Queer As Folk
British Series

C1TV, 1999

Charles McDougall, Sarah Harding

Russell T Davis

Starring: Aiden Gillan, Craig Kelly, Charlie Hunnam. Denise Black, Andy Devine, Carla Henry, Antony Cotton, Jason Merrells

Unrated, (8) 40 minute episodes

Common Ground

Showtime Video, 2000

Director: Donna Dietch

Paul Vogel
Terrence McNally
Harvey Fierstein

Starring: Brittany Murphy, Jason Priestly, Margot Kidder, Mimi Rogers, Brian Kerwin, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Steven Webber, Eric Stolz, Andrew Airlie, James Legros, Ed Asner, Harvey Fierstein

Unrated, running time: NA

Cathode Queers
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, March 2000


When it comes to sexual matters, British television is far more permissive than American TV. Anyone who grew up watching Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS knows this. Ditto for Masterpiece Theatre's I, Claudius, which featured nudity and a few sneak peaks at Roman orgies. Knowing this still didn't prepare me for Queer as Folk, a completely refreshing and no-holds-barred look at gay life that was aired on England's Channel 4 last year.

Queer As Folk takes place in, and around, the gay club scene in Manchester. Its eight episodes focus on three young gay men. Stuart, played by Aiden Gillen, is a party boy whose main priority is his "shag" for the evening. Craig Kelly plays his best friend, Vince, a fervent Dr. Who devotee who lives in Stuart's shadow. Both men are just months away from turning 30 while Nathan, played by Charlie Hunnam, is 15 and ventures into a gay bar for the first time. He goes home with Stuart and is heartbroken later to discover that he was nothing more than just "another shag."

Much of the series revolves around Stuart's shenanigans as he has sex with almost every good looking gay man in Manchester. In contrast, each man that Vince brings home is a disaster. Equal time is also given to Nathan's coming out issues both at school and at home. Despite a supportive mother, Nathan runs away from home rather than face his bigoted father. While dealing with Stuart's rejection, he loses his innocence and even turns the tables on his first shag a few times. Nathan is not an angst-ridden suicidal gay teen-ager. Out and proud, he mocks his schoolmates to his best friend Donna: "They're just kids. They're just talking. I'm doing it!"

Surrounding these men is a colorful assortment of friends who provide myriad subplots. A lesbian couple named Romy and Lisa use Stuart's sperm to have a baby. Stuart calls the baby "the most expensive wank [he] ever had" and spends little to no time with his son. Vince's mother hangs out at the clubs and lets Nathan stay at her place until he sorts out his problems at home. She also befriends Nathan's mother, and tries to help the distraught woman to understand her son.

Stuart is the series' most complex character. While seemingly a total jerk, he occasionally tries to do good. An attempt to bring his young trick back home to his family backfires when Nathan's father sees them together. When a married client goes pubbing with him, and then plans to party for a few more days rather than go home, Stuart asks him if he's ready to abandon his family and then talks him into going home. In one of the best scenes, a friend dies of an overdose and Stuart and Vince sneak into his apartment to clear out his porn before the man's mother comes to pack up his things.

But his relationship with Vince is the crux of the series. Because they were friends since boyhood, Stuart is oblivious to Vince's true feelings for him. Queer As Folk has all the intrigues of a late night soap opera but it's all set in the queerest of millieus. The writing is very sharp and drama queens will love all the snappy lines. Queer As Folk is the brainchild of writer Russell T. Davies. In an online interview, he expressed his disgust with cute, cuddy and/or victimized gays and decided to just write a story that told it like it is. Making no apologies for presenting excesses on the party circuit, Queer As Folk is filled with loose sex, drugs and "morality" that would send the Rev. Fred Phelps into a rubber room. The series was embraced by its gay audience and sparked outrage amongst conservatives. It even offended a few gays who were concerned over the series' depiction of loose behavior.

The biggest bone of contention was Stuart shagging Nathan in the very first episode while the camera lingers over their nude bodies. Sex is common on British TV, but "R-rated" gay sex is still a new phenomenon. Was it irresponsible for the filmmakers to make the first sex scene one that involved a minor? Maybe. Do such things sometimes happen in real life, and is this scene important to the overall story? Yes. Queer As Folk makes Will and Grace look like Ozzie and Harriet. There is no effort made to make its characters more acceptable to conservative straights.

[Reviewer's note from 2007: There was a 2 hour sequel that was broadcast a year later on Britain's Channel 4 and, though it has its moments, was not as good as the original 8 part series. In fact, the ending may be one of the worst endings ever committed to film. Russell Davis, the show's creator, would later bring back Dr. Who to the BBC - which is quite fitting, considering all the affectionate references to Dr. Who throughout the original QAF. Vince's passion for Dr. Who was the inspiration for Michael's love of comic books in the Showtime version.]

