Matthew Bell hears how shows such as Coronation Street and EastEnders are leading the way in depicting LGBTQ characters
British soaps have made huge strides in portraying the lives and loves of gay characters since the genre’s first on-screen kiss in EastEnders three decades ago.
But the fight against prejudice is not yet won, argued a panel of experts at an RTS early-evening event earlier this summer. The panel – which brought together actors, writers and producers from Coronation Street, EastEnders, Emmerdale and Hollyoaks – was chaired by TV presenter June Sarpong. Recently, she has appeared on the weekly Sky News discussion show The Pledge.
“Soaps are incredibly powerful in terms of being able to get a message out and in changing people’s perceptions,” said Daniel Brocklebank, who plays gay vicar Billy Mayhew in Coronation Street.
We don’t set out to shock; we set out to entertain, because, ultimately, we are a soap and we want to be good TV
Brocklebank recalled being one half of the first gay snog in another ITV soap, Emmerdale, 12 years ago. “Now, as I’m playing a vicar, the reaction predominately comes from very religious people who don’t believe the clergy can be gay – whereas the reaction before was about the fact that it was two boys kissing.
“So we’ve definitely moved [forward] in that time – but not far enough, [going by] the negative responses that we’ve had about Corrie.”
A scene last year, involving Mayhew and Todd Grimshaw kissing on a bed, provoked a “huge homophobic response” after the show aired, said Brocklebank. “Michael Cashman, who gave the first gay kiss [in a British soap, in 1987, as Colin in EastEnders] messaged me that night and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re having to put up with the same shit that I was putting up with 30 years ago.’”
Pete Lawson, a writer on EastEnders since 2008, discussed the storylines he has created for the BBC One soap. “I’m always looking for what hasn’t been shown and what hasn’t been told,” he said.
“We don’t set out to shock; we set out to entertain, because, ultimately, we are a soap and we want to be good TV. But we want to show the reality of the world that we all live in.”
Oliver Kent, head of continuing drama series at BBC Studios, agreed, adding: “It’s hugely important that we tell stories about contemporary Britain as it really looks, and that includes characters of every sexual persuasion.
“If we set out to shock, we’d fall on our arse,” he went on. The stories had to “come from character first. We’re on telly four, five nights a week all year round, and we can tell stories slowly in a way that seeps into people’s consciousness.
“If it ever feels like we’re pushing an agenda, it will feel bogus and the audience can tell straight away. It’s about authenticity and truth.”
Bryan Kirkwood, executive producer of Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, noted that it was part of his channel’s remit “to deliver shows for a minority audience”, adding: “I think it is our responsibility to deliver storylines for a young LGBT audience [so they can] see themselves reflected [on TV] for the first time.”
Hollyoaks is well known for tackling difficult and sensitive issues. “The reason we get away with so much is because nobody has ever told us to stop,” he said to audience laughter.
“We’ve got a broad diversity of LGBT characters,” continued Kirkwood, “but with every character [in the soap] their sexuality should be the fifth- or sixth-most interesting thing about them.” This was true of Hollyoaks character Sally St Claire, played by Annie Wallace.
“She’s a headmistress, who nurtures her kids and really cares about her job,” said the actor. “Most of my storylines are school-based, and I like it that she is destigmatised. It’s really important that she’s [seen on the soap] being a success.”
Emmerdale series producer Iain MacLeod discussed his soap’s gay couple, Aaron Dingle and Robert Sugden, arguing that they “entirely transcend people’s conceptions of sexuality. The way they’ve been taken to the audience’s heart is like nothing I’ve ever encountered before. It’s purely down to it being a love story.”
Nevertheless, he added, gay storylines still lead “an unpleasantly large minority of viewers” to complain.
Are there any limits to the types of stories soaps can portray? “Most things that occur in the world can be played in soap,” concluded MacLeod, “albeit it with some delicacy.”
‘LGBTQ in soap: job done?’ was held in partnership with ITV and Pride in the City at The Hospital Club in central London on 12 July. The event was produced by Angela Ferreira and Jonathan Simon.
Wallace: life as a transgender actor
Before she landed the role of Sally St Claire in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks, Annie Wallace worked on ITV’s Coronation Street as a consultant on the storyline featuring Roy and Hayley Cropper, the first transgender character in a British soap.
Her advice, Wallace said at the RTS event, involved ‘giving [the producers] my own life. I told them things that had happened to me; things I had come up against that had affected me emotionally’.
