We're halfway through Pride Month and as it is 50 years since the first UK pride, I got to thinking about some of my favourite British LGBTQ+ films/ programmes. This is by all means not a definitive list and I am sure I could name more but in the interest of starting a conversation, here are 10 of my favourites in no particular order of preference.
1. Heartstopper: This current Netflix series is centred on Charlie, a recently outed teen and his growing relationship with Nick, a bisexual boy in his school. Set at an all boys school, the show deals with their respective group of friends and the drama that ensues when their relationship becomes known. Coming out is the overall theme in the series and as it has been renewed for another two seasons; I'm looking forward to seeing how the characters and storylines develop from there because as we know, coming out is only the beginning.
2. Beautiful Thing: This film adapted from Jonathan Harvey's 1993 play stole our hearts in 1996. Set on the Thamesmead Estate in SE London, it follows Jamie & Ste who's growing awareness and blossoming love is chronicled during one of London's hottest summers. It is one of the first major LGBTQ+ films of the 90's that did not have an underlying storyline that involved HIV/ AIDS or death. Doesn't seem like much but ground breaking in itself.
3. Get Real: Another play adapted into a film, which sadly did not receive the same accolades that Beautiful Thing did. Both films dealt with teenage sexual awakening but were two different types of story and had they been treated as such, perhaps it would have been better received. In this film, Steven is aware of his sexuality but not out. He spends his school days lusting over John, the popular kid at school and star athlete. After school he looks for hook ups to satisfy his awakening sexual appetite. When the two run into one another outside of school, it sets off a chain of events that will change both of their lives.
4. The Naked Civil Servant: Adapted from the memoirs of Quentin Crisp, and starring John Hurt, this film takes us through the early days of Quentin's life in London and filled with the witticisms and observations that would come to define his work.
5. Victim: This 1961 film was the first English language film to use the word "homosexual." Dirk Bogarde stars as a respected lawyer who falls prey to a blackmailer because of his affair with a young builder; as well as the fallout from it. It was ground breaking at the time and began a conversation about the crimes that were created as a result of homosexuality being illegal, particularly blackmail. I recently shared a piece I had written about this film which can be read here.
6. Hating Peter Tatchell: This documentary is a must see for any LGBTQ+ worldwide but in particular those of us here in the UK. Peter has devoted his life and sacrificed his own health and safety for the cause of LGBTQ+ equality and human rights around the world. Aptly titled, he remains a controversial figure but like activists' such as Larry Kramer, we must acknowledge that it is their tenacity and fierce approach that has been needed to press the accelerator on LGBTQ+ equality. You don't have to like him, but you need to respect him.
7. Christopher and His Kind: This BBC production stars Matt Smith as Christopher Isherwood and is based on the book of the same name. In this adaptation, we follow Christopher to Berlin in the last days of the Weimar Republic, his relationship with a young German whom he tries to help escape Germany and their reunification after the war in a divided Berlin. Isherwood's few years in Berlin would inspire the musical Cabaret and although he would spend the rest of his life in California, his Berlin years would come to define his literary work.
8. Maurice: Starring James Wilby as the title figure and Hugh Grant as his love interest. What makes Maurice such an important work is that E.M. Forester wrote the original novel in 1913-14 and later revised it with explicit instructions that it be not published until after his death. It chronicles the life of Maurice Hall and his homosexuality as reflected in early 20th Century England. Forester wanted the book to have a happy ending and wrote it as such. This put him at odds with the law but nevertheless he gave Maurice, the ending in which two men could be happy together. That love could exist between two men even when the odds were against them.
9. Another Country: Based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five, it stars Rupert Everett & Cary Ewes as well as Colin Firth. Told in reverse from Guy's exile in Moscow after being outed as a Russian spy, it exposes the cruelty, coldness and hypocrisy of the British public school system. It was also the first ever LGBTQ+ film I ever watched, one late night on PBS. I had never seen two men embrace in a film until then and it stuck with me.
