Queer as Old Folk
“A wonderful collection of stories in Andy Wells’s Queer as Old Folk.” – The Times
Also last night, a wonderful collection of stories in Andy Wells’s Queer as Old Folk on Channel 4. Alan and Jimmy, for example, were about to get married after 43 years together but had never kissed because Jimmy’s mother had told him that’s how you got diseases. Then there was Roger and Ian, 39 years separating them, touring Ian’s stripper act to hen parties. Moving, funny and candid – and Alan finally kissed Jimmy after they exchanged vows.
This frank documentary explores the present-day lives and relationships of gay men who came of age when homosexuality was still illegal before 1967. ‘Forty years ago,’ it begins, ‘Britain was in the grip of a sexual revolution, but only if you were straight. Before 1967, gay men could be imprisoned for having sex. While some gay men have always lived their lives openly, others had the best of both worlds: marriage with gay sex on the side. . . It’s taken 40 years, but at last the revolution is reaching the men who are now as queer as folk.’
Having established its theme, the programme goes on to interweave remarkably intimate portraits of individuals who have lived through the bad, oppressive times, enduring all the cruel abuse and prejudice that went with them, and emerged finally into a more liberal Britain.
It’s shocking too, on account of the insights it provides into male homosexual life. For example there’s the voracious sexual appetite – ‘In the last two weeks I’ve had sex 100 times with at least 70 different people and in the past two years the total must be 800 – 1,000’ – admitted to casually by 58-year-old Clive (above, far right), who came out to his wife two years ago. ‘I knew when I got married,’ he says, ‘that I had that within me. But the whole of society was saying it was wrong, the whole of society expected you to get married, produce children etc. That’s what my parents wanted.’
We also meet 73-year-old Alan. At 27, he was left heartbroken after the break-up of his first long-term relationship. But then he met Jimmy, and 40 years on they are still together, and now that the law’s changed, they can finally get married.
There are other examples here of gay men who made choices about their sex lives and sexual identities before 1967, and for several decades simply lived with the consequences of these choices. A stark reminder of the harm closed, frightened minds can do.
Queer As Old Folk (Channel 4) looked at various older gay men who had experienced life in Britain before and after the legislation that finally decriminalised their sexual orientation just 40 years ago.
Roger, 64, is a former headmaster who lived a double life until he divorced his wife (who knew about his other inclinations – “It didn’t seem to be an issue with her”) and is now civilly partnered with 25-year-old former pupil Ian. Ian looks like Michelangelo’s David, which is lucky as he works as a stripper. Roger acts as his manager, largely because there are not many other people Ian trusts to wrap an elastic band round his penis to maintain that all-important professional erection, or remove it backstage after the show. Greater love hath no man than that he will let another wield the scissors quite so near his genitals.
Clive only came out to himself and his wife two years ago, at the age of 56. Since then, he has been enjoying the teenage experimentation he didn’t have first time round. So far, he’s dropped eight stone (gone is the need for comfort eating), had sex with about 1,000 men and is looking for a flat of his own. As well as the exuberance of a teenager suddenly alive to a world of possibilities once denied him, there is the selfishness of the adolescent about Clive. He is still living in the marital home while he does his making up for lost time, and his wife declined to take part in the programme. And although he does tearfully acknowledge her generosity, you do notice that he’s still not moving out.
Alan and Jimmy, both in their 70s, have been together for 43 years. Alan’s “wonderful mother” always accepted her son, and he has been openly gay all his life. But he was a fortunate exception. They lost a lot of closeted friends to suicide in the unforgiving 1950s. But now they are getting married in Tenerife. “Silly old sod,” said Alan, as Jimmy pottered round the house they have shared for 25 years. “I wouldn’t swap him for anyone else. I’ll never stop loving him.” They donned their wedding suits. “Come on my flower,” said Jimmy. And they stepped out into the Spanish sunshine.
Intimate stories from gay men who made choices about their sexual identities before legislation in 1967, and how they (and in some cases their wives and children) lived with the consequences. Seventy-three-year-old Alan came out in his teens. His mum said it was ok to be gay as long as he was in love and “didn’t kiss on the lips”. He and his partner Jimmy have been together for 40 years, and now that the law’s changed, they can finally get married. A touching and honest film that adds another important chapter to the narrative of gay Britain.
Not many heterosexual men over 40, I would judge, are wholly comfortable with homosexuality. It feels too short a time, from poof jokes to gay acceptance: still ineradicably in the lower levels of the mind are the stereotypes of the family, playground and pub. Cut in young, these grooves – if covered with the masking tape of liberal attitude – are embedded deeper than reason.
