Brits show progress in LGBT drama
British novelist Patrick Gale is writing an original drama for BBC1. Produced by Endemol Shine-owned Kudos, Man in an Orange Shirt is a two-parter that will explore how a painting links two gay love stories told 60 years apart.
Commenting on the project, Gale said: “Man in an Orange Shirt is the most exciting screen project I’ve worked on to date: an original drama exploring strands of gay male experience since the 1940s. It has been such a privilege to be given such an open brief and then allowed to run with it.”
Gale says he doesn’t want to give too much away, “but after much experimenting, we’ve ended up with two hour-long films — one set in the 1940s and 50s and one set in the violently contrasted present; one depicting a love story made impossible by pressures from society, one a love story nearly derailed by the long-term fallout from the 1940s story.
“People who know my novels will be unsurprised to hear that the stories give equal focus to wives and mothers and are about tensions between family bonds, the need to be good and the urge to seize happiness. I hope they’ll appeal equally to straight and gay viewers, but also that they’ll leave either side feeling challenged about things they take for granted.”
Lucy Richer, BBC acting controller of drama commissioning and executive producer, added: “Patrick is an outstanding and bestselling novelist whose stories connect with readers worldwide. Distinctive, original voices are at the heart of BBC Drama and we are thrilled to be making his first original television drama for BBC1. Man in an Orange Shirt has all the hallmarks of a Patrick Gale novel: captivating stories with unforgettable characters who will strike a chord with us all.”
It isn’t uncommon for UK drama to include gay strands in stories. But a primarily gay-themed drama on mainstream British TV is still something of a novelty. The last high-profile example (2015) was Russell T Davies’ trilogy of dramas for Channel 4, entitled Cucumber, Tofu and Banana, each of which explored a different dimension of male gay culture in 21st century Britain.
Looking back over the last 25 years, the first landmark title in the LGBT canon was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a 1990 BBC series based on the novel by Jeanette Winterson – with Winterson adapting for TV.
Nine years later, Russell T Davies kicked the door down with his provocative debut series for Channel 4, Queer As Folk. Davies delivered another gay protagonist two years later in Bob & Rose, but it’s QAF that stands out as a landmark in the portrayal of contemporary gay Britain (or one subset of it).
While Davies is very much LGBT TV’s rock star, the last decade saw arrival of Sarah Waters on the scene, with adaptations of her lesbian protagonist novels Tipping the Velvet (2002), Fingersmith (2005) and The Night Watch (2011) – all for the BBC. If there’s a key difference, of course, it is that Davies has been writing original shows while Waters’ works were already acclaimed novels before being adapted for TV by Andrew Davies (Tipping the Velvet), Peter Ransley (Fingersmith) and Paula Milne (The Night Watch). Davies also does contemporary, while Waters favours historical.
In 2006 there was a BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s acclaimed gay-themed 1980s novel The Line of Beauty (starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). Again adapted by Andrew Davies, the show received mixed reviews. The Independent called it “intelligent properly grown-up drama” but The Guardian said it was a “creative flop” that “exposed how poorly the BBC serves gay viewers.”
On balance, it seems as though broadcasters pay slightly more attention to the lesbian experience than the male gay experience – at least in terms of TV dramas with LGBT protagonists.
In addition to the above-mentioned titles, for example, there has been Channel 4’s Sugar Rush, based on Julie Burchill’s novel of the same name. The story of a 15-year-old lesbian called Kim who moves from London to Brighton, Sugar Rush ran for 20 episodes in 2006 and was adapted for the screen by Katie Baxendale.
More recently, there has been Lip Service, about a group of lesbians living in Glasgow. There were two seasons from 2010-2012, created by Harriet Braun and produced (again) by Kudos for BBC3.
Other shows that fit within the broader LGBT theme include Vicious, the 14-episode sitcom starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple who have been together for 50 years. Backed once again by Kudos (and Brown Eyed Boy), this series (2013-2016) was unusual in that it aired on commercial network ITV, which shows that pulling power of McKellen in particular.
Vicious was created by Mark Ravenhill and Gary Janetti, though the latter wrote all of the episodes and specials. It is worth noting that Janetti is actually a US writer drafted in to give the comedy a bit of US sitcom pizzazz (he was executive producer on Will & Grace).
Every bit as ground-breaking as the new Patrick Gale drama is Boy Meets Girl, a BBC2 sitcom about the developing relationship between a 26-year-old man and a 40-year-old transgender woman (played by transgender actor Rebecca Root). Although there have been mixed reviews of the quality of the comedy (also true of ITV’s Vicious), there’s no question that Boy Meets Girl – which is currently in its second season – is an example of the BBC trying its hardest to do diversity properly.
The genesis of Boy Meets Girl was a Trans Camp event organised by All About Trans, the purpose of which was to explore media portrayal of the trans community. From this, the BBC ran a talent search called the Trans Comedy Award, which offered writers up to £5,000 for scripts with positive portrayals of transgender characters.
One of the winners was Elliott Kerrigan for Boy Meets Girl. The show was commissioned on the basis of a pilot and Kerrigan was paired with Simon Carlyle and Andrew Mettam to write a series. The Tiger Aspect Production was then renewed.
If there’s a difference between the US and UK approach to LGBT inclusiveness at present, it is that the US is further down the road in portraying LGBT characters and stories as a part of the day-to-day tapestry of life, as regular people who aren’t overly focused on the politics of their sexual orientation.
US organisation GLAAD, which monitors LGBT portrayal in US TV and film, makes this point neatly when it counsels producers against using characters that “are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”
It will be interesting to see how Gale manages to address this in the context of a mainstream channel audience with Man in an Orange Shirt.