After the first episode of Queer As Folk was screened on Channel 4 in February, 1999, one of my friends told me he’d hated it because he “didn’t recognise any of the characters”. I didn’t understand this claim then, and I still find it hard to believe now. I don’t watch Spooks looking for familiar archetypes among the spies any more than I watched Queer as Folk to see my own peer group represented on the screen. Nevertheless, even if most of the incidents were outside of my own experience, I still thought the stories felt true. I could believe that someone had gone home with a muscle Adonis only to discover he’s a fatty wearing a sculpted harness; slept with someone and not asked their age; not come out at work and had to live on their wits to keep on covering up their secret life; or watched Doctor Who and chanted the dialogue as it occurred onscreen.
Okay, so I still do that last one. Actually, if there’s one character my peers all recognised, it was Vince. More than seeing a drama about gay men , we were astounded to see someone in a drama who watched the same telly we did because that simply never happens. ‘Brookside’ always tried to convince us they existed in a world where ‘Meadowcroft Park’ was the biggest soap on TV, and no-one in ‘EastEnders’ watches ‘Corrie’ (or vice versa). Yet here’s a fictional character who lives in our TV world, a guy who was culturally aware without it making him ‘cool’ (‘I’m always Kate Winslet?’) and who dumped a boyfriend because he couldn’t name all the Doctor Who actors (yes, even the one who doesn’t count). So who cares if he didn’t represent every single gay viewer’s own experience? Why should he?
The issue of representation was a huge hurdle for the series though, not only because it meant Canal Street suddenly started attracting more tourists expecting everyone to be just like Vince, Stuart and Nathan, but because for some gay viewers it came with far too many hopes and expectations to be able to deliver. We weren’t necessarily prepared for a normal story of normal folk who happen to be into same-sex relationships. We needed to overcome decades of holding our collective breath every time Mr Humphries or Larry Grayson walked on, or your mum flicked through the channels and stumbled across Murray Melvin in ‘A Taste of Honey’. We might have read tabloid articles telling us ‘Straights can’t get AIDS’ or more high-brow papers discussing the ‘homosexual problem’. For many of us it was all about being a victim, being queer-bashed and not telling your dad.
Queer as Folk first aired on 23 February 1999. There were reactions from the tabloids, from Conservative MPs and most surprisingly from Becks Beer, who withdrew their sponsorship – a decision Russell T Davies later branded as openly homophobic.
There was a time when Russell T Davies couldn’t guarantee a tabloid headline. Back in 2005, at the press launch for his revival of Doctor Who, a tabloid hack made the mistake of framing a question around his observation that the new series felt ‘camp’. ‘Well,’ said Russell, without hesitation, ‘you know I’m gay, you’ve read that into it – so fuck off.’ Funnily enough, the prefix ‘gay writer’ appeared before his name less frequently from then on. It has to be said, like most people, Russell’s sexuality is probably the least important thing about him. In fact, at 6′ 6″, it’s his height. Definitely his height.
And now look – in 2008, he was one of the Telegraph‘s most powerful people in British culture and was even awarded an OBE by her Majesty the Queen for ‘services to television’. That probably wasn’t for his children’s dramas ‘Dark Season’ and ‘Century Falls’, two brilliant science fiction thrillers that were BBC drama’s last great original serials for children for a long time. It definitely wasn’t for that one edition of ‘Play School’ he presented, and it almost certainly wasn’t for ‘Mine All Mine’. We might assume, probably rightly, that his royal gong was for resurrecting ‘Doctor Who’, an act of faith that’s transformed British television for the better and had a profound effect on society by creating an event the whole family can enjoy together. Think I’m exaggerating? When was the last time a TV drama other than a soap had mum and dad and the kids all watching in the same room?
But for me, it goes back to 1999. It has to. Because Queer as Folk changed the face of TV drama and the knock-on effect from that is still being felt ten years on. It encouraged other writers to stop thinking of gays as a shortcut to an issue. Queer as Folk isn’t about being gay any more than it’s about being drunk. The only difference was, it wasn’t the first drama to portray young people a bit plastered, and ‘Coronation Street’ still hasn’t done a story about rimming. Funny that.