Out for the weekend
Coming out in the cosy world of sitcom is never easy. Just ask Ellen DeGeneres. But as fans of Are You Being Served? know, British innuendo has been camping up the genre for years.
Words: Eddie Gibb
You haven‘t really come out as a gay women in Hollywood until you‘ve been kissed by kd lang. and after months of audience-boostings will-she-won‘t- she speculation. comedian Ellen DeGeneres was finally given a very public blessing by America‘s
favourite lipstick lesbian. This followed the outing of
her character Ellen in the self-titled sitcom. whose ratings were in dire need of a publicity boost.
As Tick/ed Pink. a documentary shown as part of
Channel 4‘s Sireonz Weekend. makes clear. American television comedy has long had gay characters. though usually played by straight actors. Billy Crystal was one of the first gay regular characters in the sitcom. Soap. which ran from I978. But Ellen DeGeneres is the first lead to come out. though Roseanne has flirted with the whole lesbian chic thing plenty of times in her show. She notched up a TV first by introducing the first gay grandmother. which is perhaps a sign that this whole business is about finding a new gimmick rather than positive role models.
According to Tick/ed Pink. it has become easier
for writers and producers to come out in recent years. which has resulted in a whole slew of gay storylines in American sitcoms. A recent survey suggested there were currently around twenty regular gay and lesbian characters in television comedies. For actors it‘s a trickier business. however. and the advice from agents seems to be. if you are gay. stick to playing straight characters unless you want typecast.
Although the kind of publicity
76 rususr 16~29 May 1997
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'The British are masters of innuendo because they don’t want to say it, John Inman
Ellen: TV's most famous lesbian
accompanied Ellen DeGeneres‘s TV outing makes it hard to call it a risk. a couple of advertisers withdrew sponsorship from the show and right-wing preacher Reverend Jerry Falwell was moved to call her ‘Ellen DeGenerate’. Bet she hasn't heard that one before. but aside from the lameness of Falwell‘s own gags. the pressure on American TV networks to stay conservative can’t be under-estimated. DeGeneres now has to decide whether to increase the ‘gayness‘ of her show. and risk incurring further protests. or let the storyline fizzle out. and be accused of going for a quick publicity fix.
An interesting contrast with American 'l‘V‘s handling of sexuality is provided by another programme from the Sitcom W'ekend. Hos Anyone Seen My Pussv? Presented by Julian Clary. naturally it shows how innuendo was for years the fall-back position (oh. I say!) whenever inspiration failed. The tit-and-todger obsession of shows like Up Pompeii! and Are You Being Served." featured an equal- opportunities approach to sexual innuendo where gay — or at least camp — men were a very recognisable comedy type.
‘I think the British are masters of innuendo because they don't want to say it.’ says John Inman. who minced his way through several series of Are You Being Served." ‘l have always been quite adamant that Mr Humphries llnman‘s character] was not gay.‘ It's hard to believe that audiences were fooled. but it‘s true that kind of camp capering had a kind of pantomime quality which was divorced from anything consenting adults might be doing behind closed doors.
While American television seems to think it is being awfully grown-up by depicting homosexuality in a frank. open way. it may find in the long run that there are more laughs to be bad if its characters are kept peeking otit of the closet. British sitcom writers have always known that repression and humour are comfortable bedfellows. Ellen DeGeneres may have won the applause of the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for her positive portrayal of lesbian women on prime-time television. but is that the same as funny?
Sitcom Weekend runs Sat 24/Sun 25 May on Channel 4: Tickled Pink is on Sat 24 at 8.55pm: Has Anyone Seen My Pussy! is on Sat 24 at 10.45pm.
Short And Curlies Channel 4, starting Thurs 22 May.
Fascism and racism are dominant themes in the final, powerful series of Channel 4's one-off, eleven- minute dramas, Short And Curlies. The five films begin in relatively light vein, with Kfir Yefet and Asmaa Pirzada's It’s Not Unusual. Meera Syal stars as a widowed Asian cabbie whose Tom Jones obsession finds unexpected fruition. Although trite and corny, the film winningly exposes the difficulties faced by British Asian women, and features enjoyable cameos by soap kings John McArdle and Leslie Grantham.
Actor David Thewlis (Naked) making his writer/directorial debut was bound to attract attention, and Hello, Hello, Hello is well worth a look. An intelligent slice of urban satire, it centres on the encounter between a beleaguered artist (Kathy Burke) and a bad cop (Robert Pugh), whose vicious streak proves to stem from artistic and existential frustration.
Darker still is Jonathan Hacker’s The Short Walk, in which Scottish actor David Hayman plays an International Brigade officer sentenced to death by the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Few words are spoken, but Hayman's understated performance creates a riveting intensity.
Another Scottish actor, Ewen Bremner, adopts a London accent for Skin, a disturbing fable about a BNP disciple who receives a sadistic and humiliating come-uppance from a black neighbour. Luridly directed by Vincent O’Connell, this compelling tale by Sarah Kane is filled with horrors, but concludes with a sprinkling of hope.
Finally comes Take Pity, another fable set in a dingy Jewish afterlife, where a well-to-do coffee salesman describes his thwarted attempts to rescue a widowed Polish refugee from poverty. Based on a Bernard Malamud short story, Daniel I Kleinmann’s film makes beautiful , use of the medium, neatly interweaving two timeframes and i several locations, as the old man (a
touching performance by Ron 2 Moody) relates his strange tale to a firm but fair Bernard Hepton.
Short And Curlies is to be replaced with a Channel 4/BBC initiative ; called Brief Encounters. It’s good to see it conclude with such superior material. (Andrew Burnet)
. A Ewen Bremner: starring in Channel 4's Short And Curlies