Gay TV: as in lively, bright, playful, merry

Next week the BBC launches its first weekly lesbian and gay series. And it's about camp, not campaigning. Paul Burston explains

"I used to be known as 'that poof',"Julian Clary joked a few years ago, "now I'm 'that poof on the telly'." He's not the only one. Just the other week, the Sun's Garry Bushell was moaning about the number of gay men on children's television - one of the few areas of broadcasting where homosexuality is still a closely guarded secret, and where you can't move for visible evidence of it.

There's more to come. Next week sees the launch of Gaytime TV, the BBC's first weekly lesbian and gay magazine programme, commissioned from Planet 24, maker of The Word and The Big Breakfast.

The pun in the title is significant. Not only is it a measure of the programme's emphasis on merriment, it also suggests a queer take on the mainstream. According to its producer, Neil Crombie, "there is a gay influence right across the board in TV, and particularly in light entertainment. The Word does a lot of gay material. And The Big Breakfast is camp. So there is a certain logic in Planet 24 doing a gay show."

There is a logic, also, in the decision to launch it at this moment. Children's TV may attest to the fact that lesbians and (especially) gay men have always had a hand in mainstream broadcasting; what has changed is that they are being encouraged to broadcast their sexuality as part of the package.

Starting in August, Channel 4 is stepping up its commitment to lesbian and gay programming with a season of queer-themed documentaries and features, followed in September by Dyke TV, the first television series devoted to lesbians. Caroline Spry, commissioning editor for the series, sees it as part of a process that began in 1989 with Out On Tuesday (later simply Out), for which she was also responsible.

"Towards the end of the Eighties, there was a shift in how gay men and lesbians were viewed by mainstream media, by television in particular. We've built upon that. We've shown that the audiences are there, and we've reached a point where gay men and lesbians are seen as viable subjects."

And not only by television. The growth of queer TV is part of a general boom in lesbian and gay media. Last year the focus was on magazines, with the noisy arrival of Phase and Attitude - both representing a break from the gay publishing ghetto with their middle-shelf position and "pink pound" appeal to mainstream advertisers. Phase was soon phased out, but Attitude is still going strong.

Meanwhile, two years after Radio 4 broadcast its pioneering queer special A Sunday Outing, lesbian and gay radio shows are flooding the airwaves. Londoners were recently invited to tune in to Freedom FM, Britain's first 24-hour lesbian and gay radio programme. Granted an initial one-month contract by the Radio Authority, the show will be back on air in December. According to its chief executive, Sion Keeling-Dean, "What Freedom has shown is that you can get away from this idea of ghetto media. Gay men and lesbians have tended to create their own closet. Programmes like this are about opening it up."

And making a good impression. Out This Week, Radio 5 Live's weekly lesbian and gay news show, has won a Gold Sony Award for Best Magazine Programme. Its producer, David Presser, sees the award as a reminder of how far broadcasters have come. "In the early days of gay television and radio, the temptation was to try to satisfy everybody in the same show. Now we're pushing for a diversity of lesbian and gay programmes. It's a question of winning more airtime. What we're seeing now is the maturing of gay programming."

Perhaps, but what we're also witnessing, at least in the case of Gaytime TV, is a shift away from the identity politics of Out On Tuesday - which, overwhelmingly earnest though it sometimes seems, did take lesbian and gay lives seriously. According to Neil Crombie, while Gaytime TV will contain "some good strong journalistic stories", the primary objective is "to make a programme that is entertaining and funny". Which could lead to charges of frivolity. "I do fear a bit of hardline political backlash," Crombie confesses. "But it's a bit like criticising gardening programmes for not dealing with deforestation. We all know there is discrimination out there, but that's not what this show is about. It's a mainstream, popular show."

How popular remains to be seen, and may depend on the size of the "crossover audience" of "hip, sympathetic heterosexuals" that Crombie hopes to draw in. Caroline Spry believes that this audience exists, but is concerned about the cost of appealing to it: "If you look at the images that have been taken up by the mainstream in recent years, mostly they're what can be described as camp - drag, etc - those aspects of gay culture that straight society finds appealing. The danger is, you reproduce what people are comfortable with, and not really challenging anything."

Whatever the success of Gaytime TV, its arrival marks another step in the steady progression of lesbian and gay media from margins to mainstream. The question is, where do we go from here? Out This Week's David Prosser says he isn't sure what "going mainstream" really means. "If it means we're sitting more prominently in the schedules, yes, we are going mainstream. If, on the other hand, it means presenting gay life to straight people, then I'm not sure we are mainstream ... or would ever want to be."

Caroline Spry imagines a time when lesbians and gay men will be represented throughout the media. "And I think there would still be an argument for having programmes specifically for us. One of the biggest fights we had getting Out On Tuesday on the air was with people at Channel 4 saying, 'Oh, but it's a ghetto slot. We want lesbian and gay images to be everywhere.'

"Of course, beneath that liberal concern there was this seething resentment that we felt we needed specialist programming. The bottom line is, we'll always need space to talk to each other."

'Gaytime TV' starts on Thursday, 29 June. C4's lesbian and gay season starts on 2 August. 'Dyke TV' starts on 2 September. 'Out This week' is on Radio 5 Live, Sundays at 10pm.

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