British TV comedy has not, over the decades, treated its gay characters very kindly. Ever since 1972, and John Inman’s first cry of “I’m free” in Are You Being Served?, gay men have been parodied as camp and effeminate – with lesbians usually not featuring at all. Tonight – perhaps reflecting our more enlightened, tolerant age – ITV will broadcast Vicious, the first British sitcom to revolve around a gay couple. It’s a ground-breaking move, but it remains to be seen whether Vicious will break a more important mould – by allowing its gay characters to be individually drawn (and genuinely funny) comic creations, rather than stereotypes.
It’s astonishing, given what’s happening in the real world, that TV comedy still consigns its gays to a fictional ghetto. A remarkable (yet almost silent) change has taken place in British attitudes over the past few years. The vast majority of straight people now barely notice the gay people in their midst, and gay marriage – which would have been unthinkable not 10 years ago – looks likely to sail through Parliament with hardly a murmur.
Some comics have, to their credit, spotted this shift – and used it to poke fun at gay people who still tediously insist on being special and different. Little Britain, for example, deliciously undermined the delusional Matt Lucas character who insisted on being “The Only Gay in the Village”. But other comedians have, perhaps, seen the robust confidence of their own gay friends as licence to wheel out more off-colour gags.
In 2009, the sketch show Horne & Corden featured a spoof of homoerotic fragrance commercials created by the fictional “Fag Le Jay Jean-Peterson”. James Corden was aghast at the suggestion that this was homophobic, saying in an interview with this newspaper that “our show is one of the most gay-friendly shows you could ever imagine”. Humour like this, which has a “knowing” tone that expects gays to be in on the joke, takes a serious risk of misinterpretation – and, more to the point, of just not being funny.
In 1979 – in sitcom as in politics – the future looked so bright. ITV’s Agony saw Maureen Lipman living next door to a gay couple who (while fulsomely moustached) were well-adjusted, witty and not camp. And, in the US, ever since All in the Family in 1971 featured an ordinary gay character, that baton has been picked up by generation after generation of increasingly sophisticated sitcoms. Will & Grace, about a rather normal gay man and his slightly less normal female best friend, ran for eight seasons from 1998. Current hit Modern Family features a crazy gay couple alongside two crazy straight ones.