Quality drama: the politics of difference
The institutional space for lesbian and gay drama on Channel 4 is distinct from that on BBC2, the other minority channel on terrestrial television in the UK. It was based from the beginning on a very different conception of public service broadcasting from the
BBC. Discussing the Annan report that preceded the formation of Channel 4 in 1982, Caughie comments on the contrast with Pilkington: ‘Just as the Pilkington committee had established a discourse about the place of broadcasting which can be identified by certain key terms – “seriousness of purpose”, “the sins of trivialization”, “challenging” – so the Annan committee seemed to initiate a new discourse which had as its central terms “openness”, “plurality”, “diversity”’ (Caughie 2000: 186). The Wednesday Play had acquired its worth from criteria based in class distinctions, as part of a strategy for bringing challenging theatre to a wider audience via live studio recordings, whereas Channel 4’s differentiated address has always been defined in relation to other forms of social difference, and in relation to film rather than theatrical or literary traditions (Caughie 2000: 179-202). Channel 4’s remit was to cater for audiences not served by the mainstream commercial channel, to encourage innovation and experimentation, to encourage wider access to programme-making for underrepresented groups.
During the 1980s, Channel 4 was sheltered from the full effects of its free market structure by its uncommercial remit, and a system of finance in which its advertising space was sold by ITV, which financed Channel 4 with a levy, thus guaranteeing a minimum level of funding. This freed Channel 4 to experiment. With no studio space to fill and with cameras becoming ever more portable, there was the chance for a new television aesthetic to be developed, one influenced by the traditions of art film and experimental video. The channel’s first gay season of programmes, called In the Pink (1986), included two art films by the gay film director Derek Jarman: Jubilee and Sebastion. Channel 4’s structure of independent production companies bidding for commissions from the channel allowed an influx of people who had never worked in television before. Among these the Franchised Workshops, set up with joint funding from the Greater London Council, were often based around the notion of speaking from a particular community, whether defined by sexuality, ethnicity or gender. One of these, Sankofa, was a collective of black British film-makers with a background in art who explored ways to portray hybrid ethnic identities, especially those of black British gay men. Their ambitious but only partially successful low-budget film, Passion of Remembrance (Blackwood and Julien 1986), uses an avant-garde aesthetic to question the stereotypes of black masculinity in ways that were completely outside the mainstream of racial and sexual politics at that time (Mercer 1988; Parmar 1990; Hall 1996).
It mixes a stylistic heritage from the modernist avant-garde with acts of remembering that are part of the movement to reclaim a black history. Three quite different narrative strands are juxtaposed. One shows a black woman arguing with a black man in an abstract desert, questioning her exclusion from the black power movement as they are circled by a 360-degree camera pan. Another presents scenes from the everyday lives of a black household and traces their differences – including those created by the younger generation’s gay sexuality. A third is a montage of video images taken of political demonstrations that various characters watch and comment upon. It exposes the differences within the black ‘community’ and it signals a new ‘politics of articulation’ to replace the ‘politics of identity’; that is, political alliances based on shared political interests rather than on essentialized categories. ‘Maggie is it true you ’re a lesbian? What have gay marches got to do with black struggle?’ someone asks as they watch the video images of a demonstration. This differentiation among the characters expresses the concern of the film-makers to speak from, rather than for, the black community. They draw attention to differences within ethnic groups, including differences in gender and sexual orientation, while still seeking the grounds for a shared politics of resistance (Williamson 1986).
Experimental forms do not attract large audiences. Broadcast in the ‘graveyard slot’ of 11.00 p. m. on Monday, these films were on the margins of the schedule, a space that disappeared in the 1990s when the workshop funding ceased. ‘They became a charitable anachronism in a market economy’ (Caughie 2000: 200). In Caughie’s view, their loss marked the end of an alternative form of television drama that enabled experimentation and complexity freed from commercial constraints – a truly oppositional space. Judith Williamson, writing in 1988, was more ambivalent about the political usefulness of these spaces. Her doubts presaged a transition in left-wing cultural politics, a move away from experimental forms that appeal to a minority. Williamson (1988) dared to question the point of these films when no one watches them except an educated elite with the acquired cultural capital. She argued for the left to ‘reclaim certain kinds of pleasurable cinematic experience’ in order to communicate with more people (ibid.: 111-12).
The film she used as a comparison was My Beautiful Laundrette (directed by Frears 1985, broadcast on Channel 4 1987), written by Hanif Kureishi. It was a huge success at the box office and helped to establish the reputation of Film on Four, a company owned by Channel 4, for quality films about contemporary British society. It combines political relevance with popular accessibility in its focus on the hybrid sexual and ethnic identities of an entrepreneurial Asian family. At the centre of the story is the relationship between Omar, who manages one of the family businesses (a laundrette) in South London, and Johnny, an old school friend turned ‘skinhead’ whose racist friends eventually provoke violence. It places these personal stories in the precise political context of Thatcherism and explores the ambivalent position inhabited by Asian businessmen in a simultaneously racist and entrepreneurial culture. The complexity of this politics of race, sexuality and enterprise in contemporary British society is expressed through a mixture of naturalism, comedy and the surreal in a loosely resolved episodic narrative. Arguably, this hybrid and open narrative form is what enables the expression of hybrid subject positions without the impenetrability or didacticism of modernist aesthetics. The bigger budget also allows for the sort of visual pleasures that attract a much wider audience and, potentially, international distribution (Carson and Llewellyn-Jones 2000). It uses the visual and narrative traditions of sexual portrayal in film romance. ‘In some ways it’s an absolutely classic romance. You’re just dying for those people to kiss, but they’re both men and one is black and the other is white’ (Williamson 1988: 111).
A few years later the BBC produced The Buddha of Suburbia (BBC2 1993), a four – part serial adapted from Hanif Kureishi’s novel, which also includes scenes of interracial gay sex in a rescripting of romance conventions. This follows the ‘coming of age’ adventures of a young man, Karim, of mixed ‘race’ parentage, whose ambitions to be an actor take him away from the suburban milieu of his family home and into the bohemian cultures of London’s theatre scene. It presents a simultaneously critical and nostalgic parody of the sexually permissive bohemian culture of the 1970s in which there is an oscillation between emotional empathy and intellectual distance from the characters and events portrayed. It also mildly satirizes the colonial ideologies that underpin British fascination with Indian culture, as portrayed in the ‘heritage’ dramas that had emerged in the 1980s. Its suburban London setting emphasizes the ludicrousness of the encounter, not only on the part of the English, but in the ways that Karim’s Indian father plays up to his role as mystic guru and lover. In fact, by playing off the two worlds against each other, it offers the kind of carnivalesque parody that Bakhtin (1984) admired for its levelling effect, in which everyone’s pretensions are reduced by laughter. ‘Every parody is an intentionally dialogised hybrid. Within it language and styles actively and mutually illuminate one another’ (Rose 1993: 154).
The political ambivalence of the drama is apparent in the debates that have emerged around Karim, the main character. The drama is open to very different readings depending on which aspects are emphasized. Bruce Carson (2000), for example, argues that in the television version, the loss of the first person perspective and the effect of the camera reduce the novel’s satiric distance and instead reproduce rather than satirize our fetishistic relation to Karim’s racialized sexual allure. Carson draws on the postcolonial critique of the racialized power relations of colonialism, which have had such a strong effect on film and photographic conventions and how we read them. In his view, it is Karim’s exoticized ‘otherness’ that allows him to be positioned as the passive sexualized object of a more powerful white gaze. This position is enhanced by his feminized dress as he takes on the stylistic flamboyance of an androgynous 1970s bohemianism. This is in a context where the erotic gaze at white male bodies is still very rare outside adverts, music videos and gay male pornography. My own reading, however, is that this fetishization is then subjected to an explicit critique of this viewing relation. We are invited to laugh at the ‘right on’ white theatre director, who despite his professed radicalism positions Karim as an exoticized and erotic projection of his own imaginings about Indian culture. This culminates in a scene where Karim is persuaded to join him in a group sex encounter with his wife.
David Oswell (1998), on the other hand, offers a reading of Buddha of Suburbia as ‘a postmodern romance’. He emphasizes its ‘queer’ portrayal of a fluid sexuality, unconstrained by the boundaries of race, class, gender or, indeed, geography. This undermines any sense that his sexual allure has rendered him powerless. Karim’s journey of discovery opens up the possibility of self-fashioning in a spirit of postmodern openness of potential identities. Karim’s ‘queer’ indeterminancy of sexual orientation – he declares at one point ‘I’ll fuck anyone’, and, as Oswell comments, ‘we do indeed see that this is the case’ – is related to his racial positioning as ‘in between’ Indian and white identity, in a hybrid mix that unsettles his gender position as well as his sense of ethnic belonging.
Karim, in Oswell’s view, is on a flight from identity, and the boundaries that constrain who he can be and whom he can love. This includes the geographical boundaries of the city, as Karim finds a world of metropolitan sophistication once he becomes a theatre actor. But this isn’t presented as an antithesis to the suburbs. Here too he has to fight against being racially stereotyped, not only in a production of Kipling’s Jungle Book but also in the improvised experimental theatre work he then moves into. We are also encouraged to stand back from the stereotypical view of the uniform suburbs. Although the city is full of sexual possibilities, including the rather comically presented group sex scene, Karim’s experience of sex in the suburbs is equally diverse. His homosexual encounter with Charlie takes place in the attic of the suburban home Charlie shares with his mother. It forces a recognition of suburbia as visibly hybrid in its sexual practices, rather than secretive, uniform and normalized (Oswell 1998: 166-9).
The question that arises with Karim, and with queer politics more generally, is whether his resistance to categorization and conformity is reduced to an individualism that rejects any politics of group identity. Karim certainly seems uncomfortable with each of the communities he encounters and by the end his endless reinvention of the self is itself subject to critique. Oswell points to the final episode where Jamila confronts Karim for not attending an anti-fascist demonstration. ‘Where are you going Karim – as a person?’ she asks him. In his final conversation with the now successful pop star Charlie, Karim realizes he no longer admires or loves him. When Charlie declares, in a presaging of the Thatcher era, ‘Money is all there is’, he replies, ‘I used to think that pleasure was all there was – when my father talked about the spirit I thought it was all bullshit.’ In these exchanges, Oswell argues, the drama recognizes the limitations and costs of being queer – all the people left behind and all the failures to commit to anything or anyone beyond the self in the journey to self-realization – that in the end produces no resistance to the pleasure-seeking, materialist values of consumer capitalism (Oswell 1998: 171).
In the same way as Karim, we as viewers are encouraged to be critically reflexive and open to forming new identifications, as when our fetishizing gaze at the racialized other is followed by a critical awareness of that position. This mix of possible erotic and political investments makes any prediction of the text’s ideological effects problematic and historically contingent. Oswell cites Joseph Bristow’s notion of texts as a ‘cruising zone’ that allows audiences to make a series of imaginative identifications and form themselves in the process. But this openness raises the same questions for us as for Karim. In the depoliticized discourse of postmodern culture is there a failure to commit to anything or anyone beyond our own pleasure? In this way Buddha of Suburbia explores whether the rejection of essentialized identities simply leads back to a depoliticized individualism rather than a politics of identity that recognizes the complex articulation of multiple identifications.