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Queer as Art, BBC Two review - showbusiness and the gay revolution | reviews, news & interviews

Queer as Art, BBC Two review - showbusiness and the gay revolution

Queer as Art, BBC Two review - showbusiness and the gay revolution

How attitudes were transformed by 50 years of art and pop culture

David Bowie, 'covering the spectrum in all his sexual manifestations'

Part of the BBC's Gay Britannia season, here was a programme fulfilling what it said on the tin: prominent LGBTQ (when will all these expanding acronyms cease to confuse us all) figures narrating, examining, discussing, analysing, letting it all hang out about LGBTQ folk and the arts during the past half-century. The usual suspects were interviewed, from Maggi Hambling – her smoking more shocking than anything else on the programme – to Stephen Fry, Sandy Toksvig and David Hockney, although there was no Alan Bennett or Grayson Perry.

In the 1960s before the act that partially decriminalised homosexuality, evidently the only partly safe places were the theatre, the civil service (not examined here at all) and... hairdressing. Lesbianism was never illegal, but most of the running into the open, we were reminded, has been overwhelmingly male. Historically lesbians weren’t closeted but almost totally hidden, meaning no role models were available, but Val McDermid touchingly told us how her pin-up was Dusty Springfield.

The five-decade trip was surprisingly surprising. Hambling hooted with laughter about coming out ("darling, I was never really in"), and claimed that art is out regardless. She loathed any labelling, art being art whatever the sexual description of the artist. Hockney, also having an affair with his cigarette, told us that the only thing worse than homosexual art was heterosexual art (the flamboyant Larry Grayson, pictured above).

We started with painters and segued easily into showbusiness, where for centuries behind the scenes anything went. Amazingly though, the only couple who appeared together in the whole hour was Sir Antony Sher and his long-term partner Gregory Doran, artistic director of the RSC. But Sandi Toksvig was photographed with her spouse, and told us that when she outed herself (the elephant in the room and the catalyst for most self-outings of people in the news seemed to be, naturally, the Daily Mail: who knew of their influence on the genuine opening out of society) she was told her career was over and became the recipient of death threats. Move on to the 21st century and the most relaxed grown-up turned out to be Will Young, who refused closet time, came out with grace and was more popular than ever: a weather vane for societal change.

The artist Isaac Julien appeared, as well as writers Alan Hollinghurst, Jeanette Winterston and Sarah Waters, but this visual essay argued that the most influential catalysts for profound cultural change were pop music and television. The great landlady of Coronation Street, Julie Goodyear, was amusingly resentful that the drag queens on Manchester’s club scene could look so much better than she. And she suggested that the classic soap, created and written by gay Tony Warren, brought up in an all-women milieu, found much of its appeal in its glorification of  strong women.

David Bowie, by covering the spectrum in all his sexual manifestations, was cited in a wonderful sequence showing glammed-up schoolkids emulating their hero(ine) as the most powerful liberating force. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s famously gay song "Relax" was banned by the BBC, thus assuring its popularity, while Glam Rock ensured lots of messages got across in coded form from both straight and gay performers, almost exclusively male. And here came Queen and charismatic Freddy Mercury, and George Michael and Wham!

The trajectory of television was even more fascinating, as it brought The Generation Game and Are You Being Served straight into the sitting room to all ages. Queer as Folk, confirming writer and producer Russell T Davies (pictured above) as a truly major figure, showed something of the journey of the past 50 years. In the 1960s polls suggested that 60 per cent of the population thought gay sex unnatural and wrong; the sea change has happened in living memory.

But there were varying views about now. Some thought liberation was won and here to stay, unthreatened. Others mentioned fundamentalism. Russell T Davies pointed out that we in the UK lived and breathed in a thin layer of acceptance across the spectrum while the vast majority of the world still criminalised gay life. And still others, including the elegant and incisive Alan Grimshaw, suggested that the worst had happened: gay is now middle of the road bland.

Bland is what the media-in-the-know may label this programme. But for most of the audience this will have been an unpretentious revelation of the roads travelled in an unlikely alliance of showbusiness and mass entertainment.

 

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