I've been grinning at the television lately. I have been reeled in by First Dates (Channel 4, Thursdays, 10pm). Its feel-good romance and simple format make perfect Winter evening viewing. Along with the rest of the Twittersphere, I cheered on the transgender and other LGBT daters, congratulating our culture for celebrating some diversity at last.
First Dates, Caitlyn, Jack Monroe, and the superb Transparent have got me thinking about the visibility of LGBT people in mainstream film and television today, particularly in comparison to twenty years ago. 2015 has indeed been, in cultural terms, the year of the trans. But it's also been the year of checking one's privilege, so I shall attempt to tread sensitively in this post: I'm writing about the diversity of mainstream culture and my perspective on films and television as a teenage girl in the 1990s. The source for my highly-subjective, non-scientific musings is my teenage diary, which I wrote between the ages of 13 and 18 from 1994-1998.
Blind Date is one of the programmes which I mentioned most frequently and consistently in my diary over the years. Like 18 million other Brits, it was a fixture of my Saturday nights. I've been wondering what might take the place of Blind Date for the viewing public today, and First Dates is a strong contender. Could Blind Date have ever shown LGBT contestants? I don't think there ever were any same-sex couples on Blind Date. I think the most diverse they ever got was showing the "oldies".
If the comparison of Blind Date then and First Dates now is anything to go by, mainstream film and television have made LGBT people more visible over the past two decades. But my diary seems to support the fact that that progress in diversity in broadcasting over years has been woefully slow.
I say that Blind Date was "one of the programmes" I frequently wrote about in my diary, because it stands up there with Prisoner Cell Block H. I would often sneak downstairs, after bed time, to watch with my parents who were too glued to the television to object to me and often my brother joining them; obviously we couldn't just pause the television back in those days. And so there we'd all be in our pyjamas watching The Freak, Reb, Pixie all the rest fight it out with wonderful Aussie bad language which we repeated with gusto. Unfortunately, Prisoner was scheduled later and later as the years went on and we lamented the 1am bed times on school nights, but I can't say it did me any harm. It taught me resilience. And it introduced me to the actors whom I'd subsequently see in Neighbours, in roles tailored for mainstream popular entertainment.
I loved Prisoner. It was gripping and dramatic. I loved the shaky sets, the hyperbolic acting and the feeling that I was watching something exciting, naughty and alternative. I don't recall being aware that it was camp, or a fixture of gay culture, but I had a bit of a wake-up call when my father took me and my brother to see the Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical in 1995. I was 15 - I wrote in my diary that it was "Brilliant - great fun!" I remember we had a laugh about how there weren't many other dads taking their teenage children. And there was a fair amount of leather in the audience. Looking up the show now, I see that Lily Savage was starring along with Maggie Kirkpatrick (Joan "The Freak" Ferguson"). My attitude was: It's fun, it's good, there are lesbians, and men in drag, so what?" However, it wasn't quite mainstream and I knew it.
The 1990s were times of change though. 1994 was the year of the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British television. I was 13, and I didn't watch Brookside, but I remember the public storm anyway.
Also in 1994, I wrote in my diary on 12 November: "S. came in the afternoon and we saw "The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Dessert". It was sooooo funny, about Drag queens, with Guy Pearce, and at the beginning the guy came into the theatre all dressed up!!!!!" I watched Priscilla several times, so I remember it well. But there are some films which I wrote about in my diary which I now don't remember at all. A few days before I saw Priscilla, I wrote: "I got v. v. tired coz I wanted to watch Peter's Friends after Beavis + Butthead."
Of course I remember Beavis and Butthead. But not Peter's Friends, so I looked it up. In it, Stephen Fry leads an all-star British cast, playing a man - probably but not openly gay - who reveals his diagnosis as HIV-positive during a reunion he hosts with former University friends.
My diary shows how the late-night slots given to certain films and programmes contributed to the sense of their being "alternative": they had to be viewed by young viewers furtively and often sleepily.
I think it's safe to say that we still have a very long way to go in terms of media presence and representation of LGBT people. I can't predict what the next 20 years hold for mainstream television, indeed if there even will be such a thing in 2035. But without a doubt, romance will continue to fuel plots, draw audiences, and attract willing contenders in the game of love. And I'll be there, watching in my pyjamas.