do they? If there wasn’t a murder, there wouldn’t be a case for Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot to solve.
That is to say, murder is an essential element of the drama. But witnessing its simulation on TV doesn’t make us all potential murderers. No-one is going to go out and start killing people because they saw Dawn French doing it in a comedy called Murder Most Horrid and thought it was a fun thing to do.
Similarly, if you are telling the story of a man who is a sexual predator, how can you possibly do it without alluding to his sexual behaviour? It’s an integral part of the drama. Plays involving straight sexual shenanigans go out every night of the week; there are naked men and women writhing and grunting just about every time you switch the telly on. The Broadcasting Standards Commission does not set up an enquiry every time a straight orgasm is simulated on TV. We can only deduce from this that the real objections to Queer as Folk are not that it is too sexually explicit, but that the sex involved is gay sex. Weasel words from Lynda Lee-Potter about gay people being just as offended as straight people won’t wash. We want to see our lives represented on television, even if it does have to be at an insultingly late time of night.
Having said that, I did think that the sex scenes were needlessly provocative and extended to the point where they were bound to cause controversy. They went on for maybe fifteen seconds too long for any convincing claim that they weren’t meant to get Middle England foaming at the mouth.
The man and his boyfriend had already discussed rimming, so did we really have to see tongue on bottom to get the idea? That’s the stuff of porn, not serious drama; but Channel Four needs the ratings, so the spunk had to be not just mentioned, but seen dripping from the actor’s hand.
Which brings me to the rather more important point about what gay people want from television programmes for and about them. Inevitably, after the first episode, there were accusations of stereotyping. “We’re not all heartless, predatory, cold queers who wouldn’t know intimacy if it punched them in the teeth,” wrote Boy George in The Sunday Express. “Sadly, gays on TV are either portrayed as fluffy and inoffensive or ruthless and imbalanced. What I want to see is a balanced view of gay culture. Queer as Folk is about as balanced as Myra Hindley and where does it take us in the struggle for equality, and more importantly, understanding?”
What George and others who cried foul over this programme forget is that characters in fiction are characters in fiction, they are not Everyman. The writer of Queer as Folk, Russell T Davies, tried to explain this in The Independent: “Who the hell wants their drama to be representative?” he asked. “That comes from the dull and sanctimonious desire to ‘do the right thing’. Writers who think ‘I must represent blind lesbians’ are on to a loser. Every other episode of Casualty is like that. People didn’t say about Cracker: ‘Does Fitz represent Scotland, or overweight people?’ All they said was: ‘He’s a brilliant character.’ The word representation shouldn’t enter the discussion of drama.”
So, there we are. Homosexuals will henceforth appear on television in all their irritating diversity, as individual characters, not as stereotypes or archetypes. We need characters behaving badly as well as nobly in order to have conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no drama. While we’re not all like the characters in Queer as Folk, neither are we all like Colin in EastEnders.
Queer as Folk may be brilliant, it may be crap, but it has at least taken us a step forward. It has opened the way eventually for there to be a series about gay people that will grip a wide, general audience. But before that can happen, we, the gay element in that audience, will have to relieve playwrights of their duty to endlessly propagate gay rights, and allow them free rein to create great entertainment.