Cucumber, Banana and Tofu, three major series focusing on queer lives from creator Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk, Doctor Who), recently screened on British TV and online. Comedy drama Cucumber (on Channel 4) follows the glitch in a relationship between two longtime partners (played by Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri). Banana (on E4), featuring younger characters that overlap with those in Cucumber, consists of separate dramas about queer characters, including one episode written by Sue Perkins. Finally, Tofu (on 4oD) offers frank and often hilarious interviews about modern sex in all its variety.
They are the latest in a long line of excellent LGBT series that have been produced around the world, and below we have brought together 10 of the best. The UK has been especially strong in this regard, mirroring its commendable record of excellent gay cinema. Sadly few international series with LGBT characters make it to British shores, although a couple are included below.
This list consists of series that feature an LGBT character as the protagonist. Following this criteria, programmes as diverse as Brideshead Revisited (1981), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Six Feet Under (2001-05), The Wire (2002-08), Glee (2009-) and Modern Family (2009-) don’t make the cut, despite their strong secondary queer characters (the international success of Modern Family in particular, broadcast in countries where homosexuality is still illegal, could help liberalise attitudes, following the marriage of Cameron and Mitchell, two of the most popular characters).
Some series, despite huge followings, didn’t make the cut. Lip Service (2010-12) was a disappointment, despite an excellent performance from Heather Peace. The Line of Beauty (2006) was too coy, losing the hedonistic sexiness of Alan Hollinghurst’s source novel. A glut of sitcoms feature LGBT characters, but so many are patchy, or dated. Will & Grace (1998-2006) was a huge hit, but its portrayal of gay men was clichéd and too few of the jokes landed (although try telling that to the often hysterical studio audience). The New Normal (2012-13) started strong but lost its way, leading to a swift cancellation. The less said about Rhona Cameron’s and Sue Perkins’ forays into sitcom, the better, while Vicious (2013-), starring Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen, is bewilderingly awful.
There are some glaring omissions – space wouldn’t allow for sci-fi series Torchwood (2006-11) or Orphan Black (2013-), although both have fantastic, interesting LGBT characters. The joyous Tales of the City (1993-2001) was narrowly edged out. Bad Girls (1999-2006), despite its camp reputation, had a terrific lesbian storyline in the romance between prisoner Nikki and governor Helen, but lost momentum when both characters left. Despite its tendency towards soap and one of the most loathed lesbian characters in TV history, The L Word (2004-09) has countless devoted admirers. It’s too early to say if Looking (2014-), overseen by Weekend director Andrew Haigh, will be a future great, although the first season got better and better.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980)
“In his innermost heart, there are two he loves. One is his Mieze, the other is Reinhold.”
One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s greatest achievements, Berlin Alexanderplatz is often regarded as an epic film, rather than a series of 13 episodes, plus an epilogue. Adapted from Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, seen as a key text from the Weimar Republic, it follows the dramatic life of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), newly released from a jail sentence after killing his girlfriend. He gets involved with a criminal fraternity, and becomes infatuated with immoral pimp, Reinhold (Gottfried John), even after the latter tries to kill him. Events turn increasingly violent, but still Biberkopf doubts the villainy of his ‘friend’.
Homoeroticism throbs subtly throughout, but only in the remarkable two-hour epilogue does it come to the fore, through a fantastic and nightmarish journey through the mind of Biberkopf. He imagines Reinhold taking a lover in jail, pictures Reinhold whipping him in a torture chamber, and takes part in a boxing match that ends, not with a punch but with a passionate kiss. The whole series takes the viewer on a gripping journey, but the utterly unexpected finale makes you question all that has come before.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1990)
Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is one of the best-known books to feature a lesbian central character, and is still studied in schools today. At the time of its broadcast, this beautifully acted adaptation caused a degree of controversy owing to its unashamed portrayal of teenage sexuality, as well as its depiction of the Elim Pentecostal Church, seen as an oppressive institution – members of the denomination, including the heroine’s mother, are appalled by lesbianism, and even perform an exorcism on young Jess.