Channel 4’s week of programmes marking the 40 years since the passage of the Sexual Offences Act allowed consenting gay sex for the over 21s, was made for my band of queasy straight brothers. Reason, human sympathy and example have changed generations of (mainly passive) bigots: we have argued ourselves, or been argued, out of cruelty. But we still needed this inspired week of programming.
I began a sceptic. The statement made in How Gay Sex Changed the World (C4 Tuesday 11.05pm) – that the liberation of gays was the liberation of us all – struck me as implausible. What have the gays done for us? Moved us, maybe? The drama/ documentary A Very British Sex Scandal (C4 Saturday July 21, 9.00pm) told the story of Peter Wildeblood, diplomatic correspondent of the Daily Mail, who was tried in 1954 with his friend, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu for the crime of buggery. They and one other were convicted: in large part, as the film tells it, because Wildeblood responded to the direct question: “Are you a homosexual?” with a tremulous “Yes”. It moved as good TV dramas should: strong in plot and character, and here given depth by the cut-in testimonies of gay men who remembered the times of empty marriages, furtive meetings in parks and public toilets, the fear (and the reality) of the police smashing through the door. Wildeblood was convicted because his letters to his RAF lover were intercepted, read and passed on by the military police: a Stalinist procedure regarded as necessary by politicians, policemen and press of the time to “rid the nation of perversion”, as one chief constable put it in the drama.
A real-life deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Brian Paddick, recalled on the discussion programme 40 Years Out (C4 Wednesday 11.00pm) that “we were told as cadets in the drill square: only poofs and girls wear gloves”. Paddick was born in 1958, which puts his drilling in the early 80s: a testimony to the resilience of cruelty, and the suddenness of change. Paddick, like other witnesses this week past, confronted the prejudice with openness – and humour, writing on the card of a subordinate leaving to work as a royal bodyguard: “Same job, different Queen”.
Openness was a trail widened by Wildeblood’s successors, who include such figures as the late Quentin Crisp, the campaigner Peter Tatchell and the former Labour cabinet minister Chris Smith. Openness, it seemed, was empowering, once the shock and the explosion of prejudice died away. In a funny, touching programme on those who were only able to speak the name of their love late (Queer as Old Folk, C4 Thursday 11.05pm), a near-60 out-gay man named Clive was shown to have a more open and affectionate relationship with his teenage son because, as the latter said, “it’s more honest”.
When asked, Clive said he had had, in the previous two weeks, 70 lovers. “You know what you want and you know what he wants”, he said blithely, as he set off for another date made through a gay website. “Instant gratification is gay sex’s trump card over heterosexuality”, said the commentary in How Gay Sex Changed the World: most interviewees put the five-a-night aspect of their sex life in a gay (in both senses) frame, disdaining the narrative that sees it as loveless, mechanical and compulsive.
The week did have a stab at misery too: Clapham Junction (C4 Sunday 10.00pm) started with a gay wedding, then showed the groom pick up a waiter at the reception: the waiter is later beaten to death by homophobes; executives are shown hating themselves, their lives and their guilty satisfactions, while a 14-year-old’s stirrings are beaten down by a suspecting mother. In the discussion after (on 40 Years Out), the commentator Matthew Parris said he did not recognise contemporary gay reality in the show: “the experience of gay people is, on balance, optimistic”. Not the way TV usually portrays contemporary life: but from this remarkable piece of programming, a wholly believable, even an inspiring, conclusion.
Queer as Old Folk focuses on three gay men who came of age when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK. Alan (now 73), for example, never tried to hide his sexual preferences. His mother said it was fine for him to be gay, provided they didn’t kiss on the lips. Fifty-eight-year-old Clive, on the other hand, got married to subdue his gay urges. He still lives with his wife and teenage son, but cheerfully cruises saunas. And then there is Roger (below centre, with Alan and Clive), who was also married -for 30 years -until he met 18-year-old Ian. They’ve been together now for six years, and he now manages Ian’s career as a male stripper. People lead such busy, active lives.
Tonights look at the impact of the legalisation of homosexuality 40 years ago is plagued, like so many Channel 4 documentaries, with a naff title, but is actually a collection of sweet, inspirational stories about men who had to decide how to deal with their sexual orientation before being gay was deemed socially acceptable. Clive, now 58, thought he might be gay but got married anyway. Even though he lives with his wife and teenage son, he has now gained the confidence to come out. Then theres Roger, who married but always lived a parallel gay life, of which his wife was fully aware.