We need more reality in TV's gay storylines

Does British TV trail America in its scripting of gay roles?
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The Independent Online

The BBC is about to start shooting Lip Service, a new six-part drama about the sex lives of lesbians living in Glasgow, a show that is seen as the home-grown equivalent of America's racy The L Word.

But has British television managed to keep pace with America in terms of its portrayal of gay characters? And, even if it hasn't, is the invariably glossy treatment of Stateside television drama the right blueprint for dramatisation of a subject that remains sensitive?

The furious reaction to the Daily Mail's recent coverage of the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately has demonstrated the effects of media stereotyping of gay lifestyles, generating a record number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission. Television needs to get this right.

Some of the industry's leading writers will gather to discuss the matter today at the Screenwriters' Festival in Cheltenham, amid growing concerns that British television scripts are lagging behind those of the Americans.

Nicola Depuis, a scriptwriter who has put the subject on the festival's agenda with a session entitled "Gays, Lesbians, Transsexuals ... oh my!", praises the American company Showtime for having created strong gay characters in a number of its productions, including The L Word, Weeds and The Wire. A recent report by the pressure group Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters were becoming "more prominent and realistic" on American television.

By contrast, a study by the British gay rights group Stonewall, carried out in 2005, found that only six minutes of 168 hours of peak-time BBC output included "realistic and positive" portrayal of gay characters.

Depuis, 29, who is lesbian, says she enjoyed strong portrayals of gay characters in Nineties series such as ITV's Band of Gold and the BBC's This Life. But she criticises much of the British output since. "Transsexuals on television are always serial killers, gay men are always camp and lesbians are always butch," she says. "You would think from television that life is just about straight white people having affairs."

She makes exceptions for programmes such as Channel 4's drama Skins, the BBC's Torchwood, and EastEnders, which recently included the storyline of a gay relationship between Muslim character Syed Masood and Christian Clarke, who, Depuis says, is "not camp; he's quite layered...that's good to see".

Katie Baxendale, writer for the Channel 4 drama series Sugar Rush, which was based on a novel by Julie Burchill and featured the escapades of 15-year-old lesbian Kim Daniels, challenges the notion that American television provides all the answers.

Baxendale, who is not gay, is adamant that it is not the responsibility of a screenwriter to portray any community in a "positive" fashion. "I think portraying people fairly is something you should be doing, but 'positively' is something different. It probably makes writers a little nervous and it's not the responsibility of a writer to do that," she says. "One of the things with trying to present a community positively is that you can almost push a cool exclusivity on to a community. It can come across as quite smug in the end if you are not careful. That was my problem with The L Word, saying 'This is a great thing to be.' Being gay is not a lifestyle choice – it is what you are."

The writer, who is working on new projects for the BBC and ITV, says characters should be fully "rounded" so that they are not defined merely by their sexuality. "In the past, British TV has been really bad at gay stereotypes. There's a need to make sure that characters have a bigger role than being gay," she says. "Good drama avoids stereotypes and clichés."

Damon Rochefort, a staff scriptwriter on Coronation Street, is proud that the show has created characters such as Hayley Cropper (played by Julie Hesmondhalgh), who became the first transsexual character to appear in a British soap as long ago as 1998. "Julie does an amazing job and gets a lot of support from the transgender community – lots of quite moving letters," he says. He was also pleased by the decision last year to portray the septuagenarian Ted Page, father of long-standing character Gail Platt, as a gay man who had left his wife and never seen his own grandchildren.

Harriet Braun, writer of Lip Service, is promising a show that is not mere glamour but features "bad weather, trips to the pub and repressed emotions". Rochefort would concur that the glitz of some American shows that feature gay characters is not always realistic. "Why should all gay people be cute and hunky? It's not true to life," he says.

The Screenwriters' Festival will run from 26 to 29 October; www.screenwritersfestival.com