This week, the 2nd of my guest blogs, this one from screenwriter PAUL WILLIAMS.
Paul is a graduate of the Channel 4 Screenwriting course 2016; the script that he developed on the scheme was optioned by Bandit Television. He is currently writing episodes of DOCTORS and developing original ideas with independent producers. His feature film screenplay A CURE, is in development with Conker Films. Paul has an MA in TV Scriptwriting with Distinction from Leicester DeMontfort University.
“In these strange times….” Our current go-to catchphrase as we all fail to know what to say about the situation and times we’re in.
Surprisingly (or not) the 2011 film Contagion has suddenly resurfaced, re-entered film download charts, and has been shown on ITV2 during an actual pandemic. I watched it after lockdown had started, why? Some sort of morbid curiosity? To see what it got right? To try and understand our situation? Probably all of the above. It’s interesting we seek out a story similar to the situation we’re actually living right now.
That’s the power of stories. They can take us away from reality and/or give us a way to reflect on it. I’ve just binged VISIBLE: Out on TV (Apple TV+). It’s a docu-series that tracks the LGBTQ+ movement through representation on television. It’s brilliant. Watch it. It really hammered home to me how television is able to reflect the world we live in but also how through stories and characters we can enter hearts and minds, and help overcome prejudice and fear. It can make the unfamiliar familiar.
It reminded me of the films and TV shows that were a lifeline to me growing up gay in rural Leicestershire. The main things I knew about being gay were according to my Catholicism it was wrong, the newspapers told me I’d get HIV, and the school playground told me no-one would like me. Good times. But then one day in my year 10 form room some girls started talking about a TV drama they’d been watching that showed men having sex! They were scandalised! I joined in their joyful outrage ‘There’s men having sex!? What’s it called?’ Of course, it was the seminal Queer as Folk. Nonchalantly I continued ‘And… what channel and time is it on?’ Subtle Paul, really subtle.
I tuned in on the small TV in my bedroom and due to the useless aerial on top of it – maybe I am old?! – watched through the static. Squinting and cross eyed like viewing a magic eye picture, and despite the warning I couldn’t believe what I was actually seeing. It spoke to a part of me I wasn’t ready to acknowledge so I switched off. But it stayed with me.
Queer as Folk sent ripples through the country. It was divisive. Not just from the perspective of heteronormative society but also some gay people felt misrepresented. Which brings us to the dilemma of minority story-telling – the burden of responsibility. We crave these stories, we want to see people like us, living lives like us, facing issues like us, so we bring a lot of expectation to the table as an audience, and that pressure then lies on the storytellers.
Whatever group we find ourselves subcatergorised by gender, race, sexuality, class, disability, religion… we may have shared experience and commonality but also personal and individual experiences within that. Also taking into account intersectionality we have to realise that the experience of a gay white man can be very different to that of a gay man of colour, for example. So how can a drama possibly represent all of any of us? Can drama represent a whole community through one or a handful of stories? Should it even try to? We’re lucky to live in a time where more minority led dramas are happening, but this pressure still exists because we don’t get as many chances. We’re still viewed as ‘niche’.
When any of us feel we haven’t been represented correctly we worry what prejudices, misunderstandings, and negative perceptions it might either create or re-enforce. But are these always questions of representation or are they questions of drama?
I revisited Queer as Folk in my early 20s. I was now out to close friends but not my family, but my cousin had the DVDs and she insisted on lending them to me. OK, so in hindsight perhaps some of my family knew. I binged the entire first series alone in my bedroom but on DVD and a better TV. Ah, progress. But… I hated it. Don’t worry I’m also shouting at my 22 year old self – what an idiot he is – but I didn’t connect to it. I’d never been to a gay club, I’d never taken drugs and I was annoyed. Did everyone who’d watched this show now think this is exactly what all gay men were like? Was I not like other gay men? In reality it was just outside my direct experience at the time and having revisited again (on more than one occasion) I realise how brilliant it is, what it achieved, and it’s what I’d brought to the viewing experience that affected my opinion. Because despite the things I hadn’t known then, Russell T Davies had magnificently captured so much of the gay experience in a fun and unapologetic way.
