World of Chig   

Queer As Folk 10

Tuesday 23 February 1999.

It was ten years ago tonight that the first episode of Queer As Folk was broadcast on Channel 4. I had been lucky enough to visit the set on two separate occasions in the Autumn of 1998, to watch the filming and interview the stars (and a certain writer) for what turned out to be my first (and so far only) cover story for Gay Times magazine. You can't imagine how excited I was as I sat down ten years ago tonight, but not because I wondered what it was like. I had already seen it! I couldn't wait to find out the reaction of the press and friends and colleagues the next day. I already knew what was coming, because I had been lucky enough to be invited down to London by Russell T Davies some time before, where I had watched an exclusive screening of the first two episodes in one of those preview cinemas in Soho where people like Jonathan Ross and Mark Kermode watch films before the rest of us mere mortals. We just had Boyd Hilton, who wasn't very well-known at the time. I loved those first two episodes, but they also burst my bubble somewhat, as friends of mine know only too well. You see, I was supposed to be in episode one. I had been filmed for it. I would have been the first face on screen after Nathan, right at the beginning of the opening episode. I realised while watching in that Soho cinema, my big moment ended up on the cutting room floor, so I had to ask Russell T Davies afterwards why. I was gutted.

I'm going to drag out this tenth anniversary for the whole week, as I have a few stories to tell. If I'd had a blog at the time, they would probably have been on it, but World Of Chig was still nearly three years away at the time. Please feel free to share your memories and experiences of Queer As Folk. In the meantime, why not start off by reading the text of the Gay Times article which I wrote for that early 1999 issue. I've only just discovered that it is reproduced on a website dedicated to Charlie Hunnam, who played Nathan, so I've copied it, taken out the typos and Americanisms that they had inserted (the cheek!) and pasted it below. I've actually enjoyed reading it again myself. There'll be more QAF stuff all week.

Coming later this week:

Why QAF was responsible for Chig never drinking a certain brand of lager ever again.
Who was responsible for Chig being told off on set.
The strange story of the Nivea hand creme (or was it)?
How QAF led to Chig being treated to a meal by the Daily Mail. (Yikes!)
How QAF saw Chig get a boyfriend. Yes, really! Chig has had a boyfriend!
The wild QAF party which led to naughties in a London hotel, on a train and in Chig's house with a member of the QAF cast. On second thoughts, we'll leave that bit out.

Here's the Gay Times article on Queer As Folk that I wrote for the January 1999 issue.

Folk Like Us

The television event of the New Year will be Channel 4's ground-breaking gay drama series, Queer As Folk. Written by a gay man, the eight-part series follows the lives of three young gay men in and around Manchester's scene. With one of the three central characters being only 15, the issue of the age of consent will be tackled head-on. But this is no tub-thumping drama, as [Chig] found out when he visited the set to talk to the writer and the actors.

Think 'gay television drama' series and what springs to mind? Tales of the City and, well, that's about it. Now add 'British' to the equation and what are you left with? Nothing, that's what. But all will change next month when Queer As Folk struts onto our screens. This is a tale of a different city - Manchester. And whereas in the past we've had to make do with token gay characters in the soaps, some of whom we don't even recognise as our own (Tony Hills in Eastenders for example), this is a TV drama with familiar characters, targeted at a contemporary gay audience. Queer As Folk is different. This eight-part series is gay drama, by a gay writer - the sort of programme that we always felt Channel Four should provide, but which it's never quite delivered. It shows gay characters out on the scene, at home, with friends and family, laughing and loving. Lesbian character Romey (Esther Hall), for example, has a girlfriend, a lesbian lodger, and even - gasp! - a baby. It's a situation you don't see too often in TV drama. In other words, the characters in Queer As Folk do all the things that you and I know and take for granted as real life, but which the straight telly world still sees as weird.

Russell T Davies, the series' writer and creator, says he didn't set out with a political agenda for the drama. "Channel Four, set modern day and gay - that was the brief, so off I went." That's not to say that it didn't raise some interesting and controversial topics, but the thing that Daily Mail types will find so shocking is that all of this is played as just being so goddamn normal; no apologies but no preaching, either. The series focuses on a diverse group of gay (and some lesbian and straight) friends living in Manchester. Central characters Stuart and Vince are both in their late twenties and have been best mates since school. Their lives are changed by the arrival of 15-year-old Nathan, fresh on the scene and full of the wide-eyed naïvete, trepidation and unbridled enthusiasm that many of us remember from our own coming-out days. We follow the lives of these friends - around the scene, in their homes, at work and, for Nathan, at school.

The whole series has been filmed in and around Manchester, with weeks of night shoots in the gay village, making the locals very aware that something is going on. Indeed, some of them are in it, as the street and club scenes required lots of realistic extras. Russell T Davies, whose previous credits include ITV's period hotel drama, The Grand, has deliberately steered clear of writing an issue-based drama. But with a 15-year-old lead who has a sex life, the age of consent question is ever-present. Although Nathan has all the nervousness and insecurities of any teenager coming out, he's very clear about his sexuality and knows exactly what he wants to do with it. It's a message that those opposed to an equal age of consent would do well to take in. This might be only a drama, but there's nothing "pretend" about Nathan's feelings and emotions.

On my first visit to the set - a wet, cold October night in Canal Street - I ask Russell whether viewers will find Queer As Folk uplifting and celebratory, or does it just normalise gay life? "It is a drama, so it is uplifting and celebratory in places, because I'm not setting out to do a documentary. That would just be eight episodes of people sitting in Via Fossa having a drink. I think it gets political naturally, because it's an entirely gay drama, it's got a focus that makes it political. And there are moments in the last episodes..." he tails off, reluctant to give too much away. "It's making a statement in itself," he continues. "What it's not is issue-based, because that's dull drama anyway. I do think that's, like, infant-school drama. You get a lot of gay stuff that is issue-based, and that's because it's an emerging genre - there hasn't been much gay drama."

Our conversation is interrupted by one of the crew asking Russell what cigarettes to buy for Nathan. "Benson" is Russell's immediate answer. "You see the detail," he jokes. On what basis was that decision made, I ask? "Artistic," he laughs. "Marlboro Lights are too gay. Silk Cut are too middle-aged - they're for when you've given up smoking. It's Benson, but 10, not 20."

Nathan is the youngest of Queer As Folk's three main characters. He is played by Charlie Hunnam, who describes him as, "a 15-year-old lad who starts off quite shy and not very confident at all, a bit mixed up. Through the eight programmes, he progresses into quite a manipulating, and much more confident and cultivated, kind of gay lad on the Manchester scene." He learns about life from Stuart, Vince and the others, while dragging around his faithful sidekick and confidante, Donna - his best friend from school.

When Charlie's real-life mum was 15, one of her best friends came-out to her, and she went through the coming-out process with him, not easy in Newcastle 25 years ago, so Charlie has had useful motherly insight into the relationship between his character and his best mate. He hasn't told his Mum about absolutely everything that playing the rôle involves, though. Some of the scenes may test her open-mindedness, but that's not his concern: "It's really a fantastic role for me, because I get to play both ends of the spectrum - from shy and withdrawn at the beginning, to screaming queen at the end." How much of the character is like the real Charlie? "I think he's like me in that he is a young lad who doesn't want to do the normal kind of things in life. He's not really interested in school and all that kind of shit, which I never was, you know? He's just more interested in his dreams and what he wants to be doing and he doesn't let anything get in the way of that. That aspect is very like me but, well, I'm not gay to begin with, that's one quite major difference, but I understood the character straight away, and after talking to Russell."

