How it’s taken 50 years for British TV to portray gay life properly

From Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant to Sean Tully in Coronation Street, social historian Paul Flynn charts watershed moments in bringing gay characters to the screen

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In August 1967, Kenneth Halliwell bludgeoned to death his partner, the gifted playwright Joe Orton, in their one-room apartment in Islington, north London. Halliwell then swallowed a bottle of pills and lay beside his lover to die.

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That same summer, Harold Wilson’s government had passed into statute the Sexual Offences Act in England and Wales. Gayness was no longer an imprisonable offence. Fifty years later, had Orton not died in other circumstances, he might have turned 84 years old.

Joe Orton was an ordinary boy from Leicester. The story of his life was first recounted to me as an early teen, watching Timothy West and Prunella Scales star in a BBC version of his farce, What the Butler Saw. A lightbulb switched on. Orton and Halliwell weren’t quite the gay Romeo and Juliet, but in 1987 you took what you could get where gay representation on TV was concerned.

Contrary to tabloid outrage, the first lesbian kiss on British TV was not between Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemence on Brookside in 1994. It aired two decades earlier as Alison Steadman and Myra Francis locked lips in the BBC2 play, Girl.

In 1975, ITV popped its gay cherry with The Naked Civil Servant, a ground-breaking interpretation of Quentin Crisp’s memoir. John Hurt took the lead role, finding enough gentility in the great eccentric to service his lilac-powdered ferocity with humanity and heart in every quip.

In many ways, it was the first celebration of homosexuality on British TV. Certainly, it was a direct rebuttal to the position Kenneth Williams, John Inman and Larry Grayson had been awkwardly cornered into, where each suggestive entendre of their gayness was automatically the butt of a joke.

In the 60s and 70s, gay voices were heard mostly behind the camera. Granada employee Tony Warren invented a new TV vernacular with Coronation Street in 1960. His dedication to put “real people” on TV was scripted closely to the voices he heard at his favourite gay pub, the New Union on Canal Street in Manchester.

He put that dialect into the mouths of his iconic female characters: acid-tongued tart-with-a-heart Elsie Tanner, gruff blowhard Ena Sharples, queenly landlady Annie Walker.

His expert transposition of street dialect would later be taken up with note-perfect humour by gay favourites Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne.

It was left to Top of the Pops, the weekly chart rundown, to do the heavy lifting for homosexuality. The thrillingly shocking 1972 performance of Starman by David Bowie, as alien as any brittle drag queen, slinging his arm around Mick Ronson, reverberated into suburban living rooms and caused a generational divide.

A succession of acts hiding their sexuality in plain sight followed, from Elton John’s fabulously gaudy appropriation of Liberace’s vaudevillian stage-wear though Freddie Mercury’s moustache-and-leather-clone aesthetic to the Village People espousing the cheery delights of whatever it was that went on at their branch of the YMCA. You didn’t have to know the subtext of these amazing creations to understand the bulk of their societal context. 

By the time the New Romantics, Steve Strange, Boy George and Marilyn had arrived on TOTP in the 80s, something keener was afoot. The debut performances of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax (banned by the BBC for its intimation of gay sex) and Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy are moments of spine-tingling transparency that are likely to moisten the eye of any gay viewers from the time, satisfying both the exterior and interior lives of gay people with a new openness, bravery and candour.

Seeing someone on TV who feels like even a remote version of yourself is a powerful lesson learnt, one that can resonate in a split second. When you feel that the establishment, the church, the state and the school are making active gestures to not be your friend, the box in the corner of the room could provide a lifeline.

Likewise, taking real, living, breathing gay people into the living room subliminally changed the notion of core family values – what was once exceptional becoming normalised by teatime broadcast. The majority straight audience learnt to love what it previously perhaps did not understand. Society shifted.

In the 80s, another gay, Tony Holland, was charged with bringing the BBC’s EastEnders to fruition. From the start, Holland insisted that gay characters would be involved and that their sexuality would be entirely incidental. A lesbian social worker had to be explained to Dot Cotton before the introduction of Colin and Barry, the graphic designer and barrow boy who had the first pre-watershed gay kiss on TV.

Soaps were slow to catch on to Holland’s agenda-setting, largely because of intense antagonism from the tabloid press. Colin and Barry prompted headlines like The Sun’s infamous “Eastbenders” and The Daily Star’s lesser known but no less equivocal “SCUM”.

At the loftier end of the market, the 80s saw the rise of the literary adaptation kick off with the splendour of Brideshead Revisited. Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte, clinging to his teddy bear Aloysius, immediately entered the canon of screen greats.

He was later joined by Charlotte Coleman in Jeanette Winterton’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Naveen Andrews in Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia and Dan Stevens in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. These painterly programmes prompted a new circuit-board of dramatic intrigue for the gay viewer, asking more questions about British values than they answered.

Two seismic events in American TV upped the ante for representation in the 1990s as Ellen DeGeneres, star of the popular sitcom Ellen, came out to her therapist in a scene that rocked the country. Despite death threats, Ellen took up a position as the only credible alternative to Oprah Winfrey for the heart of Middle America.

The gay chat show host has exceptional form in Britain, where the beloved Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady and Alan Carr have all encouraged guests to open up in the manner of their most obvious forebear and another gay man, Russell Harty. 

After Ellen’s dramatic outing, Will & Grace picked up the baton and became the first networked American show to feature open, happy, plausible gay characters from the outset as the stars of the show. The great triumvirate of 21st-century US gay TV, Glee, Modern Family and RuPaul’s Drag Race, all owe Will, Grace, Jack and Karen a conceptual handshake.

In Noughties Britain, reality TV superseded soap as the daily drama most reflective of audience lives. When the Irish lesbian nun Anna Nolan was runner-up on the debut Big Brother, then air steward Brian Dowling scooped the gold trophy the following year, a new era of gay character, presaging the absolute openness of social media, began to emerge.

Channel 4 has been exemplary in its work on minority representation, from Brookside through Eurotrash, The Word and The Big Breakfast. It continues the good fight for equality with Gogglebox and First Dates, shows that feel genuinely, radically effortless in their casual rainbow casting.

Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk broke every single mould for gay drama for the channel, presenting a central lovelorn friendship of the Brideshead ilk at full tumescence, this time frolicking its way fantastically through the sex, drugs and technicolour disco backdrop of Tony Warren’s Canal Street. Coronation Street’s Eileen Grimshaw was introduced as a new matriarch and Corrie’s first gay characters belatedly entered the show with her son Todd and lodger Sean Tully. Antony Cotton, who plays Sean, was signed for six weeks but became the most visible gay man on British TV of the past two decades.

Just because gay men and women have a strong grip on the British TV cycle doesn’t mean we are quite there yet in terms of full representation. Ethnically diverse gay men and women are still as difficult to find as a needle in a screen haystack. Gay pensioners are a novelty. The lack of crucial drama on the biggest health pandemic of the modern age, Aids, shames every network.

Still, we’ve moved on from the point when The Naked Civil Servant was the only gay show in a year’s worth of British TV to an age when the nation wakes up to a gay broadcaster, Nick Grimshaw on Radio 1, and goes to bed to another, Evan Davis on Newsnight. On the 50th anniversary of decriminalisation, that’s progress.   

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Prejudice and Pride: the People’s History of LGBTQ Britain is on Thursday 9:00pm BBC4