Just recently I rediscovered the controversy around Sally Wainwright having killed off Kate in Last Tango in Halifax and also the uproar when Patsy’s girlfriend Celia was knocked off her bike in Call The Midwife. Lesbian viewers felt let down. Their hopes dashed at for once seeing a same-sex female relationship not end in tragedy. A trope that has been seen all too often. But what is happening here? Is it just ingrained lazy tropes that continually reinforce this negative message of same-sex relationships being doomed? Or could it be that story-telling and narrative structure is to blame?
Different genres inform certain elements of story – in Shakespearean terms is it a comedy or a tragedy? Romeo and Juliet is considered the epitome of a tragic romance. They love each other so much that they are willing to die for it. And it could be argued that we as audiences respond more passionately to a tragic love story because their love is finite, it becomes eternal. What would the impact have been if Rose and Jack had made just a bit more effort to balance that damn door?! Would it have been as epic if they’d both made it to shore, had kids, and got divorced ten years later? OK, they could have lived happily ever after, but you get my point. Without that feeling of sacrifice, loss, and a cost, would it feel as monumental?
I’ll admit I’m a sucker for a tragic romance, that’s what you get for growing up on Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, and such. But, of course, love stories can feel just as powerful with a happy every after. Do I feel less for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr D’Arcy? No. I was as profoundly affected by Brokeback Mountain as I was Love Simon, or God’s Own Country. But it does seem that minority storytellers have to ask themselves some tougher questions about the impact their story choices could have compared to (for want of a better word) the “mainstream”. Especially as the mainstream has also been telling our stories to various levels of success.
Film is also a different beast to series television. Whatever the sexuality of your characters you have to ask what will you do with a relationship to keep it interesting once they do get together? Where will the drama come from? And personally I tend to think this is where most of these decisions have come from, to create drama but perhaps we do need to work harder…..
Minorities have often found themselves in strange times so we don’t always need reminding of the harsh reality of that. We sometimes need a message of hope to counter that and show our lives are not tragic or just one thing. But we also need drama to serve us in a way that explores our reality for us, exploring the good, the bad, and even the tragic. As much as I understand the unhappiness of viewers over the death of Kate in Last Tango I also can’t help but wonder if there was a woman who watched that who may have lost her partner and found comfort in seeing Caroline going through what she had.
What’s the answer? Is it impossible to have positive representation that also doesn’t trap us in to only being allowed to tell certain stories? Well, I do not profess to be any kind of oracle, or a spokesperson for any other minority let alone my own community, but what I think we need is the decision makers, the commissioners, and people in power to be aware of these things and to give space to all the different types of stories that we have to tell. And we need to write them! Also, other writers that include characters from any minority need to be aware of these tropes so they can consider the choices that they decide to make.
Representation across the board still has some way to go and show different people at the centre of a variety of stories. Let’s see what tropes we can turn on their heads. I was listening to a Shonda Rhimes talk where she suggested purposefully playing with the expected gender or race or sexuality of a character and go against expectation to see how that changes things and makes a character feel more original but also authentic. I also listened to a David Mamet masterclass where he fervently states that our primary job as storytellers is solely to entertain, but, with the impact of storytelling surely we also have to be aware of our responsibility too.
I’ll always remember how I felt when I first watched the film Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey. I cried when Jamie came out to his mum and articulated the fears that were also mine, and I cried happy tears when Jamie and Ste dance with each other at the end. Here was a film that changed my world by simply speaking my truth and giving me hope.
So back to Contagion. People have proclaimed how accurately it predicted elements of this pandemic. But it didn’t really predict it spoke the truth of a situation. In the same way people have watched that and said ‘How did they know?’ It’s the same emotional truth we’re looking for in any drama. “How did they know that’s exactly how I feel?” That’s powerful and that also makes people who haven’t experienced it feel it too as it taps into something universal. And in the words of someone undoubtedly better to pay attention to than me:
“Things don’t change until you tell the truth about yourself, and television now has many more artists and creators willing to do that”
- Armistad Maupin, Visible: Out on TV
Oh, and we should probably take heed of the great David Mamet too – ENTERTAIN!
A massive thank you to PAUL for this excellent piece.
The next newsletter will be out next Friday May 29th.
Until then, look after yourselves,
All the best
May 22nd 2020