Playing Gay in the Golden Age of British TV author Stephen Bourne on Only Connect “one of the finest television plays ever produced”

Author Stephen Bourne was at London’s British Film Institute last night to discuss his new book Playing Gay in the Golden Age of British TV and kindly offered The Queer Review the below extract from his talk.

When the theatre company Gay Sweatshop was founded in the 1970s it quickly established a reputation for the high standard of their productions, both in the gay movement and in the world of political theatre. In addition to theatres, it reached out to universities, trade union venues and Campaign for Homosexual Equality groups. The company toured extensively in Britain and Europe, but they faced criticism wherever they travelled. One of the founder members was Drew Griffiths. 

          When Noel Greig joined Gay Sweatshop in 1977 he collaborated with Griffiths on the ground-breaking play As Time Goes By, one of the first ‘historical’ gay plays. It showed repression in three different time-frames: Victorian Britain at the time of Oscar Wilde’s trial, Berlin under the Nazis and New York on the eve of the Stonewall riots. The success of this production led to Greig’s solo The Dear Love of Comrades (1979), the story of the 19th century Utopian socialist Edward Carpenter. Greig took the role of Carpenter.

          In 1979, Sweatshop members Griffiths and Greig co-authored Only Connect, one of the finest television plays ever produced. This was an original drama written for an anthology series on BBC2 called The Other Side. It was commissioned by W. Stephen Gilbert, an openly gay BBC television producer based at Birmingham’s Pebble Mill.

          Gilbert immediately went to Drew Griffiths and asked, ‘can you write something for us?’ He knew Griffiths well and had seen a number of Gay Sweatshop productions. Griffiths asked if he could collaborate with Noel Greig. Neither had worked as writers in television before, but Gilbert had a feeling they could do something positive and probably rather affecting, ‘And they did exceed my wildest hopes’, he said. Only Connect didn’t go out with a lot of fuss. It was screened quietly on BBC2, on a Friday night, which, according to Gilbert, ‘we regretted.’ 

          In Only Connect Graham (Sam Dale), a research student, discovers the forgotten figure of Edward Carpenter, a socialist pioneer and campaigner for gay rights. Graham tracks down seventy-year-old John Bury who met Carpenter when he (Bury) was twenty-one and Carpenter eighty. The portrayal of Graham’s relationship with his partner, Colin (Karl Johnson), was a breakthrough. Rarely had young gay couples been shown on television. Tensions in their relationship surface because of their class differences. Graham is a middle-class student. Colin is a working-class bus driver. Dale and Johnson made a convincing couple. The scene in which they lie in bed, after making love, is beautifully handled. When they kiss, and cuddle, it is a natural thing.

Only Connect is a masterpiece, though it has not been acknowledged in any histories of British television, except those written by Keith Howes, or histories of gay men. Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths somehow managed to become one voice – a bewitching combination of two very different gay men – and yet they came from totally different perspectives. Griffiths was very warm, chaotic, and political, but in a sweet, gentle way, whereas Greig was hard-driving, very involved in gay rights and other political activism as well. Greig had also been an actor. He played Edward Carpenter in Gay Sweatshop’s The Dear Love of Comrades which should have been televised. Only Connect is beautifully crafted and satisfying on every level. While listening to the quality of the dialogue there is a realisation what great talents the writers were. There is not one hint of patronage in Only Connect. Each of the characters is fully rounded. The fact that they’re gay is, of course, integral, but it’s not the only thing about them.

                What makes Only Connect special is that W. Stephen Gilbert produced it with great love and care. He allowed two gay writers to have a voice, which they’d never have got in television anywhere else. 

          The Naked Civil Servant and Only Connect are two sides of the same coin. The former is all about oppression, individuality, fighting, and Only Connect is about loving, but this was the breakthrough. According to Keith Howes: ‘This was the turning point in gay television history that failed to turn. It is its beginning and its end.’

Drew Griffiths was murdered in 1984.

According to Mick Wallis in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Griffiths was remembered at his funeral for being ‘compassionate, easy-going, and caring, as someone loved by all who met him, even though he could never bring himself to believe this’. Wallis added: ‘Griffiths established Gay Sweatshop as the prime artistic expression of a politicised lesbian and gay identity. His personal and creative life reflects the larger social process, and to some extent the social pressures upon him – particularly the pressures of homophobia. In a short period, Drew Griffiths produced a body of work – as writer, actor, and director – that was marked by an intense honesty and considerable bravery.’

          Yet, in spite of his accomplishments, with the exception of the work of Keith Howes, Drew Griffiths remains barely acknowledged in histories of gay men and the LGBTQI+ communities. That is why I have dedicated the book to him.

By Stephen Bourne

Stephen Bourne, author, Playing Gay in the Golden Age of British TV (The History Press, £12.99)

Playing Gay in the Golden Age of British TV (The History Press, £12.99)

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