BBC’s Gay Britannia: A step in the right direction (Part 2: Fiction)

6 mins read

Click here for part one of the series of Gay Britannia.

Looking at the fiction programming produced as part of the season,  we question whether the season managed to encapsulate the historical shifts within its diversity-central programmes.

Firstly, the half-period-half-present day two-part drama Man In An Orange Shirt proved to be a moving and eloquent expression of what living a homosexual life was like in these two separate times.

1man orange 2
Credit: BBC

The first episode following one man after he falls in love with a friend during the Second World War and tries to live happily with a wife and child despite his taboo love.

The second follows the wife from the first episode, now in her 90s, and her gay grandson as he navigates hook-up apps in a world of modern instant gratification homosexuality.

The first episode seemed a little familiar and uninventive for an LGBT text, yet it is when you watch the second part that links in the two storylines that you see the real power of this piece, and feel the real weight of how the law and stigma of homosexuality changed (and continues to change) lives for so many people.

BBC4’s Queers proved an unconventional piece of programming. Taking the form of down-the-lens monologues, the stories again spanned over a century of living as, or in, close proximity to homosexuality.

If you could, however, look past the abnormal story-telling format, the programme had real punch coming from the one-to-one intimacy with each actor in their episode. Russell Tovey in particular shone in his monologue More Anger, playing an actor typecast as a gay man dying of AIDS during the community-destroying epidemic.

I did not get a chance to watch Against the Law before it was removed from streaming services, yet telling the story of the only openly gay man to testify before The Wolfenden Committee, using both real life testimonials and scripted drama, seemed apt for the anniversary of the 1967 Act.

Julia Raeside, in her review for the Guardian, describes Daniel Mays as “unobtrusively brilliant”, the editing as “masterful”, and the whole piece as an “important, must-see piece of television”.

Credit: BBC

Despite all these pieces of pioneering media, there is still severe lack of certain groups being represented in this metaphorical blanket of content.

Firstly, bisexuality has, yet again, remained invisible on-screen. With how the law stood, individual homosexual acts were the things punished as opposed to identifying as gay, so there was huge potential here for exploring a bisexual storyline of a male pre-1967 who had sexual relationships with men and women, yet suffered the same legal fate as a homosexual male.

The programme could also be used as a criticism of the biphobia coming from within the queer community and the dismissive attitude that often goes unchallenged.

Another aspect that wasn’t covered in enough depth, especially within the fiction programming, was the struggle trans women would have faced around the time of the 1967 law change. A drama about a character assigned a male gender at birth but now identifying as female in a time before biologically transitioning was possible would open unfamiliar audiences to the idea of being transgender and the hardship they have historically faced.

Additionally with the historical look the season aimed to take on LGBT life in Britain, a drama on specialist documentary about living as a lesbian through the 60s and 70s is something the was a lot of room and demand for.

One of the most outstanding issues with the season was the scheduling times given to the programmes. With the exception of Man In An Orange Shirt, which was given a 9pm Sunday air time, the majority of the Gay Britannia programming was relegated to near-graveyard shifts, with the potential of grabbing the attention of the active population greatly decreased.

With so much of the content in this position, people would have to actively seek out this kind of media, meaning the chunk of the population whose opinions are outdated aren’t being confronted with any sort of programming.

Despite these issues, the BBC has taken a huge step in the right direction with the season. In all my experience of queer media, I have never seen so much synchronised content, with such research and heart behind it.

I feel, although there is still a long way to go before the representations we are seeing of LGBT people are where they should be, the BBC deserves credit for the feat it has at least attempted here.

There are so many programmes from the season I haven’t discussed, as well as all the radio content I haven’t even touched on, this says something about the mass of content that has been created for the purpose of showing queer culture and history in a realistic manner, something the community has been waiting on for years.

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