Sugar Rush: the re-released lesbian sitcom reminds us that queer programming still has a long way to go

The 2005 series is as fresh and funny as ever, but why is its portrayal of women loving women still as rare now as when it first aired?

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It says something about the state of diversity in UK television that, currently, the best programme about lesbian relationships is a series from 2005. Sugar Rush is part of Channel 4’s Pride Collection, a selection of box sets dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, re-released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially de-criminalised homosexual acts between men.

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Over a decade on, Sugar Rush, adapted from Julie Burchill’s novel of the same name, is still compelling and raw, funny and heartbreaking. At its beating, neon heart is an age-old story of unrequited love; a classic tale of lust and yearning transposed into a queer, lipgloss-sticky register. It deserves a new generation of fans, yet unfortunately, viewers in 2017 can’t nostalgically view it as the first of its kind, starting a precedent for portraying lesbian relationships on TV. What should have been a launchpad for more of the same, still seems like a rare exception in a television landscape where a programme centred around gay women surfaces only once every five or so years.

Channel 4 prides itself on being at the forefront of boundary-pushing British television, yet out of the 16 programmes in the Pride collection, Sugar Rush is the only one that focuses on a lesbian relationship. Channel 4 is still leagues ahead of other UK broadcasters – the Russell T Davies series Banana, for example, made a seemingly conscious effort to include diverse stories, with over half the episodes devoted to queer women – but does it go far enough?

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Sugar Rush

The near-absence of lesbian shows in the Pride Collection indicates a larger deficiency in the UK television industry; LGBTQ+ programming is still sorely lacking, with a glaring need for representation of the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ identities. And while shows about lesbian and bisexual women are few and far between, transgender people fare even worse – showing that British television has a shockingly narrow vision when it comes to what constitutes queerness.

The first series of Sugar Rush deals with the hormone-fuelled maelstrom that is Kim’s (Olivia Hallinan) “sexual obsession” with her best friend Maria Sweet, also known as Sugar. Two years before Skins first aired, Sugar Rush was dealing out its messed up parents and neglected teenagers shtick, as Kim’s brittle, chain-smoking mother Stella (Sara Stewart) embarked on an affair with Dale the dreamy decorator (Neil Jackson) and Kim forced to choose between telling her father (played as long-suffering and useless by Richard Lumsden) and keeping the family together.

Add Sugar to the mix, and you have a recipe for total chaos. Sugar (Lenora Crichlow) embodies the selfish, impulsive bravado specific to lost teenage girls. She is a gobby, sweary, neat-vodka-swigging tour de force, expertly portrayed by Crichlow as deep in adolescent purgatory, teetering somewhere between sexual awakening and nervous breakdown. Naturally, every hell-raiser needs a doting companion, and Sugar finds hers in Kim. The only thing is, she seems to have counted on her hanger-on being a bit less, well, gay.

Sugar Rush shares the 1999-2007 category in the Pride Collection with the seminal Queer as Folk, also written by Cucumber’s Russell T Davies. However, when Queer as Folk’s struggling teenager Nathan is coming to terms with his sexuality, he at least has role-models (albeit deeply flawed) in Stuart and Vince, and the wonders of Manchester’s Canal Street in which to forge an identity. Despite being set in the British San Francisco, gloriously gay Brighton, Kim’s attraction to women makes for a first series dominated by crushing loneliness, surrounded by her parents’ and Sugar’s heterosexual dramas.

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Queer as Folk

The series sees her attending a church that promises to cure her of homosexuality, and sleeping with her next-door neighbour Tom (played by a very young, puppyish Andrew Garfield) in an attempt to cure herself of queer desire. Her panicked internal monologue when she finds herself attracted to a fellow female sinner at church – “It’s not a gay thing, it’s a Sugar thing”, she desperately tries to tell herself – poignantly expresses the fear and denial that can come with realising you are attracted to the same sex. With the Tories voting to block compulsory LGBTQ+ sex education earlier this year, Kim’s experience isn’t likely to become any less common, making shows such as Sugar Rush even more important.

Unfortunately, although Sugar Rush was in many ways progressive for its time, its attitude to sexual consent is jarring and hypocritical. While, with unusual awareness, the issue of consent is examined when it comes to Sugar’s always-drunk sexual encounters, the anomalous third episode sees Kim contemplating date rape. Though it is made clear that she would never go through with it, that idea of sexual assault is dealt with in a light and irreverent tone, leaving a sour taste in the mouth and striking an incredibly bum note in what is an otherwise humane and sensitive drama. The episode can be skipped over without the plot suffering – a recommended move, given that it pushes Kim from likeable-yet-flawed towards truly irredeemable.

This glaring error aside, Sugar Rush is a much-needed fix of queer – in particular, women loving women– programming in a TV landscape still sorely lacking in adequate representation. A low-fi, faintly scuzzy version of Noughties Brighton is the perfect backdrop for a story of first love: rain on the sea, the flashing lights of arcade games and faces glistening with a mixture of glitter eyeshadow and tears.

Sugar Rush is a paean to a certain kind of teenage dream – one that mainstream television likes to forget exists.

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By Priya Khaira-Hanks