10. Queer As Folk: This series is now on its second reincarnation in the form of another US adaptation but in this moment, I am referring to the original. I don't think there is a single person who can't remember the premiere episode that follows a group of friends in Manchester who are living, loving and fucking their nights away. I wrote a piece last year about it for Gay Life Manchester which you can read here. I wrote a piece last year for Gay Life Manchester Magazine on this show’s enduring popularity which can be read here.
So not a definitive list but a start, what are your favourite UK LGBTQ+ films and programmes? Share them in the comments, on social media or feel free to message with them.
Happy Pride Everyone!
60 years ago this August the film Victim starring Dirk Bogarde premiered. It was the first English language film to use the term “homosexual.” The film centres around the blackmail and subsequent suicide of Jack “Boy” Barrett who was protecting his friendship with married solicitor Melville Farr (Bogarde) just as he is about to be named Queen’s Counsel. The film uses friendship/ relationship interchangeably because the relationship between Jack and Melville is never consummated but is intimate enough to arouse suspicion and make them the target of blackmail. Victim is not often thought about these days because of how far LGBTQ+ rights have progressed since 1961. It is though one of the most important films for British LGBTQ+ History and one that is still relevant today. Homosexuality is no longer illegal but blackmail of LGBTQ+ individuals is still a reality.
Janet Green and her husband John McCormick wrote the screenplay for Victim after reading The Wolfenden Report which was commissioned in 1957. The Report recommended that homosexual acts between consenting adults be made legal, thus replacing the existing Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 which made all homosexual acts between men illegal. It also recommended the age of consent be 21. The recommendations were not put into law until the passage of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 which then legalised homosexual acts between men as long as they were consensual, in private and both men were 21 or over. The husband and wife team were no strangers to tackling social issues having previously written the screenplay for Sapphire; detailing the rising racial tensions with the arrival of Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the 1950’s, known today as the “Windrush” Generation.
Victim begins with the police coming to arrest Jack “Boy” Barrett at the building site where he works. Jack escapes and we learn that he is being investigated for the theft of £2300, which the Police suspect has been used to pay off a blackmailer. Jack seeks help from his friend Eddie to remove some incriminating evidence from his lodgings including a scrapbook he had made of Melville Farr’s career. He tries to contact Melville to warn him but is rejected when Melville for help, including former lover and bookseller Harold Doe. Jack is caught on the run and arrested as he is trying to destroy the scrapbook. He refuses to give up any names and hangs himself in the detention cell. By this time, the police have pieced enough of the book to know Melville Farr is somehow tied to the case but unsure how. Eddie visits Melville and shows him the photo that Jack was protecting; it was of he and Melville sat together in a car. In the photo, Jack is crying. The perceived intimacy in the photo was enough to imply a relationship although later on even Melville concludes that a good solicitor could have argued that out of a court.
So why does he embark on a mission to expose the blackmailers and risk his entire marriage, reputation and career?
As the story unfolds, we learn that Melville had a relationship at Cambridge with another man who committed suicide because Melville was frightened of his own sexuality. His wife was fully aware of this and he swore that he would never act on his impulses again. He keeps his promise and although he strikes a friendship with Jack, it isn’t until he can’t control his emotions that he ends it, which is the catalyst for the film’s events. It is perhaps the guilt of both deaths that makes Melville realise that enough is enough. Although he starts out as a lone avenger, once he realises the scale of blackmail and the layers to it, he decides to enlist the police and out himself in open court rather than let the blackmailers. It is worth noting that we never see the court case itself most likely because the law itself still made homosexuals criminals as much as the blackmailers, if not more so?
