The original television series Queer as Folk turned twenty this year. As part of their Nineties: Young Cinema Rebels programme, London’s British Film Institute (BFI) brought show creator Russell T. Davies on stage (hailed as a TV Gamechanger) for a fun and freewheeling discussion about the show that marked a landmark change in LGBTQ representation.
After a screening of the first two episodes, Davies was joined by cast members Craig Kelly (Vince) and Denise Black (Hazel) to reminisce about the show and how things have changed since. Even after all this time, the depiction of gay sex in the pilot still feels risqué.
“I called my agent and asked what ‘rimming’ was,” said Black, drawing a huge laugh from the crowd. “One of my favourite call sheets ever… there’s a bit called ‘Props’ and there’s [a list of] all the props, and on the shoot for episode one when Stuart and Nathan sleep together it said ‘spunk’ and in brackets ‘to be edible’!”
“It was exactly what Channel 4 wanted,” Davies explained.
“It’s very deliberately joyous. There were ongoing conversations with Channel 4 about how joyous it was. They wanted it to be all joy, and all celebration, and they absolutely, fundamentally objected to Phil’s death. They said ‘it’s too dark, too serious’ and I disagreed. That’s when you find out who you are as a writer. I dug my heels in and I refused to rewrite it… There is a lot of joy in [the show] but there’s more than that. I used to get very annoyed at being told it should just be celebratory – ‘do you think I just walk around celebrating my life? Hooray?!’”
The show wasn’t without its critics. Some gay men felt the show’s emphasis on drugs and sex undercut the progress made in representation by the LGBTQ community. Famously, the show ran foul of Channel 4’s corporate sponsors as well.
“We did lose our sponsors [Becks beer] after episode one,” Black reminded everyone.
“Yes, because the daughter of Herr Becks was in London and turned on the television and saw lots of ‘whoopsie-daisies’ and called her father saying, ‘Ve must take ze sponsorship off, there’s bums and there’s gays’,” said Davies with a comically fake German accent. “That’s when the publicity people at Channel 4 got very scared and there were phone calls on Saturday night saying ‘just tell people they’ve re-arranged their European schedule’… No they didn’t they were homophobic bastards!”
Craig Kelly spoke about what it was like being a straight actor playing a prominent gay role in the 90s.
“When I took the role there was a friend at the time, who was a little narrow-minded, and said ‘Don’t do that mate. You play a gay man and you’ll be hounded by the gays’ and no, it was the reverse. I was hounded by straight women.”
“I was on stage at the Donmar after Queer as Folk, being a serious actor, and I’m doing the curtain call and six pairs of knickers [were thrown] as we’re getting a round of applause. And Art Malik is looking at me to the left and I’m thinking ‘they’re not for you mate!’”
Davies has spent the last two decades bringing LGBTQ stories to the screen through shows like Bob & Rose, The Second Coming, Cucumber, A Very English Scandal, Years and Years, and the revival of Doctor Who but the panel agreed that things have taken a turn for the worse lately.
“I do think things have changed. I still think we have to fight for tolerance,” said Black. “Although there’s been a huge shift in our culture, look at where we are politically at the moment. Don’t you feel [gay rights] could go just like that!”
“We live in a terrible moment,” Davies continues. “We now have a Prime Minister [Boris Johnson] who’s called us ‘bum-boys’! That’s actually the country we live in now, it’s not a joke.”
The opening episodes of Queer as Folk hold up thanks to their well-drawn characters. Details like dial-up internet, flip-phones and fashions may place this as a ‘period piece’ now, but the motivations and actions of the characters still ring true, and Davies’ dialogue is sharp.
While today we have a plethora of LGBTQ+ characters and stories playing out across multiple shows and platforms, Queer as Folk’s defiantly bold depiction of gay men is still astonishing. More so when you consider the much smaller TV landscape that it debuted in.
Queer as Folk put LGBTQ stories front and centre in a way the mainstream could not ignore, setting the stage for decades of inclusion. For that we will be eternally grateful.
N.B. Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.
By Chad Armstrong