The last millennium had neared its completion before British television aired its first ever gay drama. Sure, the subject had previously been touched upon, but the handling of it ranged from brief and hesitant to clumsy and dubious. Then, in 1999, a new series on Channel 4 smashed through any ridiculous prejudices and outdated barriers that remained by producing a show that was proudly homosexual and importantly excellent.
Queer as Folk first ran for eight episodes which unashamedly exposed the LGBTQ+ scene in all its glory and gory detail. Set in 90s Manchester, and more specifically on the city’s famous gay strip Canal Street, Queer as Folk both celebrated sexuality and challenged perceptions. Crucially, it was presented as a realistic human portrayal of its likeable yet flawed characters, with lives in which their being gay becomes them but does not define them.
By not dismissing stereotypes, the show positively owns them. This is clear from the title, a play on the old northern English phrase ‘there’s nowt so queer as folk’, from when the term only ever meant ‘strange’. Its use here is a confident comment on the word’s movement to gay slang with negative connotations, and in a glorious swoop of clever humour and powerful f**k-yous, it is reclaimed.
This is also true of the characters, stories and messages throughout Queer as Folk. There is nothing to be ashamed of here, but equally, there is no shirking from the sh*t that comes with this. On the face of it, Stuart is cocky; Vince is less sexually confident; Nathan is discovering himself. But the natural quality of the writing means that there is far more complexity and depth to these three main characters. Indeed, each represents a main trait that is within us all, and in particular, feelings inside those growing up as gay.
Despite the meaningful topic, Queer as Folk is an explosive, fantasy-fuelled romp that laughs and cries out loud. There is deft subtlety and arch humour amongst the brash and the raucous, which is all achieved by the masterful craft of Russell T Davies, who is writing from the heart and with experience. It is this which manages to perfect the balance of a ground-breaking real message and an enjoyable fictional drama, keeping the viewer emotionally involved, both inside and outside of the episodes.
Following the first season, which flirted with reactions from the uncomfortable, controversial and complained about, to end with acclaim from the critics and public alike, more Queer as Folk was demanded. This came and went in two feature length episodes the following year, which progressed the narrative, revealed some truths and maintained many questions. It was more serious of tone than the initial ride, but no less impactful.
Queer as Folk was big, bold and in your face, and its journeys of sexual exposure and acceptance both questioned public morals and championed personal empowerment. It became a part of culture; art reflecting life reflecting art. All these years later, whilst some things have thankfully moved on, Queer as Folk remains remarkably relevant, and equally, a bloody good watch.
Published on July 10th, 2019. Written by John Barran for Television Heaven.