Before Welsh producer Russell T Davies successfully regenerated Doctor Who, he brought a forthright look at queer sex and friendship into unprepared British living rooms with Manchester-set drama Queer as Folk.
Starring Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen as advertising exec Stuart, his one night stand that stayed with underage Nathan (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam), set tongues a wagging – probably even more so if the planned title Queer as Fuck had stuck.
The original eight-part series, launched in 1999, was an overnight hit. So much so that a US remake followed the next year. Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but largely filmed in Toronto, it enjoyed a five-season run under producers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman. Taking the original storyline and expanding on it, Gale Harold played the Stuart role, now named Brian, with Randy Harrison as his uncomfortably young lover Justin.
First broadcast in Australia by SBS on Monday, July 1st 2002, TV historian Andrew Mercado devoured both iterations.
“I very much admired the bravery of the original and its ground-breaking depiction of gay men in the UK,” he says. “My first impression of the adaptation was that they toned stuff down for the more puritanical American market, but it eventually found its own way.”
That included tackling issues like the struggle for marriage equality and devastating homophobic violence, including a bomb detonated at nightclub Babylon during an appearance by guest star Cyndi Lauper playing herself.
While Mercado notes it is now commonplace for shows to feature LGBTIQ characters, Queer as Folk’s specific focus on gay men allowed for a broader range of personalities. “It had promiscuous gay men and gay men that wanted to marry and settle down, geeky gay men and older guys struggling to stay relevant in a youth-obsessed world and I think it will continue to be as relevant today as it was back then.”
Mercado remembers Australia’s own ground-breaking show Number 96 introducing queer characters in 1972. “We were basically the first country in the world to portray regular gay characters in a sympathetic light, so we’d done it all first 20 years beforehand, but what I underestimated was that for a new generation of gay kids that had never heard of Number 96, they found the American version of Queer as Folk quite revolutionary.”
Jason Ball, the 2017 Victorian Young Australian of the Year and an LGBTIQ and mental health advocate, was one of those kids. Then a closeted teenager living in country Victoria, he stumbled across the first episode, directed by Australian Russell Mulcahy.
“I was like, ‘oh my god, two gay people on television,’ and it blew my mind,” he say. “It was literally the first time I’d seen gay representation on screen. Everything up until that point had been in books that I would go to the library and order.”
Around 13 at the time, Ball had just scored his own TV. So infatuated with the show, he invested in a booster aerial as the SBS signal was wobbly. “I remember sitting the whole week looking forward to the next episode. Mum and dad’s bedroom was next to mine, so I’d have the volume quite low and I would watch the episode with my hand on the remote, so I could quickly change the channel in case they burst into my room.”
The character of Justin, in particular, gave Ball hope. “I’d always had these really negative stereotypes in my head based on the way that people would talk about gay people and demean them, but Justin was like me. He was just a nice, good-natured, funny, curious young guy and it was the first time that I’d felt something positive for my own future.”
Above all else, Ball looked forward to the obligatory weekly sex scene. “It was the closest thing to pornography that I had,” he chuckles. “I remember one week, we were almost at the end of the episode and I’m like, ‘the sex scene has to be coming soon,’ and then it was the lesbians and it just ruined my week. I couldn’t believe that’s what I got.”
Amusingly enough, Rose Johnstone, acting editorial director of Time Out Australia, also found lesbian couple Thea (Lindsay Peterson) and Michelle (Melanie Marcus), the least interesting element of the show. Brought up in a religious family, she was around 15 and not yet out when it hit Australian screens and would watch it with her two best friends.
“They gave birth to their baby in the very first episode and we used to joke about how they were the most boring characters,” she says. “We were into Brian and Michael who were going out to parties and having flings.”
Describing her journey towards coming out at 23 as more of a gradual realisation than a light bulb moment, Johnstone notes that the signs were obvious in retrospect. “It’s the power of self-denial and just crushing those thoughts down inside you. I would almost fast-forward the lesbian characters, but maybe that was my own secret self-hatred? I would gravitate towards queer characters, watching or reading anything, or just read queer subtext into them.”
A big fan of Sharon Gless who played Michael’s proud PFLAG activist mother Debbie, Johnstone’s most striking memory is the scene in which Brian and Justin are assaulted in a car park after attending the younger man’s school prom together. Even if Thea and Michelle were a bit too domesticated (and stereotypical) for her tastes at the time, she’s nonetheless glad that representation was there.
“The show tried to portray them in a really sensitive way and show that as a couple raising a kid together, their relationship was no different from any other married straight couple. Shows like The L Word were able to offer more of a range of lesbians, which is what Queer as Folk did for gay men.”
Johnstone’s looking forward to revisiting the series at SBS On Demand. “It will be really cool. For a lot of people, the show was an important part of their culture.”
Watch Queer as Folk every Friday night at 9:50pm on SBS VICELAND. The entire first season is streaming now at SBS On Demand: