Queer as Folk, the breakthrough gay drama series, exploded onto British TV screens on Channel 4 in February 1999 – at the most definitely post-watershed time of 10:30pm. Funny, sexy and properly queer. Written by Russell T Davies, its hedonistic portrayal of fin de siècle Manchester and the legendary Canal St. takes you on a journey through the good, the bad and the heartbreak – and that’s just the first episode.
Some of the most controversial, but memorable, parts of the show were the sex scenes causing outrage amongst closeted moral conservatives They leave just enough to the imagination and provide one of the most iconic moments of LGBT+ television history in which, one of the three protagonists (the alpha-gay sex machine) Stuart, gives a young Charlie Hunnam (playing 15, yes, 15-year old, Nathan) a lesson in the art of rimming. Gay sex was clearly still taboo at the time and there’s an incredibly revealing insight into the contemporaneous perception of the show, in the form of a grainy T4 interview that can be found on YouTube.
A fresh faced Dermot O’Leary and co-host Margherita Taylor interview Charlie Hunnam and Craig Kelly (who plays the third protagonist, Vince) during the course of which they chat about the sex scenes, which the hosts describe as “Wow…woah”. n Taylor follows up asking Hunnam “weren’t you mortified?” at the prospect of filming the sex scenes. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come in less than two decades, the idea that a question like this could be asked now, is completely and utterly inconceivable.
A standout aspect of the series are the minor characters. Each of the three main characters has a cadre of associated minor characters, key to their development throughout the series. The best Vince’s mother Hazel. Played by Denise Black, Hazel is the show’s maternal figure who manages to effortlessly transgress between various different roles. Not only does she provide moral support for characters, she’s wise, observant and goes out on Canal Street just as much as her son. She’s the mum everyone wants and hopes they can to be. It’s a testament to the script writing that she’s roundly loved both by the characters and viewers alike.
Other minor characters of note are Rosaline (a co-worker of Vince’s who, unaware of his sexuality, falls for him), Romy (a friend of the group and mother of Stuart’s child) and Donna (Nathan’s best friend). Nathan labels her as “a member of the fascist heterosexual orthodoxy, who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be persecuted”, to which she promptly reminds him that she’s both black and a girl. Brilliant.
Its portrayal of life as a gay man is overly dramatic, slightly stereotypical and perhaps even plain superficial at times, but that’s the whole point. The show’s no-fucks-given approach to homosexuality is refreshing and uplifting. It’s complex too, with Stuart’s ruthless promiscuity sat at odds with the cozy acceptable face of homosexuality prevalent at the time, when the age of consent for homosexuals wasn’t yet equal with that of heterosexuals.
Queer As Folk is an iconic piece of gay television. It’s brilliantly written, perfectly casted and has a fantastically fun soundtrack packed with Disco-house ABBA remixes. It’s still relevant today and explores issues within the gay community that are important to many.
The show manages to avoid one of the cardinal sins that a lot of ‘nearly good’ TV falls victim to: it didn’t run for too long. With just one series, and then a follow up two-part special the next year, it leaves you yearning for more. Queer as Folk is more than worthy of the place it occupies on The Guardian’s Top 100 best ever TV dramas.