Gay Storylines on British Television Far Ahead of the U.S.

While American daytime TV audiences have been avidly following the ground-breaking romance between gay teenagers Luke Snyder (Van Hansis) and Noah Mayer (Jake Silbermann) on As the World Turns, and night time audiences have cheered the out Kevin Walker’s (Matthew Rhys) relationships on Brothers & Sisters, across the pond British soap fans have been following their own gay storylines for much longer.

US television has never seen anything quite like the fan reaction Luke and Noah’s teenage romance has produced on ATWT, the first American soap opera to depict a fully realized romantic gay male coupling as an integral part of the show. In the UK, however, gay storylines in soap operas are nothing new. In fact, from EastEnders to Emmerdale, gay characters have been a fundamental part of UK soaps for the last two decades. (Unlike US daytime dramas like ATWT, the majority of British soaps are broadcast at night.)

One of the most popular gay storylines of late has been on Hollyoaks which differs from its competition both in the time it is broadcast and, until recently, its gay content. The show has never been shy when it comes to controversial storylines, which is particularly noteworthy since it airs well before the 9:00PM watershed (the cut-off point for UK programs intended for family viewing) and reaches a younger audience than do other soaps. However, the show has had a poor record when it comes to gay storylines.

Thankfully, the award-winning UK teen drama earlier this year introduced a storyline that saw John Paul McQueen (James Sutton) come out as gay, and also had him fall in love with his best friend Craig Dean (Guy Burnet). The program is now undoubtedly the crème de la crème in the UK when it comes to showcasing gay plotlines.

Not only did the long-running storyline prove to be one of the show’s most popular, but it also gained something of a cult following amongst fans of the show, both gay and straight. So popular was the storyline that James Sutton received a nomination for Britain’s National Television Awards (comparable to America’s People’s Choice Awards) as Most Popular Actor, though he ultimately did not win.

Although the character of John Paul didn’t make his debut in the soap until September 2006, Craig was a long-established and popular character. While it has since been confirmed that John Paul was conceived as gay right from the get go, Craig, by and large, had always been portrayed as straight.

However, the dynamics of their friendship changed dramatically back in January, when the “I love you” episode aired. It was the moment when a distraught, tearful John Paul came out and declared his feelings for his best mate, Craig. It was heartrending, emotional and beautifully executed. Quite simply, it was one of the finest coming out scenes in British television history – never mind a British soap. And after a highly charged week of denied feelings, the pair finally shared their first kiss.

Thus began a seven-month roller coaster ride that saw Hollyoaks going gay in a very big way. Viewers quickly stopped caring whether the McQueen sisters got hitched or whether Warren went down for attempted murder. It was the romantic liaisons between McDean, as the lovers were named, that proved to be must-see TV. And from their first kiss in February to their first sexual encounter in May, viewers were hooked.

Like most teenage relationships – never mind gay ones – it was full of angst and confusion. Torn by his recently awakened sexual feelings for his gay best friend, Craig faced a serious dilemma. Stick with his gorgeous and loyal girlfriend Sarah or let his lust for best mate John Paul get the better of him. When writers threw in a boyfriend for John Paul (Spike) as well as his besotted ex (Hannah) into the mix, things grew even more complicated and tense. Viewers were riveted.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the truth finally came out after a shocked Sarah discovered Craig and John Paul kissing during her and Craig’s engagement party. Forced to confront his feelings, Craig finally found the strength to come clean and he and John Paul decided to make a fresh start in Ireland. But sadly they, and we, didn’t quite get that happily-ever-after ending.

In what is probably one of the show’s most heartbreaking scenes, John Paul came to the conclusion that he needed more from the relationship than Craig was able to give him. In short, he needed a boyfriend who was as comfortable in his own skin as he was. And so, the pair went their separate ways: John Paul went back to Chester and Craig set off for a new life in Dublin.

As with the current Nuke storyline that’s been unfolding on the traditionally family oriented As the World Turns, what made John Paul and Craig’s relationship so endearing was its respectful treatment and intelligent execution. Their romance was natural and realistic and treated the same, no worse, and no better, than any other heterosexual relationship.

 

Unlike American television on which the number of gay characters has steadily shrunk in recent years, there’s far more to gay characters on British soaps than just what can be seen on Hollyoaks. In 1985, almost a decade before Hollyoaks even existed, in a British soap opera first, Channel 4’s hugely popular groundbreaking soap Brookside became the first British soap to have an out and proud gay character in the young, well spoken, middle class Gordon Collins (Mark Burgess).

Brookside began life in 1982 and made a name for itself by tackling social and political problems apparent in 1980s Britain. It was sensational and bold and enjoyed being controversial. And what could be more sensational, bold and controversial than having one of the soap’s well-known and established characters come out as gay. Particularly during a time when the passing of Section 28, a controversial amendment to the UK’s Local Government Act of 1986, which pertained to the promotion of homosexuality, wasn’t far off and AIDS cases were on the increase.

