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No Tea & Sympathy for Them

The hit British TV series 'Queer as Folk' presents an unflinchingly frank view of gay life--blemishes and all.

November 21, 1999|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel is a Paris-based freelance writer

From the first moments of "Queer as Folk," it was clear this was not going to be an ordinary television drama series--even for British audiences used to lots of dicey language and sex on their network airwaves.

It's 2 a.m., the last-chance hour on Canal Street, the gay district of Manchester, England, and the boys are out hunting for last-minute prey. The ruthlessly sexy, 29-year-old Stuart (Aidan Gillen) spots Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) under a street light. Young, scared, cocky and horny, Nathan's a 15-year-old virgin on his first night out.

"Got somewhere to go?" Stuart coos at the teenager. "Wanna come back to mine?"

The graphic nude sex scenes that follow on "Queer as Folk," which was broadcast last season on the U.K.'s Channel Four, were the first the British had seen on network television. "There's something scary and shocking about the first episode," says writer Russell T. Davies, "something quite ruthless and cold because it starts at 2 o'clock in the morning. None of us particularly want to see ourselves at 2 o'clock in the morning."

But the shock and horror that colored the initial reaction to the series--much of it focused on Nathan's sexual coming of age--largely dissipated. Audience numbers and critical acclaim began to grow as the series became less focused on its unprecedented depiction of gay sex and unfolded into a multilayered tale about Stuart and Vince (Craig Kelly), best friends on the verge of turning 30, and Nathan, "the one night stand that never went away."

This unusual hybrid of comedy and drama evolved into far more than a chronicle of sexual escapades--ultimately it's an examination of the lives of characters confronting age and mortality, parenthood and identity, love and loyalty. It's easy for that to make "Queer as Folk" sound drenched with import. In truth, while there are serious issues underneath, with its unexpected mix of melodrama, razor-sharp humor and sheer whimsy, the series manages to evoke a kind of off-centered fun.

Besides causing a stir in Britain, a two-hour version of "Queer as Folk" was broadcast recently in France, and several European countries have bought the series. The buzz the show picked up on the gay film festival circuit in the U.S. led producer Nicola Shindler and Channel Four into conversations with HBO about co-producing an American remake. HBO dropped out after a sticking point on format--whether it was more suited to a series or a movie, with Channel Four wanting the former, HBO the latter--and now Showtime has initiated serious talks about turning it into a series here.

Whatever shape the U.S. television deal takes, it is unlikely that anything resembling the original--with its raw sexual content and explicit language--will air in this country, even in the era of "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos."

The scene that proved heart-stopping and the most controversial during the initial British run would doubtless never make it into a U.S. translation: the vivid depiction of a 15-year-old boy losing his virginity to a man twice his age. Nor would even a spot on cable be likely to accommodate the extravagant use of graphic language, the drugs snorted in nightclub bathrooms, the spontaneous sex without a condom in sight.

Hopefully any adaptation would attempt to re-create the frank, witty, intelligent, absorbingly told stories--the qualities that ultimately turned "Queer as Folk" into such a television phenomenon in its home country--in which the main characters are neither apologists nor role models, victims of AIDS or homophobic violence; nor the cuddly, nonthreateningly asexual confidants of straight women.

Davies, 35, who would serve as a consultant on any U.S. adaptation, says he spent years writing token homosexual characters for British TV. "I worked on a soap opera where someone said, 'I've got a great idea for a character--he's gay!' and the next thing out of his mouth was, 'And he's got AIDS.' A lot of gay drama is written like that, all very safe and very representative," he says.

Davies credits Shindler, whose Manchester-based Red production company made the series for Britain's Channel Four, with giving him permission to create a universe where the token characters were straight and every nuance of gay culture didn't have to be explained.

"Nicola said, 'Don't be anthropological,' " Davies explains. "If the story's working, people will understand. She gave me the freedom to write however I wanted. Usually you have 10 executive producers standing over your shoulders making sure it's safe and bland. [If] you don't have to bother with boring, mainstream morality, you can get closer to something like a real morality. We all know people who do drugs and sleep around."

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