Cupboard love

the 24seven guide What do Shirley Bassey, Coronation Street and Jodie Foster have in common? A new Channel 4 series on gay icons reveals all. James Rampton reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Daily Mail must be rubbing its hands with glee. Channel 4 is offering up another gay sacrificial lamb for slaughter by the middle- market tabloid. A season about lesbian and gay representation in film opens on Sunday with Celluloid Icons, a four-part investigation into gay people's screen heroes.

Jacquie Lawrence, Channel 4's deputy commissioning editor for independent film and video, who commissioned the series, is battening down the hatches for the anticipated tabloid tempest - particularly about the programme which discusses Coronation Street's gay following. "The headlines are going to be 'Jacquie Lawrence Deflowers a National Institution', aren't they?" she laughs. "But I have dared say what everyone's been thinking for years - that a high percentage of Coronation Street fans are gay men. When we had 'Dyke TV', the Daily Mail were more panicked by the word 'dyke' than any of the audience they represent. But I'm at Channel 4, I'm a lesbian and I commission lesbian and gay films - that's the hub of our remit."

Dr Clare Whatling, lecturer in film studies at Manchester University and contributor to Sunday's Celluloid Icons on Jodie Foster, sympathises. "I'm sure the Day of Our Lord people will not be very pleased about the programmes going out on a Sunday, and I'm sure there'll be snide remarks in the Sunday Times, but what can you expect?"

We can only hope that the storm in a tabloid teacup will not overshadow the series, which is a fun exploration of the phenomenon of gays appropriating strong, independent figures as icons.

The programmes are being touted as "crossover", a viewer-friendly product that won't bite. Going out in a prime-time Sunday night slot, they are meant to be accessible to straight as well as gay audiences. "In the best possible taste, Jacquie Lawrence has got an appetite for crossover," avers Robert Taylor, associate producer on the Celluloid Icons profile of black divas, to be broadcast on Sunday. "We're not just playing all this stuff for the ghetto; it's good material in its own right, there's lots in it for everyone. I want these programmes first to entertain, but I also want the average viewer to be interested - that inevitably will bring some change in attitudes. I'm not talking about changing the world; it would just be nice to be taken as ordinary people."

Paul Burston, the gay cultural commentator and writer, for one welcomes the change in approach. "Channel 4 have realised that in the 1980s, gay programmes were very worthy, but dreadfully earnest. Out on Tuesday was premised on stories about lesbian poets in the Outer Hebrides. They were ground-breaking, but now they look cringe-making and very self-conscious, as if they were thinking, 'What are heterosexuals going to make of us?'. The most deadening thing is to worry what straights will think. The key to crossover is not to underestimate the straight audience.

"Now they've realised there are other ways of making gay programmes," he continues, "and they're a better reflection of how gay people contribute to and take from pop culture. More gay men will go and see the new Tom Cruise than a screening at the ICA of a radical, independent gay film from New York."

Not all of the gay community, however, embraces crossover with completely open arms. "It's great on a televisual level," Whatling concedes, "but there's a danger in thinking these programmes will change the status of people who are prejudiced against by the legal system. Representation on the screen is important; these programmes have an effect and they're very pleasurable. In that sense, they have an importance, but legal and social and political work still has to go on."

Icons are invested with an almost intolerable amount of significance. "Gay audiences will sit through an appalling movie just for one scene where Joan Crawford wears a particular outfit," Burston explains. "You become obsessed with re-reading things and deciphering them in a gay way."

The Pleasure Principle in all this should not be ignored, though - the delicious thrill to be had, for instance, from watching someone like Shirley Bassey or Chaka Khan strutting their stuff. "They let go," affirms Taylor. "Their clothes are outrageous and their intensity is very appealing. They have what would be termed an excess of style. There's also the classic thing of women who proclaim extravagantly about men in a way gay men have never been allowed to. They behave in a way gay men would like to, but can't."

Whatling puts the lesbian case. "Iconic status has been attached to women who have not been depicted as lesbian but as independent from men. They are not defined by their relationship with men - people like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Jodie Foster and Sigourney Weaver in Alien. In Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster (above) becomes the hero figure - in contrast to the majority of Hollywood actresses who are just seen as companions to the male hero. There's also a kind of secret knowledge or rumour about people's alleged sexual status, which led to the iconic status of Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich."

Burston takes a more pragmatic view. "Sometimes it's just desperation," he observes. "Gay icons are a symptom of the closet and a symptom of the fact that, relatively, so few people in prominent places are out. Icons are a way of having people to look up to."

Lawrence's only regret about the series is that she had to veto a proposal to probe Princess Diana's status as a gay icon. "Could you imagine the hack I'd have had about that? She's a massive gay icon because of her suffering. The proposal went straight on the "no" pile, but maybe one day... If I'd pushed it, it would have been good timing, but can you imagine what the Daily Mail would have said? They'd have taken out a court order restraining me."

'Celluloid Icons' begins on Sun 8pm C4 with examinations of Jodie Foster and Black Divas

'The Celluloid Closet', a documentary about gay representation in film is on Thur 9pm C4