‘Playing Gay’ – a long overdue exploration of gay representation on TV

In his new book Playing Gay acclaimed social historian Stephen Bourne tells the story of the innovation, experimentation, back-tracking and bravery that led British television to help change society for the better. This book pays tribute to all the gay characters that have appeared to the British TV and adds something important to the LGBTQ+ legacy.

Early Praise for Playing Gay:

“A masterpiece, a meticulous, dazzling, witty and wise history of gay men on television.” – Russell T Davies

“The battles are not all won, but what Playing Gay demonstrates – in hugely entertaining and fascinating detail – is how far British broadcasting has come – and come out – into the sunlight.” – Mark Gatiss

“Brilliantly researched and focused, Playing Gay is a shattering revelation of the depiction of the on-screen lives of gay men.” – Lord Michael Cashman CBE

YASS Magazine met Stephen Bourne and here is the exclusive interview.

In your latest book you tell the story of the innovation, experimentation, back-tracking and bravery that led British television to help change society for the better. Do you feel British television has evolved regarding visibility, awareness and has helped the society?

Overall, in the so called ‘Golden Age’ of British television (1960s and 1970s), there was innovation and this made room for some fascinating gay representation. That is why we have such extraordinary, powerful TV dramas like South (1959), Horror of Darkness (1965), The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Lola (1976) and Only Connect (1979) in our archives. That is what motivated me to write the book Playing Gay in the Golden AGE OF British TV. I want to share this knowledge.

Do you think there are enough gay roles on British TV nowadays?

It is too difficult to assess because there are far too many channels. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s we only had three channels: BBC1, BBC2 ad ITV. So it was easier to find gay images. Today, with the explosion of channels, it is almost impossible.

How would you describe yourself?

A working-class gay Londoner who writes books about ‘hidden’ histories.  

What is the contribution of your latest book to history?

I hope that Playing Gay provides some information about a hidden history, not just television, but social history as well.

What were your inspirations regarding this book?

The biggest inspiration was seeing the 1979 BBC TV play Only Connect which was an original drama written for TV by Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths. They were part of the radical, left-wing theatre group Gay Sweatshop. They wrote outstanding plays for theatre in the 1970s. Tragedy intervened when Drew was murdered in 1984. I have dedicated Playing Gay to him. He should be remembered but he is not mentioned in any gay history book that I am aware of. He is as important to British gay history as Oscar Wilde, Derek Jarman and Alan Turing.

Do you think that history repeats itself?

I would say that history is very limited in its outlook, including gay or LGBT+ history. We need to open our eyes and find more ‘hidden’ stories.

Is there a lack of availability of gay history books?

Yes, there is. I will give you an example. In 1996 my first gay history book Brief Encounters was published. It took me 21 years to find a publisher for my second gay history book Fighting Proud which is about the lives of gay men in the two world wars. Playing Gay took twelve years. The proposal was written in 2006 and it was rejected many times before The History Press commissioned it. It was rejected by publishers because I refused to bring the story up to the present day. I wanted to end it in the 1980s and the launch of Channel 4. The History Press were the first to accept my proposal. Too often gay or LGBT+ history books, if they are published at all, focus on the same people. They are too selective. More imagination is needed, and more emphasis on ‘hidden’ histories.

What are you working on at the moment?

I had hoped to be commissioned to write a new biography of the openly gay London policeman PC Harry Daley (1900-1971) who, in the 1930s, was the lover of the novelist E M Forster. It is a wonderful story but it proved impossible to secure permission to quote from his autobiography. The publisher who owns this wanted £8000 which is more than I earn in a year! Instead I am working on a new book for The History Press called Under Fire: Black Britain in Wartime 1939-1945. This includes a chapter about a number of important black gay in wartime Britain including Dr Cecil Belfield Clarke, the legendary bandleader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and the welfare officer Ivor Cummings.

You are the author of a number of ground-breaking books about black British history and you have received several awards for your contribution to diversity including a special award from Screen Nation (Black BAFTAs) as well as an Honorary Fellowship from London South Bank University. How do you feel about this?

I am deeply honoured to receive formal recognition for my diversity work. It has been a long, hard struggle to get the books published, and it is lovely to receive awards. But the real rewards comes from the people who read my books and tell me how much they have learned from them and, in some cases, empowered them.

What has been the biggest achievement in your life?

I left school at the age of 16 with no formal qualifications, so no route to University. In the early years I worked outside of the world of academia, which was difficult, but now I look back and realise that being self-taught has its rewards. I taught myself to use the British Library, the Imperia War Museum’s archive, and many other similar organisations. T was challenging and often very difficult but I persevered. Today, in 2020, all the books I have had published since 1991 (over 20 now), are my biggest achievements.

Have you experienced love in your life and how different has it been from the love we find in your books?

I do not discuss my private life in public but, yes, I had an important, lifechanging love in my life when I was younger. All my books have been a labour of love and they have all been written with love.

What are your future plans?

I never plan ahead too far because I never know what is going to happen. Lots of ideas come and go, others get taken seriously and then something positive happens. I just wait and see. It’s like throwing a pebble into a lake, and causing ripples, and I like causing ripples.

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