Comment: Channel 4’s wasted opportunity
“Thankfully, things are different now,” my mum said to me after watching A Very British Sex Scandal, the first programme in Channel 4’s series marking the 40th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.
On the one hand she is right – we can now enter into a civil partnership, we can insist upon equal rights in the provision of goods and services and dedicated teachers, who can offer vital support to isolated gay pupils, are no longer gagged by the destructive Section 28.
Yet it is easy for those, like myself (and my mum), who live in a big city and work in an environment where homophobia is not tolerated, to see a distorted view of the overall picture.
Despite the recent legal reforms, homophobia is still rife in Britain and the influence of the right-wing press in generating hostility towards gays and lesbians remains strong.
Between January 2005 and January 2006, the Metropolitan Police dealt with 1,359 incidents of homophobic hate crime, a rise of 120 since the last available statistics.
Channel 4 deliberately, and cleverly, opened their series with A Very British Sex Scandal, which offers a poignant and beautifully executed portrayal of homophobia in the 50s and 60s and the struggle for law reform, then followed it with Clapham Junction, a hard-hitting drama about life in the UK’s gay community today.
The former generates the exact sentiment expressed by my mum, that “thankfully, things are different now,” but it is brutally crushed by the latter, which hammers home its message with all the subtlety of a steam-roller.
While one of the more celebrated sides of gay life today, civil partnerships, is given fleeting cameo appearances in Clapham Junction, the clear message is that while some progress has been made, life as a gay man in the 21st Century is not as rosy as some of us seem to believe.
The drama follows the lives of several gay individuals compromised by their homosexuality in some way.
There is a lonely, but assertive, gay fourteen-year-old who pursues a much older man; a man married to a woman who cruises for sex in public lavatories; and a man who forces himself on a younger man on the very day of his civil partnership ceremony.
Ultimately, all the intertwined stories end in disaster: one man is brutally murdered, another comes within an inch of his life, the fourteen year-old is ultimately rejected by the object of his affections and in the closing scene we are left with the impression that a young boy has been killed by some bullies in a tunnel.
As well as the very direct and violent forms of homophobia portrayed, what is perhaps more pertinent is the less overt, middle-class homophobia which is explored in conversations between characters at a dinner party where a gay-bashing is discussed.
Comments like “do gay people really need to push it in our face so much” are made by a woman whose son just so happens to be gay.
This form of homophobia which is illustrated effectively in Clapham Junction is still endemic in our society.
While grim portrayal of gay life in the 21st century does challenge the notion that we live in the pro-gay utopia some right-wing commentators (such as the Daily Mail’s Richard Littlejohn) would have us believe, it is, on the whole, unoriginal and superficial.
The character development is rather poor and many of the stories are so underdeveloped that they seem pointless.
We are expected to believe that one character, when not attending his sick grandmother, gets his kicks out of going to gay bars on his own, and cruising in parks with the sole intention of beating up the men he picks up.
Yet, there is no attempt whatsoever at explaining why or if there are any specific roots to his hatred for gays.
Aside from it’s artistic flaws, the main problem I have with Clapham Junction is that it is so painfully unoriginal.
It panders to every anti-gay stereotype going and it will undoubtedly fuel the ingrained, middle-class homophobia it highlights, which is itself caused by ignorance and negative stereotypes rather than malice.
I was relieved that by sheer coincidence I watched A Very British Sex Scandal with my parents rather than Clapham Junction.
Anyone who hasn’t experienced life in the UK’s gay community for themselves would be led to believe that we all spend our days cruising in lavatories, exposing ourselves to strangers in parks and masturbating out of open windows in full view of our neighbours.
And while depicting this side of gay life the drama fails to achieve any depth or realism or tackle any of the potential consequences of cruising apart from the threat of violence.
In A Very British Sex Scandal, which portrayed gay relationships when homosexuality was forbidden, there is a great deal of love and emotional intimacy between the protagonists, which is captured beautifully in the drama.
Clapham Junction would have us believe that being gay is exclusively about sex.
The makers of the show, and particularly the writer Kevin Elyot, have argued that they are not responsible for the PR of the gay community and present things as they see it.
Well, if this is the case, then Elyot’s experiences must be pretty unique.
The only story which makes any effort to challenge stereotypes is the one involving the fourteen year-old and the much older man.
But sadly, like the rest of the drama, it suffers from being underdeveloped and as a result seems a little far-fetched.
Perhaps in arguing that society hasn’t come as far as many people think in the 40 years since decriminalisation, with homophobia still rife, the makers of Clapham Junction have inadvertently portrayed the gay community as it was back then: underground and marginalised.
But, prior to 1967 gay people had no choice, they were forced to rely on secret meeting places and elicit encounters, but surely we have moved on.
Clapham Junction reveals that while our mainstream TV is becoming more and more camp, from Graham Norton to John Barrowman, in drama terms we have still not moved on from Queer As Folk
More from PinkNews
That series portrayed one side of the gay community rather accurately and was, as a result, groundbreaking.
We have increasing numbers of gay characters in our mainstream soaps and dramas, but the majority seem to conform willingly to the tired old stereotypes.
The vast majority are Sean Tully from Coronation Street: camp, asexual, lonely and “the only gay in the village.”
Channel 4’s mini “gay season” was a unique opportunity for gay themed shows to be both entertaining and groundbreaking, portraying gay lifestyles in a new and realistic way for mainstream audiences.
While the opening show, A Very British Sex Scandal, paved the way for a thoroughly engrossing and perfectly executed look at a watershed trial which contributed to the eventual partial decriminalisation, Clapham Junction squandered its opportunity with its lazy stereotyping, superficial characterisation and lack of ambition.
Alex Bryce is a parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP. He lives in London with his boyfriend and has never been to Clapham Common.