In terms of representation by our standards now, the film is problematic. The main character is not a practising homosexual. This could be that the portrayal of such an act would have not been allowed by law or the censors, who had already taken issue with the film prior to its premiere at The Odeon in Leicester Square. The other homosexual characters are portrayed as weak. They live in fear or are pushed to commit crimes to pay for their “crime of existing.” The “accepting” heterosexual characters are still homophobic in their assessments of their friends. They tolerate them as best as they can because of their humour as we see in the case of Madge, a model who frequents The Salisbury, a notorious gay pub since the days of Oscar Wilde. They pity homosexuals as much as they are disgusted by the acts they commit. There is also paranoia that homosexual predators are everywhere. There is a belief that society is too permissive and descending into a “degenerate” state. When the blackmailers are revealed, they show no remorse as well as an absolute disgust for homosexuals. They even go as far as to say they are doing the work that the police refuse to do and punishing homosexuals as they should be. Language-wise, I don’t think there is anything said that most of us haven’t heard by now but in 1961, it certainly wasn’t said in cinema until Victim premiered.
That said, the film holds a mirror up to the hypocritical nature of 1960’s British society. The Police Captain refers to the law that punishes homosexuality as “The Blackmailer’s Charter.” The law itself created a rise in blackmail. Victims of blackmail were often forced to commit other crimes because effectively they were born criminals. They couldn’t got to the police to report blackmailing without fear of being arrested themselves. As in espionage, secrets are a valuable currency and the cost to many homosexuals being outed at that time was a price too high to pay. You would lose all social standing, income, family and friends. If sentenced to prison, homosexuals were often the lowest class of prisoner and subjected to horrendous abuse by both prisoners and staff. The fear alone kept these victims from coming forward. As Calloway, a blackmailed character in the film says, “Why should I be forced to live outside the law because I find love in the only way I can?”
Today we are free to love and marry by law. We cannot be discriminated against in housing or employment by law. Yet, blackmail is still on the rise. The law can be argued doesn’t always work in our favour and this too can fuel blackmail.
The National Office of Statistics reported a total of 46,429 blackmail offences in England Wales in the last 5 years with nearly 11,000 in the last year alone. It is worth noting that figure isn’t entirely LGBTQ+ related. Galop (the UK’s LGBT+Anti- Abuse charity) surveyed over 700 LGBT+ people and found that in the last five years, 14% had experienced blackmail. Outing and Doxing (releasing personal information with malicious intent) were experienced by 34% and 21% of respondents respectively. In the first half of 2020, there were three high profile cases in the UK in which defendants were charged for blackmail, including a teenager who lured men on Grindr and then threatened to expose them. Although the law is on our side, the fear and shame keep many vulnerable older men in particular from seeking justice. Blackmail though is not just the concern of older men, only recently Colton Underwood, The Bachelor contestant was blackmailed with photos of him leaving a gay sauna prior to coming out publicly.
“Fear is the oxygen of blackmail” says Melville Farr in the film and ultimately what Victim sheds a light on, is how a culture of fear furthered a criminal enterprise. Fear that society would collapse into a degenerate state kept anti-homosexual laws in place. Fear that others would think homosexuality was okay kept homosexuals from living open and healthy lives. Fear of being outed kept many homosexuals paying the high price of what Harold Doe in the film says, “nature’s dirty trick.” The fact that blackmail is reported and cases are prosecuted is a massive step forward from 1961. That said, without eliminating the fear, shame and stigma of homosexuality that fuels this crime, LGBTQ+ People remain susceptible to victimisation.
I have lost count the amount of AIDS related programming I have watched in my lifetime and last year’s It’s A Sin, shared with a younger generation those days when sex was hedonistic until it wasn’t. Sadly much of the HIV/AIDS storylines missed a generation or two who grew up in a time where AIDS was not a death sentence and equality under the law became a reality. In that respects the show did much to restart the conversation that had gone quiet.
But let’s put aside It’s A Sin and go back to 2009 when House of Boys was released. An English language German-Luxembourgian production starring Layke Anderson, Ben Northover, Udo Kier & Stephen Fry. It also has a fantastic soundtrack that captures the early 80’s beautifully. Set in the early 80’s, the film is about Frank (Anderson) who runs away from his privileged Luxembourg upbringing to Amsterdam where he goes to work as a waiter then dancer in a club called House of Boys run by Madame (Udo Kier). Here he falls for the seemingly straight Jake (Northover) . Frank’s best friend at the House of Boys is Angelo, who is dancing to save up for his transition surgery. They are looked over by a house mother who treats them as her own and is devoted to Madame for saving her life. After a tragedy (I won’t spoil it here) Jake and Frank get close and seem to be on the road to a relationship outside the House of Boys when Jake gets sick.
