SOAP ME UP
From Corrie to Dynasty we look at LGBT characters in the soaps
If extra-terrestrials have been observing our planet from afar gathering evidence to see if we are worth saving, let’s just hope they haven’t been picking up our soap opera broadcasts from across the light years, believing them to be real life. All those extra-marital affairs, jealousy, backstabbing, lawbreaking, revenge, bodies under the patios and pub floorboards and, worst of all, that atrocious wallpaper. We’d be zapped in no time.
And if those ETs were treating UK soap operas as a window into our world, they’d also be forgiven for thinking that the lifespan of a gay man is about five months, during which time you try to kiss your best straight mate, get outed by someone you thought you could trust, have a few shouting matches with your mother, make up with your best friend, find and lose Mr Right and then turn heterosexual. Or suicidal. Or into Antony Cotton.
It’s somewhat ironic that we don’t seem very good at creating particularly convincing gay characters, considering the amount of gay writers and production staff there seems to be in television. Mind you, they’ve had some catching up to do. Even though Coronation Street’s creator, Tony Warren, was openly gay at a time when being homosexual was illegal, it was to take a staggering 41 years before the show was to introduce its first openly gay character in Todd Grimshaw, as the show attempted to compete with grittier soaps like Brookside and EastEnders.
It was Phil Redmond’s realistic and socially challenging Brookside that was the first to introduce an out and proud character in a British soap. Gordon was in the series from the first episode, the son in the downwardly mobile Collins family, forced due to their circumstances to move to the Close.
However, it was to take a few years and a change in actor (soap characters share a lot in common with Doctor Who and Sugababes in their ability to regenerate) before he was to come out to his family, who were accepting but very embarrassed. He was also the first gay soap opera character to just disappear (along with the rest of his family) once the writers ran out of imagination in terms of plot development. But not before killing a dog ironically named Lucky.
Of course, it was famously the character of Beth Jordache (played by Anna Friel) who was to share the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British television with Nanny Margaret Clemence in 1994. Sadly she was doomed to die off-screen from a genetic heart condition in prison for her role in the murder of her abusive father and the famous burial of the body under the patio.
There does seem to be an obsession with prewatershed kisses, especially amongst tabloid newspapers. It was back in 1986 that EastEnders introduced the second out gay man in an English soap. Posh Filofax-wielding yuppie Colin Russell (Michael Cashman) was to shock the residents of Albert Square, and particularly Dot Cotton, when he started dating East End barrow boy Barry Clark (Gary Hailes), especially as the latter was under the legal age of 21 at the time.
The two actually kissed on the forehead in 1987 (the first ever gay kiss in a UK soap) causing a record number of complaints and tabloids to dub the show “EastBenders” – remarkable considering this was just 25 years ago. Questions were even raised in parliament about how appropriate it was to show a gay couple during a family viewing slot when AIDS was sweeping the country. In other news, politicians did nothing to try and prevent Nick Berry and Anita Dobson inflicting their singing careers on us.
The character of Barry was used to examine many gay issues from homophobia to the unequal age of consent and especially the hardship faced by many young gay people coming out to their parents. His father reacted so badly to the news that he was gay that Barry was forced to spend the rest of his time on Albert Square pretending to be straight. The pressure of this lie eventually became too much for the couple and they eventually spit up before Barry left Walford for the ultimate butch career - a job on a cruise liner.
While Colin and Barry were only ever allowed to kiss on the forehead, Colin and his next partner, Guido Smith (Nicolas Donovan) shared a proper mouth to mouth smacker in 1989. This inevitably caused the highest number of complaints since the last time something gay happened on the soap and it made the front page of the Sun who were outraged about the “homosexual love scene between yuppie poofs... when millions of children were watching.”
As an openly gay man, Michael Cashman was able to use his popularity on screen (the gay kiss was watched by a staggering 20 million viewers) to drive for change in the real world as well. Cashman led a march against Section 28 and was one of the founder members of the charity Stonewall along with Sir Ian McKellen. He then became a Labour MEP and was elected to the European Parliament in 1999 where he became the Labour spokesperson on human rights. The character of Colin didn’t fare quite so well, developing multiple sclerosis before leaving the Square to live out the rest of his life off-screen with his brother.