[Reviewer's note 2008: More viewers have seen the Showtime version than the original. I just watched the British QAF again for the first time in years and, while some of its initial shock value is gone, it is still a very good series. It's been overshadowed by the American version which is a pity because this one did come first and it is worthy of consideration in its own right. In many ways, it is more gritty and realistic than the stateside series. Phil, unlike Ted in the remake, actually dies from his drug overdose. Many of Stuart's shags are ordinary looking blokes while Brian's tricks on the newer show all looked liked they stepped out of an underwear ad. Many visual gags are much funnier and more creatively filmed in this one - for example, take the scene where Vince calls Stuart, and leaves a message to tell him that he finally scored, as Stuart is shagging two guys in bed while a video camera films their threeway. And the moment where Stuart gives Vince an exact replica of Dr. Who's robot dog, K-9, on his 30th birthday blows the Captain Astro comic book from the Showtime version out of the water.

The American characters closely mirrored their British counterparts but there are a lot of differences in the original - some of them much more compelling. The dynamic between Stuart and Nathan is much different from what eventually developed between Brian and Justin. Vince, unlike Michael in the remake, never seems to get over his infatuation with Stuart, and his mother - while not quite as colorful as Sharon Gless - is also one of the series' best characters. Just as many contend that the original British version of The Office is better than the American one, the same case can be made for the British Queer as Folk. Even if you ultimately prefer Brian, Michael and Justin over Stuart, Vince and Nathan, it is still worth a look.

Unfortunately, the original never had a proper video release in this country and it appears, at this writing, to be out of print. It lists for $149 from a third party seller on When I purchased it - before the Showtime remake even aired - it was a very expensive bare-bones DVD where each chapter consisted of two complete episodes. They spared no expense. There is also a scene missing in the first episode. I distinctly remember seeing Vince put a Dr. Who video in his VCR and watching a scene where a Cyberman (the next most recurring bad guys after the Daleks) was holding down a victim but, because of the camera angle, it looked like it was getting head. The lack of extras, not to mention chapters, is infuriating but it's the only DVD released here in the states - unless you have an all-region player because Amazon lists a British import box set of the first season and the 2 hour sequel.]

American television, even on premium cable stations, has yet to display the same boldness as England's Channel 4. A case in point is the recent Showtime original movie, Common Ground. While the movie is admirable by American TV standards, it almost seemed anti-climatic after seeing Queer as Folk.

Common Ground is a trilogy of gay-themed screenplays directed by lesbian filmmaker Donna Dietch, (Desert Hearts), and written by three noted gay playwrights: Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, Terrence McNally and Harvey Fierstein. Each takes place in the fictional small town of Homer, Connecticut during three different decades. Each story is narrated by the man who raises the flag at the War Memorial on the Town Commons.

The strongest segment is the first, A Friend of Dorothy, penned by Vogel. A young woman named Dorothy, played by Brittany Murphy, comes home from the military in 1954 but remains vague about her reasons for leaving the service. The truth comes out when she applies for a job at the school and the principal asks to see her discharge papers. He orders her to leave when he discovers her Section 8 discharge for "sexual perversion." Dorothy's mother calls her a degenerate and throws her out of the house. She is shunned by everyone in town and eventually leaves for Greenwich Village on the advice of Janet, a sympathetic woman (and closeted lesbian) who runs the town's diner.

[Reviewer's note, 2007: Perhaps I was unaware when this was written in 2000, but Janet is played by Desert Hearts' Helen Shaver]

The 70s segment, M. Roberts, was written by McNally and deals with the trials of Toby, a gay teen-ager played by Jonathan Taylor-Thomas, who is harassed at school. The boy suspects that his French teacher, played by Steven Weber, is gay and reaches out to him for help. His teacher is, indeed, gay but remains closeted because he is in line to become the school's principal.

The concluding segment, Andy and Amos, is Harvey Fierstein's comic look at the town's first gay wedding in present day. Andy and Amos, played by Andrew Airlie and James Legros, have been together for over 15 years and plan to have a public ceremony. Amos' stubborn father, played by Ed Asner, is leading a protest of veterans who object to the marriage taking place on the grounds of the War Memorial. He winds up bonding with his son when he realizes that he is actually having cold feet on his wedding day just like he once did.

