At Andy and Steve’s civil partnership ceremony in Chelsea, Stephen Fry was crying. “I can’t help it. When you see this,” Fry said to a stranger in the next row of seats, “and you see the hundreds of years of prejudice and hatred that went before, you cry with happiness.”
Fry cried a lot during Out There (Monday/Wednesday BBC2; iPlayer), which isn’t usually model behaviour for a documentary-maker. But this was another eloquent scream in the vein of The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive – a look at an issue that affects Fry himself, so his emotions were his prerogative. That we saw tears both angry and joyous, often at the same time, summed up a beautiful but enraging pair of films about homophobia.
In the street away from the euphoria of Andy and Steve’s bash, confetti still in his fingers, Fry said: “We should be aware, we should be cautious. We should always be on our guard. Somebody out there hates us.” Out There explained to this straight white male what it is like – how scary and confusing and cosmically unjust it is – to know that there are people lurking everywhere who would hate you on sight, who are dedicated to denigrating people like you.
On and off over two years – Malvolio’s beard came and went – Fry visited some of the world’s worst homophobes. These were not just ordinary punters who secretly harbour hot fury at blokes kissing, but outspoken extremists in countries where persecution of gay people is fearsome: Brazil, Uganda, Russia. Fry was trying to tap homophobia in its strongest form.
It still collapsed into absurdity under the gentlest challenge. A Ugandan pastor turned out to have mistaken homosexuality for sodomy, the latter being something of an all-consuming obsession. Anti-gay politicians in Brazil and Russia, meanwhile, simply declared that the homophobic violence in their countries is not happening and is an invention of those fanciful, attention-seeking gays.
The Brazilian, who said proposed anti-homophobia classes in schools “would actively stimulate homosexuality in children from six years old”, ended up sitting there and laughing vacantly for ten seconds solid like a villain in a poorly edited 70s spy caper, while the Russian geezer – Vitaly Milonov, a St Petersburg MP with a drab office and the demeanour of a scalded vole – blathered something pseudo-Biblical about “values created from the first hour of having this world, when the most talented angel fell”.
One omission from this cavalcade of cartoon figures – who, in fairness to them, were not noticeably intellectually inferior to any other homophobes – was someone who might have argued with more extensive reference than Molotov to the Bible. Fry surely would have had a strong reply. Then again, perhaps tiptoeing round religion was useful in achieving one of the documentary’s most important stances. It returned to basics and asked what harm homosexuals are doing. The answer: none. Fry stepped out of the rabbit-hole, ignored special pleading and looked afresh. These people are, objectively, just being weird. (Incidentally, like so many frothing anti-gay campaigners, several of them caused the old gaydar to pop its springs.)
Satisfying as it was to see Fry entering their lairs and laughing in their faces, he spent time underlining that this silliness has deeply unamusing consequences. In Sao Paolo he wept with raw distress as he heard from a woman whose son had been tortured and strangled by homophobic skinheads. In St Petersburg he visited two lesbian partners and their children, a loving family unit that is now illegal, and met a woman who was attacked in the street, then sent packing by police as soon as her sexuality became known.
“If you let words and insults go by unchallenged, if you don’t allow the dignity of gay people, then slowly [homophobes] will be given freer and freer rein to do what they wish.” Fry made this remark as he watched unbroadcastable online video of gay men being executed in Iran. If we are lucky to be near the other end of that spectrum, Fry’s meeting with a young Iranian who fled here when he and his boyfriend were unmasked showed how grave giving ground can be. “If the British government sent you back to Iran and you were hanged, it would be a crime that would be on the head of everyone in my country,” Fry told him. “It would shame me.” He was crying again.
Out There had flashes of Fry, as he can whenever he wants, nailing an argument. On heterosexual relationships being traditional: “Tradition is, what? Torture, inquisition, illiteracy, disease. Those are traditions, if you want to go back 400 years. The other tradition is progress, is trying to get things right: slowly, painfully, often making mistakes but with the best will you can muster.”
There wasn’t too much rational debate, because how could there be, in the face of irrational hatred? And what else do you need to do, when you meet a twinkly little Brazilian who has worked for gay rights all his life and is now surveying a thousands-strong São Paolo Pride, apart from hug him, call him a hero and sob with joy? When the subject matter is like this, Fry’s new-found emotional openness doesn’t dilute his erudition; it powerfully adds to it.
Fewer than a million people were, on overnight figures, interested in Stephen Fry’s plea for love and kindness to prevail. Many more took up the invitation to hate that was On Benefits & Proud (Monday C5; Demand5), the first in a series of documentaries that also includes Shoplifters & Proud and Pickpockets & Proud.
Explicitly lumping in those who receive welfare payments with criminals was new, but this was the latest in a long line of programmes to swim along with a dirty stream of propaganda against the poor. It can’t be sincere concern about public finances. If it were, there would also be scores of TV shows about corporate tax avoidance, and a special week-long BBC3 season celebrating the billions in benefits left unclaimed each year through needy people not understanding their entitlements – or through them being too ashamed.
What boosts ratings, or sells papers, is capitalising on difficult economic times by providing bogeymen for nervous people to shout at. On Benefits & Proud had tracked down Heather, who trousers the same amount of money in benefits for herself and her nine kids as she would if she had a £60,000 salary; and Julie and Vinnie, who have both been unemployed for more than six years. Both situations are rare, but this went unmentioned: a quick look at the show’s steaming Twitter hashtag showed that C5 viewers hadn’t stopped to think about whether these were representative examples, rather than the most unsympathetic people the producers could find. Another chance to choose kindness went by.