Charlie is only just 18 and manages to play three years under his age very well, partly because he looks younger. He describes himself as "a relative newcomer to the game" of acting - he's originally from Newcastle, and took the traditional route into TV for any Geordie lad; via the BBC's long-running school soap, Byker Grove. But it seems unlikely that Charlie will be following the career path of those other Byker Grove graduates, Ant and Dec: Charlie is serious about acting. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing now," he tells me, "so I'll give this a go for a while." He's been "seeing a few people" about possible parts after Queer As Folk and says, "I think I'll keep on acting as long as it wants me."

His break into acting happened by chance. "I was in a shoe shop," he explains, "just being really stupid with my friends and trying on some shoes, and I just asked this lady - I had absolutely no idea who she was - what she thought of my trainers. She was kind of taken aback and just looked at me. I thought, 'oh my God', because she kept looking at me. And then I went to the till to buy them and she came over and said, 'Have you ever thought about acting?' It turned out she was the Production Manager for Byker Grove, and she took me to meet the director." That led to Charlie being in six episodes, and he hasn't looked back since, moving on to a BBC and Disney collaboration, Microsoaps; a kids' series which he describes as "quite funky, dealing with real issues but in a kind of light way". He's also done fashion modeling, including the Clothes Show Live.

It's inevitable that many young gay men, whether they're out or not, will look on Nathan's experiences as a model of coming out. Lots of young gay men will fancy him, too. So has he thought about the responsibility that comes with being a... "Gay icon?" he interjects. Actually, I was going to say "rôle model", but yes, Charlie has thought about it. "A few people had raised that point with me," he says, "and I just thought, Russell's been in the game so long, on the scene, and he's such a fantastic writer. I'll put all my trust completely in him and what he's written and how the character is. So in that respect," he laughs, "Russell takes full responsibility." He doesn't necessarily recommend that young guys follow in Nathan's footsteps: "I wouldn't suggest that 15-year-old lads should go out and pick up 30-year-old guys on the street, who they've never met, and go back to their place, you know?"

The man in question (he's actually 29 and dreading 30) is Stuart, played by Aidan Gillen, most recently seen in the British feature film, Mojo. Aidan describes his character as "a very confident, slightly enigmatic, sexy guy". Craig Kelly, playing his best mate Vince, describes Stuart's sexuality as "open, raw and in-your-face". Stuart is confidence personified. Vince is more sensitive and less sure of himself. He's another 29-year-old gay man, who's obsessed with Doctor Who almost as much as he's in love with Stuart, his best friend since they were both 14. It's unrequited love, though; and Stuart takes advantage of Vince's good nature. Craig says that Vince is "happy to be in the shadow of Stuart", and that he is not the archetypal shagger, because he doesn't have the confidence," adding, "It's left to the sexy ones to do all the shagging." However, despite his lack of self-confidence, it's clear that gay viewers are really going to warm to Vince and want to take him under their wings. When I ask Craig if he, too, is prepared for becoming a rôle model or lust object to gay men when the series is broadcast, he says "it's a surreal idea" that one can't really prepare for, and anyway, that's not the reason why he does the job. "But it is part of the job," he continues, "and if it happens, then that's flattering and fair enough, but I don't really take that seriously. I think people will really, really like Vince as a character and I think that some people mind find him quite... quite attractive". Craig says this last sentence slowly, choosing his words carefully and being unnecessarily modest. He talks as though the attractiveness of his character has nothing to do with his own boyish good looks. As he finishes speaking, we both laugh because this truly is surreal, sitting in a trailer talking to a good-looking bloke about how attractive he is, and both of us pretending it's someone else. Craig used to be in Casualty, as did Jason Merrells, formerly Matt the receptionist at Holby General, who plays Vince's friend Phil.

Indeed, avid soap watchers will have fun spotting the famous faces in Queer As Folk, with Coronation Street represented by Denise Black (erstwhile hairdresser and mother of Ken Barlow's child) and Lee Warburton (more recently the drug-dealing Tony), and Neighbours by Peter O'Brien (Shane). This line-up is testimony to the strong script and the pulling power of the production company, Red. This is Red's first production since the company was set up earlier this year by producer Nicola Shindler, whose impressive CV includes Hillsborough, Cracker and Our Friends in the North. She has brought with her director Charles McDougall, who also worked on Cracker and Hillsborough as well as the much-missed Between The Lines, a series which included several lesbian and gay storylines.