The debate about whether a gay actor should play a gay character is an interesting one. Cashman played a character at a vital time in terms of gay rights activism and was able to effect change both on screen and off. Of course, at the end of the day it is just acting, and Sir Ian McKellen has successfully played a straight man on Coronation Street, so why not the other way around? What is interesting is how quickly actors playing gay characters manage to drop a line into interviews to confirm their heterosexuality. Just recently, Bruno Langley, who is set to return to Coronation Street as the gay Todd Grimshaw, told the Mirror:
“Having worked extensively in the theatre for the past few years, I am very happy to be coming back to Corrie, getting back on screen, and working with my old cast mates again. Since I left in 2004 I have met many wonderful people, and done some amazing jobs, but best of all I now have a beautiful son, Freddie Langley.”
Across the pond in the USA you would expect TV producers to be a tad more conservative, but way back in 1977 Billy Crystal played out gay character Jodie Dallas in the parody Soap. Such was the controversy at the time that an incredible 32,000 letters of complaint, organised by a collective of right-wing Christian organisations, were sent to the studio before the first episode had even aired.
As far as unlikely plots go, Jodie enjoyed some of the best. After being seduced by a (female) attorney at his aunt’s murder trial, he fathered a daughter before the mother ran off and joined the rodeo. As well as a custody battle and a kidnapping, Jody also contemplated suicide and a sex change, before the series ended with him believing he was an elderly Jewish man named Julius Kassendorf after a failed hypnotherapy session. “Confused? You won’t be, after this week’s episode of… Soap.”
In the glamorous world of 1980s American soaps, LGBT characters faced similarly confused plots. In Dynasty, Steven Carrington became the first core bisexual character on an evening soap opera. However, he was mainly involved with women, with his male lovers often meeting sticky ends. Ted was killed by Steven’s father Blake, while Luke was killed by Moldavian terrorists. Really. Meanwhile over in Dallas, JR schemed to have his niece Lucy married to the billionaire heir to Mainwaring Oil Company before discovering he was the only gay in the show’s history.
After decades when gay characters in soaps were as rare as a happy Christmas on Albert Square, these days there have been complaints that we now face oversaturation. Both Hollyoaks and Coronation Street have come under fire in recent years for having too many gay characters.
Happy and well-balanced Daily Mail critic Brian Sewell probably burst a few blood vessels in his chubby neck when he ranted about Coronation Street: “Is it true that the lives of heterosexual Mancunians are haplessly intertwined with transvestites, transsexuals, teenage lesbians and a horde of homosexuals across the age range? Is Manchester now the Sodom of the North?”
Of course, having three or four LGBT characters in a cast of 65 is hardly excessive and Mr Sewell would probably have spluttered port all over his dinner-stained tie had he witnessed the Coronation Street float leading the Manchester Gay Pride Parade back in 2010.
Yet, as Bruno Langley returns to the cobbles, we can only hope that the plots and character development do us justice. Of course, social realism is quite hard to achieve when you have a dramatic cliff hanger every 30 minutes or so.
If the writers are looking for inspiration, they should turn to the Tales of the City series of books, which originally appeared as a daily column in the San Francisco Chronicle during the 1970s and 80s. Inspired by daytime TV soaps, the books placed human characters (including gays, lesbians and a very mysterious landlady) into outrageous situations, whilst also examining issues from coming out and gay activism to homophobia and the AIDS pandemic. Look out for the 20th Anniversary DVD edition of the TV spin-off mini- series out now.
Writers could also turn to the UK Queer As Folk for the ultimate insight into gay culture. In fact, so realistic was the portrayal of gay life around Manchester’s Canal Street, many gay people even criticised writer Russell T Davies for giving away too many of our secrets and for promoting the gay scene to “tourists” wanting to join in all the fun and debauchery.
At the end of the day, soap operas are just entertainment, pumped out at high speed and packed with a healthy dose of controversy to drive up the viewing figures. Being gay is no longer a particularly controversial subject, which is why writers become lazy with character development and ultimately their life spans.
If aliens are picking up our broadcasts (and reading the online version of this article), may I suggest you turn off your TV sets and teleport down to probe gay life for real.
Believe me, you couldn’t make it up...
“Questions were raised in parliament about how appropriate it was to show a gay couple during a family viewing slot”
GAY CHARACTER TODD
GRIMSHAW ( BRUNO LANGLEY) RETURNS TO CORONATION STREET
LATER THIS YEAR
COLIN RUSSELL ( MICHAEL CASHMAN) AND BOYFRIEND BARRY ( GARY HAILES) FROM EASTENDERS © BBC
BROOKE VINCENT AS LESBIAN SOPHIE WEBSTER IN CORONATION STREET
NATHAN, VINCE AND STUART FROM THE GROUNDBREAKING
QUEER AS FOLK
ANTONY COTTON PLAYS GAY BARMAN SEAN TULLY
IN CORONATION STREET