Art: Prick up your ears

Channel 4 gay romp drama shock! (So say the tabloids.) But what's all the fuss about?
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The Independent Culture
Preview tapes for Queer as Folk, C4's new gay drama, were kept under strict lock and key until the press screening last week. When I was finally allowed to watch them, I could see why. Within the first few minutes, a 29-year-old man is bedding a 15-year-old boy after a mere handful of words have passed between them. The three main characters, who frequent The Scene in Manchester's "gay village", proceed to discuss and perform sexual practices that are far too shocking to recount, even in such a broad-minded newspaper as The Independent.

It came as no surprise. The day I was on the set of Queer as Folk in Manchester last autumn, the call-sheet made for eyebrow-raising reading. Under the heading "special requirements" was a request for what during Kenneth Starr's examination of Monica Lewinsky's blue dress was euphemistically called "bodily fluid". From that moment I knew that this series was going to incense the tabloids.

Sure enough, the predictable popular-press firestorm engulfed Queer as Folk. The Daily Mail fumed that the programme was "consistent with [C4] controller Michael Jackson's mission to flout the boundaries of taste and decency", while The Daily Star went with the fetchingly simple headline: "EastBenders." Further gasoline was thrown on to the flames when C4 mooted that the final word of the title might have been a rather stronger four- letter word beginning with F.

But is this drama really worth getting so hot under the collar about? After all, nobody gives two hoots about openly gay cabinet ministers nowadays. And when even The Sun declares that homosexuality among public figures should no longer be an issue, aren't we grown-up enough to say the same should apply to characters in a fictional TV series? Surely we have advanced since the era when gay figures - like John Inman's Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? - could be portrayed on television only in outrageous "coded" stereotypes. After all, we are now sufficiently mature to accept overtly gay characters in both soaps (Anna Friel in Brookside) and sitcoms (James Dreyfuss in Gimme, Gimme, Gimme).

Sitting in his caravan between takes, Craig Kelly - the actor who plays Vince, one of the three leads in Queer As Folk - thinks that in the late Nineties we should be able to make our own decisions about what we want to watch.

"I know the papers feel the subject matter is risque, but I don't know why they feel threatened by it, because people don't have to watch it if it's not their cup of tea."

Over lunch in the catering-bus, the writer and co-producer of Queer as Folk, Russell T Davies, ascribes the tabloid frothing at the mouth to nothing more complex than good old-fashioned prejudice.

"There's such fear in homophobic people. You want to do pop psychology on them: `Did some dirty old man lean over your pram?' It's primeval, and no amount of nice gay characters on EastEnders will ever shift that stuff."

Further than that, he can't really see what all the fuss is about.

"Look at me, I'm shaking with fear about the Daily Mail," he roars with laughter. "They're never going to watch this anyway. And what is so wrong with sex? At the moment we've got an argument about whether or not we can show sperm. You can show blood on Casualty. Where would we be without sperm? It's the most marvellous substance in nature."

All the same, not every viewer may welcome its appearance, even at 10.30pm on Channel 4. Sex is always a selling-point - particularly in this ratings-obsessed age - and deep down the producers of Queer as Folk must be thinking that any publicity is good publicity. But, beyond the hysteria about homosexuality, this is just another hip-cut drama about twenty-something urban sophisticates, a sort of This Life with even better dress-sense. Kelly contends that sex is a mere distraction - there are only three sex scenes in eight episodes - and that viewers should not get hung up about it.

"The piece may surprise people because it's a slice of life about characters who happen to be gay: normal people with normal lives. There isn't anything that different from the straight world. It's not a bizarre, alien universe. We can all relate to the search for love and friendship."

Davies underlines that his intention was to write a drama, not a "gay drama".

"I was adamant that there would be no `issue stories'. Someone once said to me: `Isn't it fantastic that there's a gay nurse in Casualty?' and I said: `No!' Gay characters invariably walk in with a subplot on their heads - `Ooh, I've got Aids; ooh, I want to be a gay parent.' They do not exist as three-dimensional people. When he writes, Jimmy McGovern is thinking about anger and emotion rather than issues."

Nor does Davies feel obliged to wave a political banner on behalf of gay people.

"Do I go out to a gay pub to be militant? No, I sit there and say: `Have you had him?' I just wanted to write a story which has the rhythms of everyday life. Drama lies in your friend not turning up for your party, not in someone being beaten up. In the past, drama involving gays had to include bisexual heroin addicts and lesbian vicars. Now two people having a cup of tea is dramatic enough."

The writer, who is also responsible for The Grand, Touching Evil and Revelations on ITV, has an equal horror of the idea that gay characters should be "representative" of a whole community.

"That's just worthy. Who the hell wants their drama to be representative? That comes from the dull and sanctimonious desire to `do the right thing'. Writers who think: `I must represent blind lesbians,' are on to a loser. Every other episode of Casualty is like that. People didn't say about Cracker: `Does Fitz represent Scotland, or overweight people?' All they said was: `He's a brilliant character.' The word `representation' shouldn't enter the discussion of drama."

In this respect, the figure of Colin in EastEnders 10 years ago, who was the first openly gay character in a mainstream drama, has a lot to answer for.

"He set a terrible precedent because every gay character on TV since has been a pale version of Colin," says Davies. "Have you ever seen a good scene between Simon and Tony in EastEnders? They have no character - they're just gay. Why can't they make gay characters as strong as the Mitchells? Things must move on." If shows such as Queer as Folk continue to be commissioned, maybe they will.

For all his evident enthusiasm about the series, Davies is concerned that it doesn't lead to him being ghettoised.

"I don't want to be tagged as a `gay writer'. That might limit my work. My agent phoned the other day and said: `It's starting. You've been offered a job writing a 30-minute animation about a dinosaur who comes out.' I could not say `no' fast enough." Then in a wry nod at the tabloids, he adds with a grin: "I hope it's not Barney - the kids might be shocked."

`Queer as Folk' starts Tues, C4, 10.30pm