The good times roll in Queer Street

TV's `Queer as Folk' has put Manchester's gay village on the straight tourist trail
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The Independent Online
THE NEW Channel 4 series Queer as Folk, with its explicit portrayal of gay sex, has provoked - as it surely intended to - plenty of moral tut-tutting. But in Manchester's real-life gay village, that both inspired and provided the scenery for the series, people are delighted.

"Such a relief to see a film about gay life that wasn't about trauma, wasn't about Aids, didn't see everything as a problem," said Robbie, a Glaswegian waiter in one of the stylish restaurants along Canal Street.

"It made us feel like we'd arrived," said another waiter. "It was like coming out. And, God, it was funny." Both agreed that the series would help put Manchester's gay village on the map. "It's great, it's cool," said Robbie, "though we might have to be careful. This place could end up like Last of the Summer Wine country."

Sitting in Via Fossa, the Roman-style pub in Canal Street, the writer and co-producer Russell Davies was feeling weary. "I'm not an expert, I'm a dramatist," he said. "But suddenly I find myself on Talk Radio as a spokesman for gay politics. And, oh, the homophobia ..." He made a face into his orange juice. "I mean, I know we had this scene of sex with a 15-year-old boy. And, you know, teenage sexuality - it's a difficult area, a grey area. But everyone wants things black and white. It seems you can't mention it without provoking howls."

Davies grew up in Swansea, but has lived in Manchester for 12 years. Canal Street is his old haunt, and his films are partly a tribute to it. "Chicken and chips from McTucky's at two in the morning - how often have I done that?" he sighed. But the series has gone for a deliberately glossy look: "We thought: let's make Manchester look beautiful." Outside drizzle sank over the sludgy canal, in which cigarette packs, beer cans, burger wrappings and the odd sock lapped against a grimy lock. He sighed again. "Sometimes I think we overdid it."

Not long ago, Canal Street was a derelict tangle of old wharves by the Rochdale canal, with one notorious gay haunt, the New Union disco-pub, at one end. In the mornings it smelt of disinfectant. The rest of Manchester looked the other way. But recent years have seen a transformation. The "pink pound" has moved in and Canal Street today is a bijou row of bars and restaurants.

The wharves, refurbished into chic loft apartments, still bear the stamp of Manchester's Victorian past - Bombay House, Brunel House, Rhodesia House, The Cotton Mill. The iron bridge over the canal was built by the Stockton Forge Company in 1875. But these days the road dances to a more modern tune, often by the Village People or the Bee Gees. It is ostentatiously proud to be gay. One huge billboard publicises the TV series ("How much fun can three lads have together?"); another thanks lesbian and gay revellers for contributing pounds 131,062.14 to Aids charities during last summer's Mardi Gras. Smaller posters offer Free Gay Sex Packs and promote Mr Gay UK. Discreet signs in windows urge us to "think pink"; pamphlets offer sex breaks abroad ("European Union made easy!"). Outside a swanky bar, all floating staircases and dripping chandeliers, a pink lorry - "The Pink Link: Parcel and Garment Delivery" - rumbles to a halt.

Even the road signs have moved with the times. In crude green lettering someone has scrawled "Queer Street" where Hart Street should be; and on the side of the Rembrandt Hotel, in a cherished piece of local colour, two important letters have been deleted from "Canal Street". Even during the day, when the road is almost deserted, it feels heated and sealed- off; all that night-club decor, and sex on every menu. It comes as a shock, like a message from the outside world, to see a bumper sticker urging us to "Say no to the Euro". In this world, "the Euro" might well be the name of the drag act at Velvet on Saturday.

The canal is tiny: Carl Lewis could jump it without a run-up. But the road is ultra-cosmopolitan. Half-a-dozen European nationalities jostle for custom, all with a giddy splash of California. The restaurant Lush offers "pan-seared venison with candied pumpkin and rosemary redcurrant sauce." There is even a Czech restaurant, Praguefive, offering Bohemian classics such as tortellini, Caesar salad, and pan-fried Cajun-style spicy chicken. At the bottom of one menu an improbable note reads: "Available for weddings."

It's camp, and that's the point. But there is no attempt to disguise the hard core. You don't have to be gay to work there, but it must help. In the gents in Via Fossa you stand beside a framed sign saying: "You don't have to love him". The safe sex leaflets on almost every bar say: "Wherever you go, whatever the time, whatever the state you're in, you never know when you'll feel the urge or get the chance for a good al-fresco shag." Outside the Clone Zone a polite message says: "Warning. Persons passing this sign will find material on display which they may consider indecent." Reader, I did my duty and wandered in, trying to act casual. The sign was not misleading.

As dusk fell, the swanky interiors began to warm up. In the New Union traditional gay classics - jeans, T-shirts, bomber jackets, crew-cuts - leaned against walls clutching pints of lager and catching each others' eyes. In the Via Fossa, young men in suits and ties stirred glasses of cafe latte ("perfect for lingering over with friends") and chatted. In Praguefive I met a couple who were sipping orange juice and gazing around like tourists (like me). They'd seen Queer as Folk on television and had nipped in on the train from Stockport to have a look for themselves. They had never been before. "It's not what I expected. It's ... well, it's great," they said (nervously).

I thought of what Michael Schmidt, the author and publisher of Carcanet Press (and a local resident) had said earlier. "It's possible that Canal Street will be like San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury," he said. "It's filling up with people who are not gay; people come from miles. And it's the place to go in Manchester. But it's expensive. The rough stuff is already starting to drift elsewhere."

It would indeed be an irony if the series that celebrates it also tames it; if even as it becomes an assimilated and lively part of the cityscape, the gay heart looks for a more secretive place to beat.