Words: James Hodge
For LGBTQ+ people today, television is a window into queer life. Whether you’re voting for John and Johannes on Strictly Come Dancing, stanning the runway looks of your favourite queens on Drag Race, or weeping through another incredible transformation from the cast of Queer Eye, we see better representation than ever before.
Imagine how different life was growing up forty years ago. TV programming choices were limited to three channels, households gathered around the one solitary screen in the house to watch together, and there was no opportunity for catchup. The BBC was known for its family broadcasting aimed at predominantly middle-class audiences.
It was the birth of Channel 4 that shook things up in 1982, with the channel's unique public service remit that required the provision of programming to minority groups and the commissioning of independent production companies. It led to programming that was disruptive, took risks and challenged the mainstream. Channel 4 made TV that was diverse, cool - an event.
Many LGBTQ+ people share the memory of creeping down the stairs after their family had gone to bed and turning down the volume to watch Queer As Folk on Channel 4. The series, created by Russell T Davies, was groundbreaking in its realistic representation of gay life. It is remembered on the one hand for its heartwarming storytelling: the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ relationship between promiscuous Stuart and sensitive Vince; the coming out adventures of out-going teen Nathan. On the other, it made headlines for its graphic depictions of queer life – excessive drug-taking, underage sex and that rimming scene.
Queer as Folk (1999)
As a public service broadcaster, Channel 4 has continued to fulfil its remit in ‘creating change through entertainment’. In a televisual landscape littered with endless private streaming, it is one of few remaining institutions that develop new talent, elevate unheard voices, produce challenging and forward-thinking TV, and champion diversity.
This week’s proposal from the Conservative government to privatize Channel 4 would be a travesty for broadcasting, and for nobody more so than the minorities Channel 4 represents, the LGBTQ+ community included. It was created to be publicly owned, serving the interests of the British people, but commercially funded and at no cost to the taxpayer -did you get that, Nadine Dorries? Now, we need to remember what Channel 4 has done for us as a community and consider what we can do to protect it.
Channel 4’s queer programming began in ’89 during the hostile era of Thatcher’s England. Whilst the Conservatives were enacting Section 28, seeking to silence the promotion of LGBTQ+ life, Channel 4 platformed queer voices through the creation of a weekly late-night magazine show – Out On Tuesday. The programme sought to foreground queer cultures, lifestyles, politics and history through discussions with LGBTQ+ figures and included appearances from icons such as Sir Ian McKellen, Audre Lorde, Paul O’Grady and Beatrix Campbell. For the first time, mainstream audiences could learn about the issues and challenges of queer life directly from queer people.
From there, LGBTQ+ programming quickly grew, with Channel 4 producing documentaries, films and dramas that normalised queer life. The number of televisual firsts achieved by the channel is impressive.
In 1985, the Film4-produced My Beautiful Launderette was critically acclaimed for its presentation of an interracial same-sex relationship between the gentle Omar and street-punk Johnny, and was later named one of the 50 most important films of the 20th century.
In 1994, popular soap Brookside featured the first lesbian kiss between fan favourites Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemence, the channel’s decision to broadcast pre-watershed highlighted that this story was not intentionally controversial but sought to normalize relationships between women.
In 1999, Queer As Folk launched Russell T Davies to mainstream success, who has since described the channel as being ‘responsible for (his) entire career’. Channel 4 has continued to celebrate Davies’ work, including his triptych Cucumber / Banana / Tofu, which sought to appeal not only to Davies’ former ‘90s audience but to appeal to and educate the next generation of queer people. More recently, It’s A Sin became one of the most-watched and talked about programmes of 2021, winning numerous awards celebrating its heartbreaking storytelling about the AIDS pandemic.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
In 2000, Big Brother, arguably one of the forefathers of modern reality TV, propelled everyday LGBTQ+ people into the limelight, including 2005 winner, Nadia Almada, who won the hearts of the nation as a proud trans woman. Nadia’s charisma, humour and character led to her from being attacked in the media to someone who could be admired and celebrated regardless of her difference.
The list goes on. I could write about so many televisual classics: the gritty realism of Skins, whose queer characters were voted three of the show's top five most popular in a 2010 Last Broadcast poll; the heady teen romance of Kim and Sugar in Sugar Rush which portrayed female pleasure vividly; the ongoing investment in queer cinema including Bent, Carol and Beautiful Thing; documentaries about queer life on every topic under the sun from sauna culture to the challenges of being a trans parent. It was even the first channel to show Rupaul’s Drag Race in the UK on companion channel, E4, long before its rise to mainstream popularity. The creation of the Pride Collection demonstrates the sheer breadth of work produced by Channel 4 to celebrate our community.
Channel 4 has launched and nurtured prominent LGBTQ+ talent: Paris Lees, Graham Norton, Sue Perkins, Simon Amstell, Alan Carr, Gok Wan and David Hoyle to name just a few. Named one of the most inclusive employers of LGBTQ+ TV makers by Stonewall, it has continued to work to make progress in its portrayal of diversity, working with Trans Media Watch to promote better representation of trans lives and more recently campaigning for better representation of LGBTQ+ people in advertising. The 4Screenwriters programme is one of few professional routes into TV writing and continues to promote queer talent.
As Vince in Queer As Folk once taught us, ‘Stick with your friends and you’ll be fine.’ Channel 4 has always been a friend of LGBTQ+ people, and now, ‘the poofs and the dykes and all the people in between’ must fight for it in return.