Distinctions in taste and the politics of aesthetic form
‘Quality’ drama has been an important institutional space on public service television for the expression of sexual subjectivities that lie outside the ‘respectable’ norm. Oppositional, political dramas have existed alongside the more conformist and ‘respectable’ costume dramas, which themselves have become more sexually adventurous in recent years (Nelson 2001b). The leeway in sexual censorship began with the live studio dramas broadcast as the Wednesday Play (BBC 1964-84), whose style and content were influenced by the social realist films of the time, as well as by a writer-led, theatrical tradition. Their reputation for engaging with serious political issues was matched by their willingness to risk sexual scandal (Creeber 2001b: 13). Their social realist aesthetic brought non-metropolitan working-class lives into television drama in plays that engaged with, among other things, the rise of ‘the permissive society’. One of the most notorious was Up the Junction (BBC 1965, director Ken Loach), adapted by Nell Dunn from her own book. ‘Mixing elements of montage, voice-over and location filming, it built on and helped to establish the medium’s unique capabilities for the representation of the social real’ (Caughie 2000: 122). Its open acknowledgement of back street abortion offended many people but also contributed to the climate of opinion that produced a change in the law. The political context for public service broadcasting at this time positively encouraged this engaged approach. The Pilkington Committee Report in 1962, which preceded the setting up of BBC2, declared that ‘it is television’s moral responsibility to shun triviality and risk challenge and controversy’ (Caughie 2000: 78-87). Among the controversial topics addressed was the legalization of homosexuality.
Quality drama is accorded the status of art despite its presence on a mass medium and as such is protected to some degree from the censorship regimes that regulate the majority of television’s output. Complaints from viewers about sex in television drama are usually expressed as an objection to ‘gratuitous sex’ unmotivated by these higher purposes (Millwood Hargrave 1992). Moreover, licence is also given where drama is clearly addressed to a minority audience with the cultural capital to cultivate an ‘aesthetic disposition’ (Bourdieu 1984). In other words, controversial sexuality is fine in television drama as long as it only appeals to a relatively small group of middle-class liberals. Some forms of quality drama can, therefore, act as a kind of vanguard, testing the boundaries of the acceptable on television, from where it might move into the mainstream in response to more widespread cultural change. These are distinct from the ‘respectable’ middle-brow tastes of the dominant business class, for whom costume dramas based on literary novels have more appeal.
Literary adaptations have long been an important strand of quality drama on British television. These mostly uncontroversial costume dramas, often based on nineteenth – century novels, have sumptuous production values that have formed the basis for their success in the global market. Perhaps surprisingly, however, it was in this generic tradition that lesbian and gay sexuality first emerged from the shadows of invisibility and the indignities of negative stereotyping. Examples such as Brideshead Revisited, Portrait of a Marriage, Tales of the City and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit are credited with providing the only available portrayals of physical affection between same-sex lovers on US as well as British television in the early 1990s (Capsuto 2000: 317-25). Ideally suited to limited run serials, these adaptations of famous (twentieth – century) novels combine the artistic credibility derived from their source with the aesthetic values of their sumptuous mise-en-scene and a historical setting that allows for a certain distance from the events depicted.
It was also significant that all these dramas could be read through a liberal humanist perspective, which values pluralism and freedom of speech, while avoiding any sense of homosexuality as a politicized sexual identity. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (BBC2 1990), for example, Jeanette Winterson’s adaptation of her own highly regarded novel, was potentially very controversial, given that the lesbian sexuality of Jess, the main protagonist, was a primary theme. Set in the north of England, it offers a critical perspective on Christian religious fundamentalism and the institutional norms of patriarchy. Of course, the pre-publicity for the serial highlighted its literary credentials and its status as art (Nelson 1997: 138). But in Hilary Hinds’s view, its favourable reception was also an accident of timing. In the two years preceding the broadcast, liberal fears about the protection of free speech had been provoked not only by the passing of Section 28 but also by the Islamic death threat against Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses, which criticized Islamic fundamentalism. The liberal inclination to defend homosexual authors against censorship therefore coincided with an animosity towards religious fundamentalism. This created a public mood in which any hostility to lesbian sexuality was deflected on to the fundamentalist religion against which the main character rebelled. The liberal humanist reading meant that the serial was interpreted as being about ‘the family’ or ‘religion’ or ‘the pains of growing up’, but never ‘lesbianism’ (Hinds 1997).
The association of the single play or literary adaptations with ‘quality’ is derived from hierarchies of taste established in relation to cultural forms that predate television, such as theatre or literature, and is based on distinctions in class cultures (Brunsdon 1990). The differing value given to the narrative forms of realism and melodrama also works to underpin this hierarchy (Hallam and Marshment 2000). Winterson, for example, deliberately adapted her novel to conform to the traditions of realism in serious television drama by reducing the elements of fantasy and the carnivalesque found in the novel (Nelson 1997). However, the forms of television drama have been transformed since debates about the politics of realism first emerged in the 1980s (Bennet et al. 1981). The single play has all but disappeared (since 1984),
while the continuous soap opera, initially despised for its association with cheap daytime serials for women, has extended its influence across the whole of the schedules, expanding and diversifying as it demonstrates its power to attract broad segments of the audience. The cultural status of melodrama has also shifted as its emotional ‘excess’ became appropriated as postmodern ‘irony’ by the new middle classes, a mode of reading long familiar in ‘camp’ gay subcultures (Ross 1989) but with a very different political significance (Medhurst 1997).
Although for some commentators, such as John Caughie (2000), these changes have presaged a decline in quality and a depoliticization of television drama, others have sought to validate the cultural worth of a popular and feminized tradition. In this view the hybrid forms of serial television drama have enabled a progressive exploration of the politics of sexuality in which the norms of heterosexual masculinity have been decentred by a diverse range of political challenges from the margins (Carson and Llewellyn-Jones 2000; Creeber 2001a). Their structure works against the modernist ideal of the ‘progressive text’ in that their multiple narratives and episodic structures allow for the exploration of shifting and marginal social identities, thereby bringing previously hidden aspects of social existence into view and redefining the boundary between the public and the private. However, no form in itself can be labelled as either reactionary or progressive, art or trash. A drama’s meaning and worth will depend on particular audiences and their activation of the text, as was the case with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The investments audiences make in fictional worlds preclude an exclusive focus on textual structures and shift our attention to the importance of context and pleasure in these processes. This is particularly true of postmodem dramatic forms in which intertextuality and multiple narratives, the blurring of boundaries between realism and melodrama, the highbrow and the popular, undermine any unambiguous ideological positioning of the viewer (Carson and Llewellyn-Jones 2000; Creeber 2001a).
The feminist focus of much of this debate receives more extended attention in the next chapter, where it is taken up in relation to US television drama. But here I explore its relevance to the politics of gay representation and compare the potential offered by the diverse forms of the art film, literary adaptations and limited run serials. First, I consider the place assigned to homosexual identities within mainstream heteronormative drama. Then I track the emergence from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s of new forms of gay representation on BBC2 and Channel 4, which also challenged the prevailing hegemony of white identities in British drama. The final section looks at the issues raised by the commodification of gay sexuality in the serial drama Queer as Folk (Channel 4 1999 and 2000; Showtime 2000—). This was hailed by many as a landmark in the history of gay representation, and its focus on white, gay, urban men draws attention to their greater visibility at the expense of other less affluent sexual minorities in the consumer culture of the 1990s.