From Cor­rie to Dy­nasty we look at LGBT char­ac­ters in the soaps

Pride Life Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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”










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