Despite the negative influence of the church, it is an optimistic drama that shows Jess breaking free from the constraints of her small Lancashire community and emerging to better her lot by leaving home, getting into university and learning to be at peace with her sexuality. It’s also very funny, with a wicked ear for dialogue worthy of Alan Bennett. It won BAFTAs for best drama series and best actress (for Geraldine McEwan as the strict mother), and launched the adult career of Charlotte Coleman, previously known for playing the title role in Marmalade Atkins (1981-84). Sadly, after a run of film roles, including Hugh Grant’s flatmate in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), she died aged 33 of a severe asthma attack.
For most of its first four seasons, Ellen was a likeable sitcom, fun, silly and safe. That changed with the 22nd episode of season four, named ‘The Puppy Episode’, in which the title character, like comedian Ellen Degeneres herself, came out. Despite bomb threats to the studio and protests from religious groups, the episode was broadcast in 1997, with Ellen finally uttering the words “I’m gay”, accidentally speaking the words into the microphone at an airport check-in desk. It’s one of the funniest ever episodes of a sitcom and a huge rating success, although sadly it was a last hurrah.
In the next (and final) season, which explored Ellen’s first steps into her new life, a severe ‘parental guidance’ warning was slapped on before each episode. Some critics bemoaned the focus on gay issues, and ratings fell, leading to the show’s cancellation. Too bad, for the last season showed more flare and originality than most of the 80+ episodes that had come before. Degeneres, meanwhile, is now a well-known face in showbiz, a regular Oscar host who won a new generation of fans voicing Dory in Finding Nemo (2003). Rarely has someone so utterly defied their critics, while remaining true to themselves.
Queer as Folk (1999)
This one came out of nowhere, a shameless and often outrageous series that gave a kicking to the perception of gay men as sexless best friends to female protagonists and instead put them centre stage, showing them to be as flawed, selfish and sex-hungry as everyone else – more so, in fact. Its first episode, featuring 29-year-old Stuart rimming a horny 15-year old, was unapologetically provocative, and upset both the tabloids and many gay viewers, who were alarmed by its subversive characters. The producers rightly protested that the series never claimed to be representative, but given the lack of precedence, it’s easy to see why its arrival came as a shock.
It hasn’t dated a jot (although Manchester’s Canal Street is now the stomping ground of hen parties alongside the gay clubbers), and launched the careers of its three stars, Aidan Gillen, Craig Kelly and Charlie Hunnam. Creator Russell T. Davies, meanwhile, has become that rare thing – a household name TV screenwriter, largely thanks to the monster success of the revamp of Doctor Who (2005-). His next gay series, Bob & Rose (2001), about a homosexual guy who falls in love with a woman, had its admirers, but Queer as Folk remains a landmark. A pretty good sequel followed in 2000, while an underrated American-Canadian version ran for five seasons from 2000 to 2005.
Tipping the Velvet (2002)
Nan: May I really – touch you?
Kitty: Oh Nan, I shall think I’ll die if you don’t!
The works of Sarah Waters have been adapted several times for the small screen – Fingersmith (2005), a meaty lesbian melodrama starring Sally Hawkins, missed this list by a whisker. Tipping the Velvet tells the tale of Nan (Rachael Stirling), a Whitstable oyster girl who falls hard for cross-dressing music hall star Kitty (Keeley Hawes), before ending up working as a male prostitute and being taken up by a sordid widow (a wonderful Anna Chancellor) who parades her around at sex parties. But can she find true love, and will it be in the arms of Kitty?
The TV series brilliantly borrows the conventions of early cinema – peep show irises, dramatic music and exaggerated reaction shots – to create a wry, knowing yet still very touching Victorian melodrama. It loses none of the sex from the source novel (the title comes from lesbian slang for cunnilingus), and the performances are top notch, especially from Stirling. And the ending is just perfect.
Angels in America (2003)
This hugely ambitious two-parter based on Tony Kushner’s epic play, dubbed ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’, juggles the lives of very different gay men living in New York during the Reagan administration. It won five Golden Globes, including all the TV acting awards, and features one of the starriest line-ups of a miniseries, including Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. Pacino won several awards for his fiery portrayal of the much-despised closeted lawyer Roy Cohn, as did Streep, playing the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, for whom Cohn successfully obtained the death penalty for her part in espionage. Justin Kirk and Ben Shenkman also excel as a gay couple torn apart when the former tests positive for HIV.
