It’s 30 years this week since the debut appearance of Colin Russell in EastEnders. Colin, played by Michael Cashman, was the show’s first gay man, which was a massive deal at the time, with lots of press coverage – much of it very negative (The Sun’s headline was “EastBenders”).
When I was growing up, there really weren’t many gay characters on TV, but things have definitely improved. Coronation Street alone currently has three gay men, three lesbians, and Norris. Getting there was a bit of a slog, so here’s a look back at some of TV’s gayest moments from my lifetime that seemed significant. They’re not all big firsts, or things that attracted the most publicity, but they all resonated with me at the time.
Dot and the sheets
She might now be a cuddly grandmother figure for the whole of Albert Square, but there was a time in the 1980s when Dot Cotton was the scourge of E20’s gay population. Her horrified reaction upon realising her neighbours, Colin and Barry, were ‘o-mo-sexuals might seem laughably OTT today, but it was spot-on for the time. People really did believe that all gay men had AIDS and you could catch it from their sheets or coffee cups. EastEnders, in showing the fairly mundane and ordinary life that Colin and Barry shared, did a lot to persuade people that most gay men are just like everyone else – ie REALLY BORING.
Beth and Margaret’s kiss
It seemed at the time that the British public were more shocked that a pretty young woman might choose to kiss another pretty young woman than the fact that she had recently helped bury her murdered father’s body under the patio. Beth, played by Anna Friel, was TV’s first “Lipstick Lesbian” (a horrible tabloid label that thankfully has not stood the test of time), and did a lot to show the wider world that there was more to lesbians than the short-haired, dungaree-wearing stereotype of the time. Sadly, Beth’s story was cut short by a bizarre off-screen death following a dispute with the producers over how the storyline should end, which soured the legacy of a landmark character.
Nathan meets Stuart
Queer as Folk
Russell T Davies’ groundbreaking series had its share of shocking moments, but the one that made people really sit up and pay attention was when Stuart gave newbie Nathan an introduction to a particular gay sex act that he would never forget. The fact that there has been very little rimming on British TV since demonstrates just how daring the scene was. Happily, it didn’t cause the widely-predicted moral decline of the whole country. Phew!
Luke is Moldavian massacred
Poor Steven Carrington didn’t the best of luck with boyfriends. The first, Ted, was killed in a scuffle with Steven’s homophobic father, Blake. He did find happiness again, with Luke Fuller. Unfortunately, Steven decided to take Luke with him to his sister’s wedding in Moldavia, where he was a victim of the infamous terrorist massacre. Luke’s deathbed scene, in which he begs Steven not to forget him too soon, would still bring a tear to a glass eye – even rotten old Blake was moved. Unfortunately you’ll just have to imagine it, as it’s been taken off YouTube.
Big Brother 2 was the series when the infamous reality show really took off, and its popularity was in no small part due to the antics of former trolley dolly Brian Dowling. He was the kind of nice boy you could take home to your mum without her having some kind of “episode”. A TV presenting career followed, including a stint hosting the show that made him a start in the first place. Never mind Big Brother, though – I reckon Brian’s finest TV moment was drawing a big pair of tits on himself, live on Saturday morning kids’ telly. (Skip to 1m53s to see it)
“He’s our poof”
Art teacher Mr Brisley had a typically unfavourable reaction from the pupils at Grange Hill when mouthy Mick cottoned on to the fact that he was gay. It was a different story, though, when pupils of a rival school chanted homophobic abuse at him during a cricket match. Mick eventually stepped up to defend Grange Hill’s honour, and his teacher, with the memorable line “he may be a poof, but he’s our poof”.
Captain Jack kisses Captain Jack
We’d found out John Barrowman’s military ‘mo liked other men within about three minutes of his first appearance in Doctor Who but his character remained a bit of a mystery until a later episode of Torchwood, in which we discovered that he’d nicked the identity of the real Captain Jack Harkness in 1942. Jack being Jack, he decided the best thing to do would be to nip back in time and give the original Captain Jack a bit of a snog.
EVERYTHING about Ugly Betty was fairly camp, but its most memorable gay storyline was when Betty’s teenage nephew, Justin, fell in love with a lovely young man called Austin. The plot also showed us another side to scheming Mark St James, who took Justin under his wing and tried to help him through his difficult first weeks after coming out. There were also laughs as Justin’s mum, Hilda, threw him a “we know you’re gay” party, complete with banners, rainbow flags and strawberry lip balm. Justin’s first dance with Austin at Hilda’s wedding was one of the sweetest moments in gay TV history. What’s that? No, no, I’ve just got something in my eye.
Tim and Gavin
The Brittas Empire
The 90s were a tough time to be a gay man on TV. Usually whenever one appeared, you could guarantee that there were absolutely no fun times ahead, and that they would be faced with with nothing but angst, problems and heartbreak. Except, that is, in the unlikely surroundings of this crazy Chris Barrie leisure centre sitcom, where Tim and Gavin were quietly and happily gay, living a relatively normal life despite the madness that frequently surrounded them. Mr Brittas never quite cottoned on that the pair were a couple, but then he was a bit thick. And blimey – those shorts they had to wear were SHORT.
Until the arrival of John Paul McQueen, Craig Dean had been a typical Hollyoaks “hunk”, but after getting drunk and kissing his new mate one night, he started to develop stronger feelings. Craig wasn’t gay, he insisted – he just loved John Paul, which is a very 2016 attitude, 15 years early. Internet fans of the couple LOVED it all, and campaigned through all their ups and downs (the most memorable one being when John Paul started dating a gay priest who was then murdered by his psycho long-lost brother) for a happy ending – or, as they called it, a “sunset ending”, where the pair walked off together to start a new life. The couple were regularly shown in bed together but, due to some ridiculous TV rule, only one of them was allowed to be topless, so the other always had to wear a vest, a fact that used to greatly amuse the members of the old lowculture Forums.
Aaron and Jackson
Brooding mechanic Aaron has never been particularly happy about being gay, but his relationship with Jackson took misery to a whole new level. As well as the usual splitting up/getting back together/splitting up, Jackson got hit by a train after an argument with Aaron. Paralysed, he decided that life was no longer worth living and asked his mum, played by Pauline Quirke, to help him die. In the end, she just couldn’t, so it was left to Aaron to do the deed. Not exactly a sunset ending for that pair!
Michael comes out
For a show that absolutely nobody admits to watching, My Family regularly attracted millions of viewers, so it still seemed significant when Ben and Susan’s son, Michael, came out. Viewers had watched him grow up on screen, and it was nice change to someone who who was pretty happy about his sexuality. The writers made sure that he still behaved as badly as the rest of his dysfunctional clan – most memorably in the episode where he pretended to be dying to pick up a hot undertaker at a funeral.
Ben does Gaga
The EastEnders team have played a very long game with the character of Ben Mitchell. When he first came to the Square following the tragic “death” of Kathy (who, of course, turned out to be alive after all), dad Phil was baffled by his love of showtunes and dancing, and tried everything to butch his son up a bit. Over the years, it’s turned into a brilliant portrayal of a dad struggling to cope with the fact that his son isn’t anything he hoped he would be, leading Ben down some very dark paths – including a spell in jail for killing Heather Trott. He finally found love with Paul Coker, so did this mean a happy ending for the Mitchell lad? Not bloody likely – this is Albert Square, remember, and right after this couple were seen walking off into the sunset together, Paul was brutally murdered in a homophobic attack. But I don’t think Dot would think twice now about washing Ben’s sheets, so that’s progress.