It’s the early 80’s and it’s no surprise to the viewer what dark cloud is hanging over Amsterdam. Stephen Fry plays Dr. Marsh an English doctor working in the Netherlands who becomes aware that the disease killing off boys in the US and UK has arrived in Amsterdam.
What starts out as a crazy little party film of runaways and hustling now morphs into a film of community, love and compassion. Jake and Frank’s friends rally to support Jake as he slips away. It is these scenes where we see the effect of the disease on his mental state including involuntary masturbation which was handled in a way that wasn’t vulgar. Flashbacks to his unhappy childhood are juxtaposed with current scenes of Frank holding him and his friends touching him. People often forget how powerful the image of an AIDS patient being touched or held was. House of Boys doesn’t go down the road of familial rejection after diagnosis and disappearing from the lives of friends that other programmes or films does. In this film, the friends are at the centre and they care for one another.
The final scenes in the film and the fulfilment of a dying wish don’t just fill you with emotion, they fill you with compassion. You almost forgot how wasted Frank becomes and see only his light, and that of those around him.
There are many stories in the HIV/ AIDS epidemic and this is one to definitely watch. House of Boys may not have received wide acclaim but it left its mark on subsequent depictions of those early days in the productions that would follow.
Web series offer a diverse range of LGBTQ+ . Technically, Netflix, Prime and original programming on streaming services alike are classified as web series but I am referring to productions that are usually crowd funded or have a limited number of backers. The production teams are smaller and episodes can range from 5 minutes to 20 minutes depending on budget and story line. These tend to be hosted on YouTube or Vimeo. Don't let that put you off though, often the writing is superb, the characters are fully developed and the storylines are great.
LGBTQ+ apps like Dekkoo, HereTV, Out TV and Froot tend to carry many web series in both English and other languages. It is on these platforms that my real love for this format has really grown. I'll be touching on a few more of these in the future but for this post, I want to introduce you to one of my favourite finds of the last year.
“Where the Bears Are” is a comedy series that describes itself as The Golden Girls meets Murder She Wrote. This description could not be more apt and if those comparisons peak your interest, go and find the series ASAP, you will not be disappointed.
The series was created, directed by and stars Joe Dietl (Wood, a former porn actor), Ben Zook (Nelson, a current struggling actor)and Rick Copp (Reggie, an opportunist writer/ TV show host) as three friends who share a house together in Silverlake, Los Angeles. The first series is set around a murder that happens at Nelson's birthday in which we also meet the soon to be 4th addition to their household, Ian Parks (Todd, who becomes Nelsons' boyfriend). Their "mismatch" in attractiveness becomes a running gag throughout the series.
The series ran from 2012-2018 in episodes 7-10 minutes long. In 2012, Where the Bears Are was named best comedy web series by both Qweerty and AfterElton.com. Each season begins with a murder of some sort that always involves The Bears and sees them racing against series regulars, Detectives Winters (Chad Saunders) and Detective Martinez (George Unda), a dysfunctional husband/ husband team who always seem to be a half step behind due to some personal marital problem usually involving sex. In addition to an eclectic cast which include a closeted homophobic police captain, a psychopathic killer and Nelson's parents, the series has also included guest appearances by Chaz Bono, Margaret Cho, and other notable LGBTQ+ performers. You can watch the uninterrupted series though in one running film online on Amazon and other streaming services and believe me they are worth it.
Right now, the world feels incredibly dark and it is far too easy to fall down the social media/ news rabbit hole. Our brains need a rest. Treat yourself to some time off with "Where The Bears Are," your mental health will thank you for it.