Fierstein's contribution to Common Ground is the most saccharine of the three. Vogel's A Friend of Dorothy features the sharpest writing. Her vivid ironies include Dorothy's mother screaming that she will "not have filth and perversion in [her] home" and then sitting down to watch the McCarthy hearings on television. The richest scenes involve Dorothy telling Janet about her experiences in the Navy. A very butch commanding officer, played by Mimi Rogers, orders her charges to report any lesbianism to her immediately. Dorothy meets a sensitive officer named Billy, played by Jason Priestly, who calls himself "a friend of Dorothy." This is code for homosexual and he takes Dorothy to a gay bar.

The defining moment occurs when Dorothy's CO, wearing an evening dress, enters the bar. Shortly after, the bar is raided and Dorothy is ordered by her superiors to name names. She remembers seeing her CO but says nothing. Her CO expels her from the service. Now... was her CO checking out the bar for enlisted men and women? Or is she a closeted gay who, like Roy Cohn, mercilessly persecutes her own? Like Vogel's play, How I Learned To Drive, nothing is black and white and the ambiguities raised elevate the story above the mundane.

McNally's contribution is well done but the basic plotline, minus a few moments permissible only on cable, could easily have also been an ABC Afterschool Special. Fierstein's segment is mostly comic in the vein of his Torch Song Trilogy. Amos complains to his father that he's "a gay man in a heterosexual world and it doesn't matter anymore!" When his father points to the handful of veterans and Catholics protesting, Amos shouts "If that's all the outrage they can muster then this is embarrassing." Fierstein can still deliver a good laugh. When the father quotes Leviticus, Amos points out that Leviticus also states that eating shellfish and pork is an abomination. "According to your Bible," he says, "the road to Hell is paved with bacon. So I'll make a deal with you. You take the sausage out of your mouth and I'll take the sausage out of mine."

A worthy theme that runs through the three stories is the responsibility of the current generation to "stand up and be counted" to make things easier for those that will follow. Janet gives Dorothy money to go to Grenwich Village because an older woman once helped her on the condition that she would someday aid another "promising young woman." She passes the torch to Dorothy, who leaves Homer, Connecticut and never returns. The 70s French teacher is afraid to jeopardize his position at the school but, after Toby is beaten, he comes out to his class and subsequently loses his job. He regains it, never becomes principal, but stays in Homer and lives openly with his lover. At Andy and Amos' wedding, Amos proclaims his debt to the gays who came before and acknowledges that "it's up to us to do our very best to carry the next generation to where they need to be."

A comparison between Queer as Folk and Common Ground may be unfair as the stories they tell are very different ones. But the approach taken in each clearly illuminates the differences between American and British television. The American TV movie is chock full of big-name stars, the British series is filled with unknowns. The Brits cast according to talent rather than box office draw. The lack of familiar faces allows viewers to put themselves into the characters, while one cannot watch Common Ground without recognizing someone in almost every role. While this may help draw viewers, it's symptomatic of how American producers insist on names to "legitimize" their projects.

But the biggest difference between the two can be summed up by the advertising slogan for Queer as Folk: "No Victims. No Martyrs. No Role Models." Common Ground creates sympathy for victims, pleads for tolerance, and relies on speeches to drive the point home. Queer as Folk does none of these things. It just presents a story for our entertainment without concerning itself with issues. And that, perhaps more than anything else, makes Queer as Folk one of the most groundbreaking and honest portrayals of queer life to ever hit the airwaves.

It's a good bet, considering the names involved, that Common Ground will be released on video. At presstime there was no release date announced yet. Queer as Folk is not currently available on video in the U.S., but a British import is available for rent at Mondo Video, 1109 Elmwood Avenue. A two hour sequel just finished airing in Great Britain and Mondo also plans to carry this tape when it is released sometime in March. Also, filming begins in May for an American remake that will be aired on Showtime. It will be interesting to see how much the original script is butchered to make it more "acceptable" to American viewers.

[Reviewer's note from 2007: I have to eat my hat on that last comment. The Showtime version of Queer as Folk was just as in-your-face as the British edition was, even more so. However, back in 2000, I never thought - and with good reason - that I would ever see anything made for American television as explicit as the original British show was.]


See also:
Queer As Folk Season One (premiere)
Queer As Folk Season One (conclusion)
Queer As Folk Season Two

More on Britain's Channel 4:
Derek Jarman
My Beautiful Laundrette


More on Terrence McNally:
Love! Valour! Compassion!

More On Brian Kerwin and Harvey Fierstein:
Torch Song Trilogy

More On Steven Weber:
Choose Connor

More On Jason Priestly:
Love And Death On Long Island
Die, Mommie, Die!

More On Helen Shaver and Donna Dietch:
Desert Hearts