Guest Blog Post by Steve Coats-Dennis, on twitter @BlondSteve
July 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the Royal assent being given on Sexual Offences Act 1967. What better time to consider how soaps, in particular Coronation Street, are representing LGBTQ lives and issues?
Continuing drama, with its unique ability to tell stories over weeks, months and even years, is perfectly placed to reflect the everyday experience of characters from a diverse background of sexualities, races, gender identifications and classes.
Earlier this month, I attended a Royal Television Society event at The Hospital Club in London which was discussing the intriguing topic of LGBTQ representation in soaps. Corrie star Daniel Brocklebank, who plays Billy Mayhew, suggested that “Soaps are incredibly powerful in terms of being able to get a message out and in changing people’s perceptions”. They are able to do this because of their intimate nature. Being in people’s living rooms, viewers feel like they know the characters. They can meet a gay vicar or a transsexual head teacher in a soap when they may not have in their own lives.
Daniel is the perfect person to assess how far soaps have come in presenting LGBTQ characters over the years as he was involved in Emmerdale’s first gay kiss back in late 2005 when he played bisexual binman, Ivan Jones. Asked how audience reaction has moved on in those twelve years, the actor suggested things have moved forward but not far enough.
At the RTS Event, former Coronation Street storyliner and current Executive Producer of Hollyoaks, Bryan Kirkwood acknowledged that there is a bigger negative reaction when gay couples move from the living room to the bedroom and humorously musing, “What did people think they were doing?”
This negativity was illustrated in September last year, when Corrie aired a scene of Todd Grimshaw and Billy kissing on a bed and discussing sex. According to Brocklebank, this provoked a “huge homophobic response” on social media. The actor revealed that he had been contacted by Michael Cashman, who famously gave the first gay kiss in British soaps back in 1987 as Colin Russell in EastEnders, saying “‘I can’t believe you’re having to put up with the same sh*t that I was putting up with 30 years ago.”
Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, cleared Coronation Street over complaints about Todd and Billy’s kissing scene and rightly so, but I think it’s worth noting that this negative minority was anticipated and to an extent pandered to. Daniel revealed that the scene was originally meant to have both characters shirtless but the production team decided to keep them clothed to dial down the scene.
With five characters currently identifying as LGBTQ on the cobbles (Billy, Todd, Sophie, Kate and Sean), it’s easy to think job done and celebrate how far the show has come. It’s telling that former Coronation Street actor Charlie Condou felt he had to defend the number of gay characters on the show as recently as April this year when he was interviewed by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain.
Considering recent research from Public Health England estimates that there are more than 1.3 million lesbian, gay or bisexual people in England, the majority living in major conurbations like London and Manchester, five characters in Weatherfield certainly doesn’t look excessive.
I think for the production teams of soaps, on the whole, inclusion of LGGTQ characters is no longer the issue. It would be unthinkable for ITV’s flagship soap not to represent such diversity within the Street. The RTS panel discussed how bold Corrie was to present a trans character as early as 1998 at a time when the political climate was hostile and Section 28 was still in force.
Annie Wallace, who went on to become the first transgender actor to play a regular transgender character in a British soap (Sally St. Claire in Hollyoaks), was involved in shaping the character of Hayley by relating her own experiences of transition to the production team. She maintains that Corrie deserves a real pat on the back for Hayley, introducing a trans character even before they had a gay character on the show.
I think the challenge now for soaps is not having LGBTQ characters but in the stories they tell. One of EastEnders’ core scriptwriters Pete Lawson told the RTS audience: “We've got to a point where being gay isn't the story”. Bryan Kirkwood agreed saying it's not just about wheeling in a gay or trans character adding that their sexuality shouldn't be the most interesting thing: “their sexuality should be the fifth or sixth most interesting thing about them”.
So how should LGBTQ characters be presented? Oliver Kent, the head of continuing drama series on BBC, explained “If it feels like we ever look like we’re pushing an agenda, it will feel bogus and the audience can tell straight away”. I think there’s a real narrative cul-de-sac if LGBTQ characters are only ever role models
Recently I read a discussion on Digital Spy’s Soap forum where the poster was unhappy that gay characters currently were too anodyne: “There is also a tendency for any LGBT characters to be disproportionately good, kind and caring rather than devious and nasty”. Even when you think of a character like Caz Hammond, the negativity was limited to jealousy, faking an injury then her own murder and with a bit of webcam spying thrown in for good measure. I mean who of us hasn’t done that at some point? Oh. Anyway, moving on, the character lasted for less than a year. As long as there’s a balance among your LGBTQ characters, why couldn’t we have one who is as spiteful as a Tracy or as nasty and conniving as a Phelan?
Emmerdale’s series producer, Iain MacLeod, told the RTS audience that “Soap is about holding up mirror to modern life in Britain”. I think this is central to keeping our continuing dramas relevant and engaging.
One aspect of modern LGBTQ life I would like to see reflected in Coronation Street is homophobia, both explicit and tacit. Home Office data on hate crimes published early this year clearly demonstrated that the number of recorded homophobic hate crimes in England and Wales has surged. Over seven thousand hate crimes based on sexual orientation were recorded in the previous financial year. Summer’s grandmother Geraldine recently has given a rare depiction of bigotry with her homophobic attitude to Todd and Billy and their suitability to look after Drew’s daughter – but I suspect it will be a passing storyline.
Truly to reflect society, I believe the Street should have a regular character whose views are homophobic. When Les Battersby continued to “deadname” Hayley as Harold, her pre-transition identity, it reflected the ongoing challenge for acceptance LGBTQ people face in everyday life.
I think continuing dramas like Coronation Street and the other soaps work best if there’s a moral challenge at the heart of their storylines. By putting such arguments and uncomfortable issues onto the screen, soaps have the power to highlight subjects their audiences might not have experienced personally. When stories such Hayley and Roy Cropper’s loving relationship is played out in people’s living rooms week in and week out, it allows viewers to become habituated with issues and characters they might have instinctively disagreed with.
I think Corrie should be proud how well and entertainingly they have depicted their LGBTQ characters and I would encourage the production team and the writers to be bold in continuing to explore broader and even stronger diversity in their stories of Weatherfield lives.
Tvor @tvordlj on Twitter