More Acceptance of Lesbian Content on British TV

Bad GirlsTipping the Velvet

It wasn’t until 1994, however, that we had the first lesbian kiss on a prime-time television series, on the soap Brookside. The papers couldn’t get enough of the fledgling romance between Beth (Anna Friel) and Margaret (Nicola Stephenson) and neither could we. So by the time the kiss was aired, it was a guaranteed ratings-buster. But Anna Friel wanted to leave, and since Beth’s coming-out ran parallel with the storyline of her abusive father and his subsequent murder, it was inevitable that her character was going to be written out.

Britian’s Channel 4 has always been proactive in promoting gay and lesbian programming, once devoting an entire Christmas Eve to gay-themed programs. Camp Christmas, though laudable in its efforts, was truly awful despite the best intentions of Andy Bell, Melissa Etheridge, Derek Jarman et al (the highlight was the straight boy-band East 17 desperately trying to be as butch as possible to reassure their girlie fan base that they “love the Laydee’s”). Since then, the network has had occasional weekends of content aimed specifically at gay viewers.

When Ellen Degeneres’s sitcom character came out in 1997, Channel 4 dedicated a whole night to Ellen, showing previous episodes and documentaries on Ellen DeGeneres and lesbians in the media, all culminating in the airing of “the puppy episode.” Ellen and Anne were there, openly canoodling in the studio. (“The puppy episode” was recently shown on Channel 4 unedited at 9am, probably just after Bear in the Big Blue House.) This is in stark contrast to the backlash experienced by ABC in the US when the episode initially aired.

The next major leap forward came with Queer as Folk, the British version. Before the first episode even aired in 1999, the papers were having a field day about the content (even though some hadn’t even seen it, the title was enough), and our upstanding moral guardians, The National Viewers and Listeners Association (NTVLA), thought the world was coming to end.

So what was the result of the outcry? Virtually the entire country tuned in to the program, which was broadcast on network TV.

It soon became apparent that this was a really superior piece of TV and after a couple of episodes, the newspaper critics who condemned it ate a piece of humble pie and admitted the same. The day after the broadcast, it was the only topic of conversation at my workplace, although why my straight co-workers thought I would know about male gay sex is a mystery to me (that’s straight people for you).

Queer as Folk really opened the eyes of the British public to gay sex between men, but it wasn’t until Tipping the Velvet aired in 2002 that we saw something similar for lesbian sex. It wasn’t exactly “full on” and the “filthiest program the BBC had ever shown,” as the BBC so proudly proclaimed in its advertisements for Velvet in a transparent ploy to lure the straight male viewer, but lesbian and straight viewers alike seemed to enjoy the adaptation, as it went on to generate the highest ratings for for the channel in two years.

Which brings us back to Fingersmith in 2005, and the fact that there was almost no pre-broadcast hysteria. The media coverage of it in advance was so low key I nearly missed it altogether (sometimes the NVTLA’s protests come in handy, for giving us a heads-up on what to watch). Unfortunately, the ratings were low-key, too, but the three-part series still received much critical acclaim.

Meanwhile, the second season of The L Word is due to start on Living TV on June 15th with little fanfare, and the most recent season of the U.S. version of Queer as Folk has already been shown (while we do have America to thank for the current crop of quality TV featuring gay and lesbian characters, I have to say that none of our programs have ever had such a God-awful theme song like the one used for The L Word’s second season).

When a program is broadcast here with “controversial” content, there is usually an outcry from middle England (the southern, middle-class, conservative-voting, Daily Mail-reading, gin & tonic-drinking brigade) and a bit of bandwagon-jumping from the tabloids in order to sell more copies. But in true English fashion, all the kerfuffle dies down fairly quickly, and we return to discussing the weather and the price of fish and chips. Most of the people in the country make up their own minds and generally applaud the programs for simply being, well, bloody good.

Our Victorian forefathers worked hard to propagate the myth that the British are straight-laced, prim and proper. But as the recent progress around lesbian visibility on British television shows, our reputation for “No sex please, we’re British” is outdated, and should be placed firmly back in the Victorian age, where it belongs.