The Reagan administration’s appalling lack of reaction to the virus and the effects AIDS had on gay relationships is arrestingly depicted by the late director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). It’s also often very funny, and bravely surreal (the main cast portray various characters of different genders, ages and even species, with Thompson as a fearsome angel). Ultimately, though, its the heart-wrenching representation of the powers of love and forgiveness that make it a television masterpiece.
Sugar Rush (2005-06)
Before her witless transphobia stunk up her résumé, Julie Burchill was often a funny and refreshing writer when she could be bothered. Her breezy and frank Sugar Rush, a novel for teenagers, was adapted for a hugely enjoyable – and often alarming – TV series, telling the trials of a teenage lesbian, Kim (Olivia Hallinan), living in Brighton with a huge crush on her straight, tearaway best friend, Sugar (Lenora Crichlow, future star of Being Human and Fast Girls).
Broadcast the year before Skins made its explosive debut, it shares much in common in its outrageous depiction of teenage life. In one episode, Kim considers drugging Sugar – she doesn’t in the end, but the idea of ‘date rape’ being played for laughs would be unlikely to be greenlit today. In another, Kim accidentally ends up giving her feckless mother crabs (don’t ask). Its lack of moralising and celebration of the fun side of adolescence are pure Burchill. Sadly it was cancelled after two series.
Don’t Ever Wipe Tears without Gloves (2012)
Since the success of The Killing (2007–12), more and more foreign-language TV series, most of them Scandinavian, have been broadcast on British television. Swedish drama Don’t Ever Wipe Tears without Gloves follows the relationship between a troubled Jehovah’s Witness and a country boy who moves to Stockholm in the early 1980s, as the outbreak of AIDS begins (the awkward title comes from a stern instruction from a matron scolding a nurse who shows compassion to a dying gay man, showing the fear and paranoia surrounding the virus at the time).
Adam Lundgren is superb as Benjamin, shunned by his religious family but determined to care for his sick partner, and the drama is excellent at showing the human cost of the disease. It also punctures the cliché of Sweden as an uber-liberal country, showing the toxic homophobia that prevailed when the disease made headline news. But while deeply moving and often harrowing, its greatest triumph is showing the love and support within the gay community in Stockholm, while a shot of the two men falling in love as snow falls gently around them is achingly beautiful.
Orange Is the New Black (2013-)
One of the first series to be launched by Netflix, Orange Is the New Black takes TV’s favourite environment for lesbian action – a women’s prison – and refreshes it into a fun, funny and unpredictable drama. Whereas previous riffs on the scenario led to the melodrama of Within These Walls (1974-78) and Prisoner Cell Block H (1979-86), this one blended high drama – the main character, Piper, is sent to jail when her former girlfriend rats her out to the police, only to reunite with her behind bars – with great comedy storylines. Piper, a flaky and often selfish individual, could have been unwatchable, but Taylor Schilling keeps her the right side of sympathetic.
The lesbian relationships (there are many) are sensitively depicted, but the series broke new ground with the regular character of Sophia (Laverne Cox), a trans woman jailed for theft played by – gasp – a trans woman. That this should be a novelty is a damning indictment of film and TV representation of trans people (see Jared Leto’s dubious Oscar win for playing a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club). In 2013, Cox became the first trans person to be nominated for an acting Emmy for the role.
It has only run for one season, but it’s already clear that comedy-drama Transparent is something special, winning awards for best TV series (musical or comedy), and for lead actor Jeffrey Tambor, playing a trans woman who, post-retirement, begins her transition, to mixed reaction from her former wife and adult children. While other LGBT storylines weave into the narrative – one daughter leaves her husband for a woman, another has a brief affair with a trans man – it is Tambor’s dignified portrayal of Maura that dominates.
The show, produced by Amazon Studios and available online through their site, depicts the challenges facing trans people with refreshing candour. It’s also very funny, including Maura’s initial clumsy attempts to learn to be more feminine: “Your male privilege is leaking all over the place,” sighs one would-be tutor. All the characters are flawed, and occasionally obnoxious, but the excellent writing from Jill Soloway (who also has a parent who is trans) makes them intriguing, realistic people who you root for.