Not so long ago, aspiring young actors would have worried about playing some of these gay rôles, even if their agents had dared to put them up for the parts. Those attitudes are changing, though, and these actors, whatever their own sexuality, see this series as the opportunity that it is - juicy rôles, of a kind never seen before; a kind of script that's never been written before; all brought to life by producers and directors with a proven track record in quality drama.

My second visit to the set coincides with the filming of a party scene in Stuart's flat, a loft-type apartment, with that 'contemporary seventies' look, very brown and cream, very wallpaper*. The room, which has plenty of exposed red brickwork, is dominated by a semi-circular chocolate-brown vinyl settee. There are huge white mushroom lamps on the corner units and two sets of white fairy lights zig-zagging across wooden frames. To underline Stuart's shameless ostentation, there is a vending machine in one corner, filled with chocolate and crisps. This luxurious set, which includes Stuart's kitchen, bedroom and bathroom, was created from scratch in the old mill building which used to house the nightclub Sankey's Soap. No expense has been spared in making the flat look pretentious enough for Stuart, who works as an account manager for an advertising agency - when he isn't shagging. (Sometimes he even manages to combine the two activities, such is his confidence and success.)

As I walk into the "flat", the "realness" of the set only emphasises the weirdness of the scene in front of me. The room is full of people partying, dressed up, streamers everywhere, but something is missing - there's no noise. Sarah Harding, directing this episode, explains that all the party sounds are put on later because "it's much easier to add background than it is to take it away". The technique really tests the acting abilities of the extras when they film scenes where the party guests are dancing. As "action" is called, a few seconds of 'Finally' are played, and then the cast are on their own - shaking their butts to an imaginary beat, or, if they're clever, singing along to Ce Ce Peniston in their heads. It looks very odd.

Slumped on a sofa between takes, I chat with cute young Jonathan Natynczyk, who plays Nathan's mate Dazz. Helpfully, he informs me that he has "very good looks and a big dick, but that's not actually shown on screen". At that stage, he had still to film a bed scene, which may have involved a little nudity, so the proof may be there for all to see.

Also on set is Denise Black. She plays Hazel, Vince's Mum, who is, on the face of it, a bit mad. She's more likely than her gay son to be doing karaoke at the New Union. Denise describes her character as "massively supportive, but not the claustrophobic, protective type. She's a good-time girl, but she's got a wonderfully good heart." When I ask Denise how much of the character is like her, she puts on her best luvvie voice and gushes, mockingly: "Everything that's wonderful about her is just like me". She praises Russell T Davies, saying he is "as exciting a writer as I can imagine. We all feel excited about this because it's not like any series there has been before."

Night shoots on the streets of Manchester in Autumn dampened that enthusiasm at times, though - inevitably, it rained on some of them. (The crew presumed that it would sooner or later, and sprayed Canal Street with water even when the weather was dry, to ensure continuity with the nights when the rain was real.) Twelve hours outside on a night shoot, on consecutive nights, really tests the patience of actors, crew and drag queens alike.

For the extras, the scene queens and drag queens hoping for their moment of stardom, the reality of showbiz hits home - it's boring and repetitive. If you're lucky, your fifteen minutes of fame will, in reality, be less than a second on screen, and your own mother and close friends might just recognise you if they put the video on freeze-frame. Still, you have to admire their dedication, and I know, because on my visit to the set I became one of those extras. Between shots of us trolling along Canal Street for the umpteenth time, we relieved the tedium by making up our own, increasingly complicated, subplots, in which we swapped boyfriends, and flirted with different men in every scene. Shame that it will be lost on the viewing public, but it kept us amused.

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