Frances Winston takes a jaundiced view of the erratic and sometimes illogical storylines for gay characters in TV soaps
When Coronation Street bosses announced that popular gay character Marcus Dent, played by openly gay actor Charlie Condou, was going to begin a heterosexual affair with widowed hairdresser Maria Connor, my friend and I were outraged.
Given his back story with one of the only other gays in the village, Sean Tully 9stereotyped from day one) it seemed an about-turn too far, and completely unbelievable – and we were right. The whole story reeks of awkwardness and ridiculousness. It was compounded when the ‘couple’ recently attended a gay wedding, and Marcus was forced to define himself as a gay man who is now dating a woman. This, of course, upset Maria and led to him pretty much renouncing the fact that he is gay.
This comes alongside the recent storyline where Jenna Kamara came out as gay after being fired from her job as a physiotherapist, for hitting on her patient Sophie Webster. Their treatment of transsexual Hayley Cropper in recent years has also been less than realistic. After the initial fuss about featuring a transsexual character, very little reference has even been made to her day to day issues, or the fact she takes hormones, until recently, when the character was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While it is wonderful to see a transsexual character being accepted, surely the lack of acknowledgment of any treatment she may need is doing a disservice to the character. Even their first ever gay character, Todd Grimshaw, did the community no favours, when they took a previously (very) heterosexual male and made him gay pretty much overnight, completely rewriting his character.
Out of the hundreds of soaps past and present worldwide, it seems that try as they might soap bosses just can’t seem to find the balance between having a normal happy healthy LGBT character, and sensationalising their sexuality for ratings – or just plainlyl and simply ignoring it! Take Doug Savant’s gay cop Matt Fielding in 90’s soap Melrose Place. Although the fact that he was gay was referred to quite regularly, he was the only regular character in the soap who never had a love scene, and although they gave him love interests, the one time he was supposed to actually have an on-screen kiss, bosses at Fox decreed that it should be edited out!
Even Fair City was guilty of cutting out gay kisses in the 90s. Back in 1996, two male characters moved in for a clinch and were interrupted – ruining what would have been a historic moment on Irish television, coming as it did, a mere three years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
It was left to TG4’s Ros na Rún no less to feature an Irish soap’s first openly gay couple, and they actually screened the first ever gay kiss between characters Jack Hayes and Tom Doherty in the 90s. That said, Fair City have redeemed themselves in recent years somewhat, featuring several LGBT characters, and dealing with issues such as marriage equality.
Over in Emmerdale, producers were applauded when Zoe Tate was introduced as an openly-lesbian character in 1989. Indeed, they involved her in many relationships, and she had some strong storylines. Unfortunately, they then decided that she was schizophrenic! During a schizophrenic episode she fell pregnant, and all the good work they had done establishing her as a strong independent woman, who happened to be lesbian, was pretty much undone.
When they introduced an openly-gay character in 2004, in the form of Paul Lambert, played by the wonderful Matthew Bose, he was camp and over the top, and really often did seem to be the token gay. Even Bose was unhappy with some of his storylines, and after his character had a one night stand with a married man, he expressed his annoyance saying: “It makes out that all gay men are promiscuous, and I don’t think they are any more promiscuous than anyone else.”
However, the one significant thing to come out of his tenure was the portrayal of a Civil Union in a soap, when his character married Johnny Foster in 2008. This was the first time a prime time show had broadcast a Civil Ceremony since the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force in the UK on 5 December 2005.
Then there was the recent storyline with Aaron Livesy and Jackson Walsh. Having portrayed Aaron’s struggle with coming out very realistically, they then felt the need to make every one of his storylines bigger and more outlandish than before. When on-off partner Jackson crashed his car, after Aaron had refused to tell him he loved him, Jackson wound up paralysed. This led Aaron to eventually agree to kill him, after he decided he couldn’t live like this. It then led to another self-destructive cycle of self-harming and aggression, before he eventually left the village having confessed to starting a fire that wasn’t his doing. Here was a great opportunity to show a gay character settling into life after struggling with coming out, but instead his entire existence was sensationalised.
Teen tea-time soap Hollyoaks has always featured gay characters, and Irish actor Emmet J. Scanlon won many awards for his portrayal of gay thug Brendan Brady. Unfortunately, he was what can only be described as a sociopathic, homophobic gay man, which led to the domestic abuse storyline between Brendan and Ste Hay. While playing a complex character is great for an actor, and domestic abuse does indeed exist within the community, by having Brendan manipulate and abuse a younger character who was struggling with his sexuality himself (and who had previously been involved in domestic abuse when he hit a woman) it didn’t send out a great message about homosexuality.
Even EastEnders has gone down the route of sensationalising homosexuality, after such a strong start in its early days. They were the first UK soap to screen a gay kiss between the characters of Colin Russell and Barry Clarke, leading the media to dub the show “filth” and rechristen it EastBenders. Bear in mind this was only a peck on the forehead! It was even raised as an issue in Parliament. However this was a pivotal moment and actor turned politician Michael Cashman, who played Colin, believes that the story helped start “the social change” in opinion towards homosexuals.
Fast forward a couple of years though, and they cut a kiss between characters Tony Hill and Simon Raymond, from two seconds to half a second, so that they would not “startle” viewers. Despite this, they have continued to introduce gay, lesbian and bisexual characters – not always to the public’s delight it seems. In 2007, when gay character Naomi Julien kissed the (now suddenly) bisexual Sonia Fowler, it prompted 211 complaints to the BBC. Much like Todd in Coronation Street though, this could be attributed to Sonia’s sudden about-turn, rather than any public disdain. One man commented to Pink News at the time: “Actually I’m surprised anyone would complain about the gay relationship, though it seems ludicrous that someone could change their sexuality overnight.”
More recently we had the popular “Cryed” storyline between Christian Clarke and Syed Masood. While Christian was an openly-gay character that veered just the right side of stereotype, his on-off-on relationship with Syed was the stuff of melodrama, with Syed concerned about going against his Muslim beliefs, and engaged to be married to a woman. This couple had more ups and downs in three years than long running couples in soaps have in decades. Although producers did address issues such as gay adoption, stereotyping and queer bashing during the storyline, by the time they drove off into the sunset, the pair were in danger of becoming caricatures.
Soaps have come a long way since Brookside was forced to cut the infamous lesbian kiss, between Anna Friel’s Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemance played by Nicola Stephenson, from it’s Omnibus episode. However, they still seem to have difficulty in figuring out how to balance gay characters with the drama necessary to sustain the show. Too often, a character turns bisexual or gay out of the blue, a gay man is portrayed in a flamboyant camp way, or the gay characters are portrayed as negative human beings.
Even EastEnders newest gay addition, Danny Pennant (Gary Lucy) is a shifty character. Worse still is when a gay character is used to merely garner headlines for the show. While soap characters can’t just discuss the weather or what they had for breakfast, surely it’s not too much to ask to have a normal LGBT character – by soap standards at least.