The idea behind the brilliant and much-recommended BBC America series Queers is deceptively simple: eight face-to-camera monologues featuring eight brilliant actors bringing to life the imagined experiences of eight (mostly male) gay characters.
Every story is beautifully written and performed; the series premieres at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, National Coming Out Day, and you can binge-watch them all the next day.
These characters’ lives span a century, but the impetus behind the series of monologues, produced and directed by Mark Gatiss, was this year’s 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the U.K.
That decriminalization followed the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report of 10 years previously, yet still left inequality on the statute books: From 1967 until 2001, the age of consent in the U.K. was 21 for gay men and 16 for heterosexuals (lesbianism and female bisexuality were never covered in British law). The law insisted that the sex take place in private abodes and should only feature two participants.
The liberalization was a first step, but homophobia under the law in prosecutions for crimes like gross indecency remained. And public homophobia remained too, especially with the advent of AIDS in the 1980s.
The eight stories of Queers are the human face of a tumultuous gay century, and so as the grand arc of history encircles them, we hear stories of love, desire, sex, shame, resistance, and assertion: a determination to live in times that seem long past.
For younger audiences, it reminds that vibrant, complex LGBT lives were being lived long before there were LGBT characters on film and TV, and indeed long before TV.
The linking element between all the stories is their setting: an old-school pub that, when the show’s titles play, we see populated by ghostly LGBT faces of revels past.
The most modern-set of the Queers monologues is Gareth McLean’s spiky and also moving “Something Borrowed,” which stars Alan Cumming as Steve, a bridegroom preparing his speech for his imminent wedding to partner Adam. Steve wonders what the point of marriage is, and also the significance of stating his love for another man publicly.
How time has flown. Here he planning for his wedding, and yet he can still remember his schooldays—when beatings and homophobia were the norm. McLean, Cumming, and Gatiss produce a beautiful 20 minutes of television in this story, with so much history and so many emotions flickering across Steve’s face.
In Keith Jarrett’s “Safest Spot in Town,” it is 1941 and Fredrick (Kadiff Kirwan), who is black, is reveling in the unexpected delights of the London Blitz. He talks of arriving in Britain three years earlier and the soirees and dalliances he has had. He talks of becoming a life model, the bohemians living in Bloomsbury, and kissing an air raid warden “who tasted of the suburbs, like he had a Hammersmith wife at the back of his throat.”
Jackie Clune’s “The Perfect Gentleman,” set in 1929, features Gemma Whelan as Bobby, spiffily done up in black tie and a dashing gent to the many ladies who fall under his spell.
But Bobby is a woman himself, who loves women, and who loves dressing in the drag of masculinity. “I am not what I seem. I am not a man. I do not wish to be a man. I am very much female.”
The thorn is the women she falls for, and who eventually find out that she is a woman herself. Who have they fallen in love with? She fucks one using a candle which eventually falls off, leading her female partner to think something terrible has happened with Bobby’s penis. “Who are you? What are you?” this lady asks, and a neat twist in the tale at the end points to an unexpected future.
In Michael Dennis’ “A Grand Day Out,” Fionn Whitehead is 17-year-old Andrew, who has traveled to London for the historic day that Parliament first lowered the gay age of consent, to 18, not 16. That fudged move toward equality led to unrest that night, an emotional mood heightened by the death of the filmmaker Derek Jarman.
Andrew, like all the characters in the series, is finely drawn—his story a human mix of comedy and drama told with both wit and pathos. He is not a political cypher, he is not a walking Wikipedia entry; he is an individual drawn at a particular moment in time. He described the mood of the crowd outside Parliament, and how the unrest was misrepresented in the mainstream press the next day.
But that day Andrew also met someone, Marcus. It’s not the first guy he has had had sex with, but it is the first guy who he has observed sleeping next to him, the nape of his neck a thing of stunning beauty. His only worry, until it suddenly isn’t, is whether his parents saw him on TV demonstrating outside the Commons, and if they did, do they now know that he is gay.
Gatiss himself wrote “The Man on the Platform,” set in 1917 with Ben Whishaw as Perce, a handsome bearded soldier returning from war. He meditates on how gay men know one another, and concludes it is in the maintaining of eye contact for a second longer than normal; “a certain liquidity of the eye,” he calls it.
Then he remembers the solder he fell in love with in the trenches of the First World War, “his lips dark and full like bramble.”
This is a love story, with a Brief Encounter overtone, as its conclusion takes place at a train station with one of the men on a departing train and the other on the platform—and the passionate kiss they share as steam courses around them.
Brian Fillis’ “More Anger” starring Russell Tovey (Looking), sees the handsome actor playing Phil, an actor in 1987 with his peroxided quiff peeping from beneath his beanie.
The title comes from what a director asks of Phil in an AIDS-themed drama, and it is ironic because away from the camera, there is an immense amount of anger, grief, and pain gay men are feeling as their friends and loved ones die while the government does little and the tabloids judge and whip up hate. More anger? You got it.
Phil also dryly runs through the gay characters we began to see on TV at the time, and that he played; the dying victim, the caustic queen, and then the safe and upstanding soap opera character—conceived as such to win the hearts and minds of a mainstream TV audience, yet shorn of all the color and passion of a human being.
You will be moved, unexpectedly, by the framing of Jon Bradfield’s “Missing Alice,” which features Rebecca Front’s Alice in 1957, talking about what it is like being married to a closeted gay man, Michael. Upon discovering the truth, Alice says, “I go from feeling fat to feeling fucking stupid.”
This kind of story is rarely told, and you come to really believe that Michael is gay, but that Alice and Michael really love each other. The week that Alice is talking to us is the week of the publication of the Wolfenden Report. Alice is incredulous that surely this won’t lead to men and men living together as ordinary couples, yet her tone and her eyes tell us she knows that of course it will lead to that, and so it may lead to Michael finally leaving her.
Would that we could all be Jackie (Ian Gelder) in “I Miss The War,” Matthew Baldwin’s wonderful story following an older guy observing the social change of the late 1960s explode around him—not least the decriminalization of homosexuality itself which is happening that very week.
Here Jackie is, in the pub he goes to after work to cruise and hopefully bed younger men, and relating his many and varied sexual exploits using the gay language of “Polari” of the time: all “bona eek” and the like, made popular in the BBC radio show Round The Horne, which ran between 1965 and 1968.
Jackie recalls London in 1932 when he was a young man, and becoming a young hustler, or a rent boy/rent woman in the parlance of the time, sucking off clergymen and others in public toilets.
He also remembers meeting a beautiful American, who he spent a magical day with. The propriety and equality that the new law brings he feels hostile to. He liked being an outlaw, or as he puts it, an eel swimming in the cold depths of a lake with other eels bumping into one another with mud swirling around them, happily and undisturbed in their own world.
Jackie is unapologetically himself, defying every kind of categorization, and keen to have as much sex and stake his own place in a society regardless of the legal and other labels it confers upon him. Proud and queer, in the best way.