“LESBIAN KISS TO BE SCREENED ON BRITISH TELEVISION,” screeched the British tabloid headline. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was in reaction to the 2002 airing of Tipping the Velvet, or the latest same-sex snog in the long-running TV show Bad Girls, or any of the soaps from the late nineties desperate to outdo the “other side” in the ratings with a bit of gratuitous girl-on-girl action.
But this headline was actually from 1988, when the BBC was preparing to air an adaptation of DH Lawrences’ The Rainbow, in which Kate Buffery and the gorgeous Imogen Stubbs were to break a long-standing taboo of British television and lock lips. The initial furor died down almost as quickly as it started, however, and millions tuned in to watch The Rainbow go down in history for showing the first lesbian kiss on British television.
British television has made great strides since then, at least when it comes to lesbians on TV. Even the BBC, the last bastion of morality, is now showing women having sex using a strap-on. When did this happen? When did England start to unbutton its tightly laced up corsets, throw away the croquet mallets, and show its finely turned ankle?
After the uproar around The Rainbow in 1988, the BBC reverted to type for a while and fell back on comfortable programming, only really pushing the envelope with This Life in 1996/1997. They did give us Oranges are Not the Only Fruit in 1990 and Between the Lines in 1993, as well, both of which had considerable lesbian content. True to the contrariness of British nature, the complaints for these two centered not on the lesbian action, but on other issues.
Oranges had our own Bible belt up in arms, not because of the content but because there was quite severe criticism of the church. Despite the controversy, it won several awards including a BAFTA for Best Drama. The other program was cheekily referred to as “Between the Loins “ in reference to the main (straight male) character’s propensity to shed his clothes at the drop of a hat. The women getting it on didn’t seem to bother anyone.
And who can forget the masterful Portrait of a Marriage in 1990, starring Janet McTeer and Cathryn Harrison, a drama over four episodes detailing the real life affair of Vita Sackville West and Violet Keppel Trefusis during the early part of last century. This was a wonderful piece of drama arguably outshining both Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith.
Since then there has been a steady trickle of programs with both gay and lesbian content, although usually with characters written only for the short term to add spice to long-standing shows and soaps. This is often a cynical ploy to add ratings, as it is in the U.S., but it’s worth noting that the first lesbian character to appear in a soap, Zoe Tate (played by Leah Bracknell) in Emmerdale (1990), is still in the show.
Emmerdale‘s writers must be commended for giving her good story lines that haven’t just been about her sexuality. Although for a small farming community in the Yorkshire Dales, she certainly gets her fair share of action (to quote a line from the straight guy to the lesbian in Desert Hearts, “How you get all that action with no equipment, it’s beyond me!”)