Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Manchester Boy: Russell T Davies Favors His Current City over London, and Flawed Gays over Paragons of TV Virtue

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Manchester Boy: Russell T Davies Favors His Current City over London, and Flawed Gays over Paragons of TV Virtue

Article excerpt

Sitting down to a gay-themed TV show has often meant watching with one eye closed--figuratively, at least-so as not to notice certain glaring problems. The most common annoyances are characters who bear no resemblance to any queer person, living or dead, who seem to have been created solely because a certain body type or subculture needs to be represented in order to attract viewers, and predictable, politically correct plotting, which appears to have been shaped by a desire to avoid negative feedback from "the community" rather than an active desire to tell an interesting story.

Go ahead: Try to think of a gay show that doesn't suffer from those flaws. If you succeeded, there's a good chance the program you have in mind was created by Welshman Russell T Davies.

Davies is responsible for the original Queer as Folk, which aired in Britain in 1999 and 2000; 2001's Bob a Rose, a romcom about a gay man and a straight woman who fall in love; and two intersecting series that aired in the United States on Logo in 2015: Cucumber, about the troubled relationship of Henry and Lance, a middle-aged gay couple, and Banana, which focuses on the larger LGBT community they're part of. And that's just his explicitly queer output: As one of Britain's most productive and successful TV writers and show runners, Davies also counts among his achievements reviving the fabled Doctor Who franchise in 2005 and creating two spin-offs: The Sarah Jane Adventures, for children, and Torchwood, featuring omnisexual time traveler Capt. Jack Harkness, for adults.

How has Davies managed to avoid the pitfalls that typically beset gay TV shows? His work is idiosyncratic, but anyone who wants to make entertaining, surprising shows can learn from his example.

First and foremost, he's a provocateur. Davies loves to put prickly protagonists into politically problematic situations. From Stuart in Queer as Folk to Henry in Cucumber, Davies has created a string of exasperatingly annoying characters. Stuart was selfish, irresponsible, and utterly irresistible; Henry was self-absorbed, oblivious, and totally real.

Likewise, Davies's version of LGBT life rarely follows the right-on script. The very concept of Bob a Rose (which can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube) seems designed to launch a protest campaign, but the show is grounded in such specific, complex characterizations that it makes nonsense of complaints that its central relationship questions the true nature of sexual orientation. Bob a Rose isn't hostile to bisexuality, but the script makes it clear that even after he falls for Rose, Bob still identifies as a gay man: "I'm gay now. I'll die gay. I'll have a gay headstone!" he yells in frustration at one point. As with so many of the controversial elements of Davies's shows, the relationship is based on an incident from his own life, when one of his friends--"the gayest man you'll ever meet in the world," Davies told a journalist in 2000--fell in love with a woman.

There's a similar ripped-from-real-life background to the episode of Banana in which it's revealed that the sad story a young gay man repeatedly tells his friends--that his parents kicked him out when they learned he was gay--is a complete fabrication.

"I met that boy a thousand million times," Davies told me earlier this year. "Some young people have a terrible time and suffer and should be supported in all sorts of ways, but that's not the only story." Davies is always willing to risk knee-jerk objections to sensitive story lines, feinting down a familiar dramatic path only to take an unexpected turn. …

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