I have been toying with this idea of writing more about LGBTQ+ films and TV for years now. In the 30 years of being an out proud queer man, I have been to countless film festivals, watched Blockbuster’s entire LGBT film offerings in the 90’s, probably twice. I feel like I have been riding alongside the journey of LGBTQ+ evolution when it comes to celluloid representation. This has been a road of diversions, detours and wanderings that has still to reach its final destination. I think it is why although I appreciate the normalisation of our community on the screen, I also hold queer content made for queer audiences very close to my heart.
So where do I begin? Do I begin from the first gay film I ever watched? What I have been watching recently? An old favourite? We’ll get to those in time, I promise.
I thought the recent death of filmmaker/ artist James Bidgood of COVID complications might be a good starting point. A few days ago, hubby suggested watching Bidgood’s art house masterpiece, Pink Narcissus; which I had never seen. Now, given how many LGBTQ+ films I have watched in my lifetime, I should be ashamed of myself for not seeing it. Better late than never, right? The other reason why I hadn’t watched it before was probably because the film was released anonymously in 1971 after a fall out with the distributors and it would not be attached to Bidgood until the mid-90’s when writer Bruce Benderson, was researching what happened to the actors in the film. His book Bidgood was published in 1999 by Taschen and a restored version of Pink Narcissus was also released that same year.
Pink Narcissus was shot entirely indoors on 8mm film during the years 1963-1970; mainly in Bidgood’s small apartment. Bidgood used a clever technique of bright colours over one another to obscure the nudity in the films negatives. This was also a way to protect himself from being prosecuted for breaking obscenity laws which were more severe for homosexuals at the time. The result is the kitsch almost Technicolor dream world which provides the setting for the films premise. We are taken on an erotic journey of a male prostitute’s sexual fantasies as he kills time between clients. For a modern audience, there is nothing risqué about what is being shown. Netflix probably has more hardcore content these days. In the context of its time though, Pink Narcissus was explosive.
It is one of the first times that male nudity and expression is put into an art context and not pornography but still retains the eroticism that celebrates the beauty of the men and their attraction to one another in multiple scenarios. You’ll be hypnotised by Bobby Kendall’s striking features and movement as the centre character. Although we live in a world right now where hardcore images are freely available, there is a playfulness in the suggestiveness of scenes that the older I get, I find more appealing. So, even if you don’t “get” the film, you can still enjoy its voyeurism.
It is not a film for everyone but it is one that stays with you and directly challenges our own current standards of male beauty and art. If you’re a fan of the work of Pierre et Gilles’ or David LaChapelle, you may want to see where their inspiration came from.
James Bidgood started out taking photographs for male physique magazines in the 1950’s but found the work dull. In a New York Times interview he spoke about this.
“There was no art,” Bidgood laments. “They were badly lit and uninteresting. Playboy had girls in furs, feathers and lights. They had faces like beautiful angels. I didn’t understand why boy pictures weren’t like that.”
He would take that dissatisfaction and go on to change the way male nudity was photographed. Pictures would come alive as dreams in colour. Pink Narcissus, is a testament to his new vision and the playful hint of camp in his work is an addition to art that we should all be grateful for.
You can watch Pink Narcissus on BFI player with a subscription in the UK and other streaming services.
I’m 45 today. This means that I am officially 15 years older than my dad and my sister were when they died and 5 years away from the age my mother died. Fucked up way of looking at things huh? Stay with me though.
I have had some amazing birthdays in my life. I am grateful and lucky to have a husband who has gone out of his way to make my birthday special over the years. I have some of the best friends and family who have been there to cheer me on or just get me wasted.
I am also lucky and grateful to the Universe that in spite of my tremendous partying and wilful neglect of my health for many years in my youth, I don’t look my age or whatever that is supposed to mean. I often joke that the only reliable advice I can give in life is to always use a quality moisturiser. I stand by this joke. I also don’t necessarily act my age or whatever that is supposed to mean. I am aware of the societal definitions that produce these images of how and what we are supposed to look like at a certain age and I firmly reject them. Nor will I waste my time listing them, deep down we all know what these are and sometimes they feel more like nooses than goals.