In 2015, Wallace became the first transgender actor to play a regular transgender character in a British soap. "It was a closing of the circle –I was there helping with the first trans character, and then to be the first [trans actor] in soap was an honour and a privilege," she said.
"As a trans person, to play this role is very important to me because it’s reality within fiction. There are young people who have approached or messaged me who are getting a lot from Sally and are seeing her as a role model, not just as a trans role model, but as a teacher."
Wallace discussed whether transgender roles should be reserved for trans actors. "There’s a big argument for that," she said, but conceded that it was also a ‘grey area’.
One example was Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the trans artist Lili Elbe in the film The Danish Girl. "For most of the film, he played the character of Einar Wegener, who became Lili. I think there is a case for non-trans actors to play the story of transition – that’s valid," said Wallace.
"If you were to ask a trans person to play their pre-transition self, that would be difficult and a bit odd, although I’m not saying it would be impossible.
"But if you are writing a post-transition trans character, I think there’s a duty now for casting directors to cast their net [widely].
"Until a few years ago, we weren’t visible, either because nobody was interested in talking to us or because, like myself, we kept our heads down and didn’t come out.
"More and more trans performers are coming out of the woodwork," she continued, "and are having the confidence to say, 'I am a trans actor.'"
Brocklebank on playing gay roles
Actor Daniel Brocklebank has featured in Emmerdale and Coronation Street. From 2005, he played bisexual dustman Ivan Jones in the rural soap; currently, he is Corrie’s gay vicar, Billy Mayhew.
"I came out publicly in 1998," he recalled. "I was advised not to by my management because I was working a lot in the States.
"They basically said: 'If you come out, you’re not going to work.' So I said: 'I don’t want to work here. I’ll go back to the UK.'"
Discussing the risk of being typecast as a gay actor, Brocklebank said: "I play all sorts of characters but there’s something wonderful about being able to represent [my community].
"I’ve had experiences where I’ve met a mum in tears, thanking me for being so visible, because it’s helped her son come out. [At times like that] you realise it’s worth putting yourself up on a platform and potentially risking your future casting.
"I was once a terrified 12-year-old with nobody to talk to or for me to look at [on TV] and think, 'That’s me.'"
Question and answer
How do you represent homophobia in your storylines without playing into the hands of bigots in the audience?
Bryan Kirkwood: We’ve got a new villain coming [into Hollyoaks] who is a homophobe.… What you don’t want to do is to portray a voice that is appealing to an audience – [this new character] is a bad bastard.
Pete Lawson: You bring the argument on to the screen and make that your drama; you don’t pretend homophobia doesn’t exist.
How can we ensure that soaps also cater for black and minority ethnic LGBTQ audiences?
Iain MacLeod: Cast the net wider in looking for new characters. The challenge that soaps face all the time in representing any kind of minority community is making sure that it doesn’t look like tokenism.… It’s a very writer-driven process. So, if a writer brings you a good story you, as a producer, rubber stamp it and put it on the television.
The moment you take a sub-standard story on the basis that you’re trying to push a particular diversity angle, and put that on the TV, the audience can smell it as bogus. [You have] to find the right stories to bring these characters naturally into the show.
Are you ever told by your channel that you can’t run a particular storyline?
Oliver Kent: [The BBC] would never do that.
Iain MacLeod: In fact, [ITV] actively encourages us to look for broader and more diverse characters with which to tell our stories – it’s quite the opposite. We rarely get told, “No”.
June Sarpong: Soap is way ahead of traditional drama – it leads the way, where diversity is concerned.
Do you fear a backlash against LGBTQ rights?
Iain MacLeod: The terrible irony for homophobes is that, the louder they shout, the more of the stuff they don’t like they will get. Generally, when you read complaints made to Ofcom or emails to the duty log that are in that vein… it makes you want to stick up two big dramatic fingers at them and keep on doing what you’re doing.
Annie Wallace: In terms of the trans character experience, the public acceptance [of it] has been wonderful… but there’s a very small minority who are very vocal and they are all over the internet [claiming] that [being] trans is a phoney experience. A lot of it, unfortunately, is coming from within the LGBT community… but does that stop what we do? Of course not, we keep on.
Pete Lawson: We always have to be aware that, just because some voices are loudest, it doesn’t mean that they’re the majority. On social media, it’s very easy for a small number of people to be really vocal and antagonistic… and there are some papers that will treat that as a news story… [about] the British people being up in arms. No, they’re not – it’s just [a few] angry people.