Far less controversial than Brookside, Emmerdale has also had more than its fair share of gay characters. In 1999, the first gay male character in the show, Jason Kirk (James Carlton) caused a right old stir when he was caught snogging bisexual Gavin Ferris (Robert Beck), particularly since he just so happened to be barmaid Bernice’s fiancé. Fast-forward eight years and Emmerdale’s representation and portrayal of gay characters is far more positive, with the soap currently gearing up for its first ever gay wedding.

Current Emmerdale residents Paul Lambert (Mathew Bose) and Jonny Foster (Richard Grieve) are both certainly easy on the eyes, but in spite of their good looks, the couple fail to channel anything close to the chemistry and passion John Paul and Craig did. However, Emmerdale is set to feature the first ever gay wedding on a prime time soap.

Although as viewers well know, soap opera weddings rarely go according to plan. Paul and Jonny’s was no exception. In a move that will undoubtedly cause a huge backlash amongst Emmerdale fans and the gay community alike, the foundations of Paul and Jonny’s relationship were rocked to the core when Paul got cold feet about their upcoming nuptials and cheated on his fiancé.

While sleaze and sensationalism looks to be the order of the day for Emmerdale, EastEnders, another long-running British soap, has used various homosexual characters to highlight gay issues since the early 1980s. Although the show recently announced a gay character would be added to the cast, there hasn’t been a gay male character in fictional Walford since Derek Harkinson (Ian Lavender) left the soap in 2005.

In 1987 the show caused huge controversy when it screened the first ever gay kiss in a UK soap. The lip-lock took place between Walford’s first homosexual resident Colin Russell (openly gay actor and activist Michael Cashman) and his younger boyfriend, Barry Clark (Gary Hailes). On a prime time, pre-watershed program, the portrayal of an openly gay man — let alone one in a homosexual relationship — was unheard of before Colin and Barry’s introduction. To say their kiss, nothing more than a chaste peck on the forehead, didn’t go down well in the media and with the viewing public would be an understatement.

Viewers branded the program “filth” and dubbed it “EastBenders.” There were even questions in parliament about whether it was appropriate to have gay men in a family show when AIDS was supposedly sweeping the country. However, regardless of the initial negativity, the characters had a powerful impact on public attitudes, and the show’s handling of Colin and Barry’s relationship was deemed by many gay activists as something of a breakthrough.

The show built on that breakthrough two years later when Colin and his new boyfriend, Guido Smith (Nicholas Donovan), engaged in the first full mouth gay soap kiss. Their locking of lips led some members of Parliament to call for the show to be banned, and the Sun newspaper even went so far as to describe the comparatively tame kiss, which incidentally, was watched by some twenty million people, as "a homosexual love scene between yuppie poofs… when millions of children were watching."

Seven years later EastEnders again courted controversy, this time with a “censored” kiss between Tony Hills (Mark Homer) and Simon Raymond (Andrew Lynford). The BBC cut the kiss by a couple of seconds, so as not to "startle" viewers. The kiss, shown more than an hour before the 9:00PM family viewing curfew, had been cut from an original two seconds to a mere half-second. Equally infuriating was the storyline, which saw bisexual Tony break off his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend Tiffany to get together with Simon, who just so happened to be his ex-girlfriend’s brother. Although in the end, the couple did get something of a happy-ever-after ending, with Tony coming to terms with his sexuality and the pair heading off to travel around Europe together.

Until the new gay character joins EastEnders any action of the gay kind on the show seems about as likely as matriarchal character Dot Branning, the soap’s much loved, religious busybody renouncing God. But on rival soap Coronation Street, it’s a totally different story. First, there is barman Sean Tulley (Antony Cotton). And now, thanks to the return of popular and pivotal gay character Todd Grimshaw (Bruno Langley) the show currently features not one, but two gay characters.

Todd was Coronation Street’s first acknowledged gay character. After years of criticism about non-representation in a soap that had a massive gay fan base, viewers saw Todd slowly begin to question his sexuality in 2003.

The character’s confusion over his sexuality came to a head in a storyline that saw him kiss his girlfriend Sarah’s brother, Nick (Adam Rickitt). It was the veteran soap’s first gay kiss in its 43-year history and although the episode received a few complaints from members of the public upset at pre-watershed gay scenes (a mere 21 complaints for the episode were received by the Independent Television Commission in total), it was nothing compared to the record number of complaints for that infamous EastEnders kiss.

It seems that even in the 21st century, gay characters on television – particularly on family-oriented soaps – are always going to court a certain amount of controversy. But times are definitely changing. After all, Craig and John Paul’s lust-filled relationship on Hollyoaks featured far more than a quick brush of lips and that did nothing to hurt their popularity.

Put simply, in 2007, the visibility of gay characters in UK soaps has never been healthier. These days a same-sex kiss on a popular soap opera doesn’t end up being fodder for the tabloids in the way EastEnders was in the eighties and nineties.

That’s largely thanks to the likes of prominent and popular gay soap characters who paved the way, such as Gordon Collins, Colin Russell, Barry Clark, Simon Raymond and Tony Hills; and those building on their legacy including Todd Grimshaw, Sean Tully and John Paul McQueen. Hopefully one day soon American viewers will have a similar list of well-developed gay characters to cheer.