I have come to the conclusion that my life resembles more a first attempt at Spiral Art. Do you remember that toy? Does it even still exist? I used to love it as a kid. Circles over circles, over circles, over circles which look like a fucking mess up close. But as you stand back, well they start to look pretty, chaotic and a bit “I think I know what you were getting at.” The thing is though, with Spiral Art much like life, you can continue to build on the picture because it is all down to you how much you want to build.
That, my friends brings me to my thoughts on where I am today on this 45th Birthday. I can hear my dearly departed friend Andy in his Louisiana accent say as he often would to me, “Oh no, she’s on her soapbox again.”
Miss you Andy and yes, she is because it’s my birthday and I will soapbox if I damn want....
I’ll leave you with two songs that sum up how I feel about life right now. They are both in Spanish but you can Google the lyrics in English or just enjoy the musical sentiment.
Fangoria “Dramas y Comedias” and Dorian “Los Amigos Que Perdi”
Representation matters in life and one of the reasons behind Black History Month and months dedicated to specific groups is to ensure that contributions to history, art, culture, politics, etc are added to our greater understanding of human history. It is a fantastic opportunity to broaden your horizons and discover wonderful new facts, books, and films or in the case of this post: music.
Soul music is a genre where most people think of Aretha, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan or Patti Labelle. Oh and you should because they are absolutely fierce along with so many others.
I am one of those people that love a musical exploration. Say what you will about streaming sites but they have led me to some of my favourite singers and bands of all time. I though go the step further and seek out the vinyl albums of those artists. Soul in particular has a depth on vinyl you won’t find digitally.
This Black History Month post is dedicated to two singers that I found along the way. They may not be as well known to you (or they might).
Marlena Shaw has been singing since the 1960’s and is one of those singers whose songs have been sampled by many hip hop artists, used in commercials and famously sampled in Blue Boy’s 1997 “Remember Me.” One of her biggest hits to date was “California Soul” written by Ashford & Simpson. It appeared on her 1969 The Spice of Life album. If you want an introduction to Marlena, look no further than this album. Shaw co-wrote the first track “Woman of the Ghetto” which is the first track and the sound of her voice mixed the power of the lyrics makes this song one that could be released today and its message is still relevant. Possibly even more so given the Black Lives Matter Movement. This album also contains songs written by Carole King, Barry Mann, Bobby Miller, Cynthia Weil and others which Shaw performs with power more than vulnerability. “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free)” will have you spinning and singing along to her call.
I can’t recommend her enough. To start you off listen to “Woman of the Ghetto.”
Ann Sexton (not to be confused with the writer) has also been performing since the 1960’s. Whereas Marlena came from New York, Ann’s roots are in Southern gospel. Her 1977 album The Beginning is how I fell in love with her voice. It’s not just that her voice can fill a room and that she can convey her emotions so that you feel them. It’s that her style very much feels like that friend of yours at 1am who is helping you get through a rough time, or needs you to listen to her going through a rough time. She don’t want answers, no, she wants an ear. Too often we forget that most of us just need someone to listen to us rather than solve our problems for us. The opening track “I Had A Fight With Love” will have you moving and feeling her groove. Where her vocal mastery shines is on the tracks “I’m His Wife (You’re Just A Friend)” and the sultry longing in “I Want to Be Loved.” That last track was made for 3am, when the world is quiet and you can feel all the power of the Witching Hour.
Have a listen to “I Want to Be Loved” and tell me what you think.
Till next post...
This month is LGBTQ+ History Month in the UK and as last year saw one of the worst years for LGBTQ+ rights in Europe, it felt right to dedicate a post a day on my social media account to highlight an LGBTQ+ person from 28 European countries. Representation matters and the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community can help dispel negative connotations towards us. It helps people come out. It contributes to our positive mental health. You can follow my Instagram or Facebook account for these posts and other writer/cat related posts.
John Lugo-Trebble considers this more of a space to engage personal reflections and memories with connections to music and film.