British cinema has long struggled with how to depict homosexuality and queer life of all stripes. For much of the last century, it was simply brushed under the celluloid carpet. Of course, the queers are there; from the earliest years of film, carefully coded characters, fleeting glimpses, winks and nudges permeate. Queer directors, writers, actors and designers helped to shape many of Britain’s most famous cinematic icons. But films that actually dealt with the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people were few in number until relatively recently.
Dirk Bogarde’s landmark role in the 1961 crime thriller Victim is the touchstone, a film that actually helped change public opinion and the law, when the 1967 Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised male homosexuality. In the wake of this first step towards equality, we were treated to unpleasant stereotypes galore in The Killing of Sister George (1968) and Staircase (1969), but the 1970s saw progress with the sophisticated bisexual love triangle of John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), Derek Jarman’s homoerotic Sebastiane (1976) and Ron Peck and Paul Hallam’s Nighthawks (1978), the first explicitly gay British feature set in the gay community.
Jarman raged against the renewed tide of state-sanctioned homophobia in the 80s, while the 90s brought us the much-loved Beautiful Thing (1996). More recently Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) was acclaimed as a breakthrough for queer British cinema, hitting home with mixed arthouse audiences.
But what of those important but less often quoted contributions to queer culture? This selection brings together an eclectic melange of forgotten features, underground shorts and documentaries, and contemporary favourites that deserve to reach even wider audiences.
Serious Charge (1959)
Director: Terence Young
Two years before Victim tackled the subject head-on, Serious Charge was the first mainstream British feature to obliquely deal with homosexuality. More famous for featuring Cliff Richard in his big-screen debut as a bequiffed teenybopper, the film attempted to ape US delinquent movies with its gaggle of distinctly middle-class tearaways. Popular young vicar Anthony Quayle, who runs the youth club and lives at home with mum, faces the villagers’ wrath when a local ratbag accuses him of molestation, and Quayle’s spurned female admirer backs up the false account.
A very slight relaxation of draconian censorship rules allowed a smattering of hints that this man of the church is queer, that certain frothing homophobes know it and are jumping at the chance to get him in the stocks. Look out for the imposing Judith Furse, often typecast in butch, coded-as-lesbian roles, as a probation officer and unlikely ally.
The World Ten Times Over (1963)
Director: Wolf Rilla
Could this be British cinema’s first lesbian relationship? Some viewers may struggle to join the queer dots in this tale of unlucky-in-love West End nightclub hostesses and flatmates Ginnie (June Ritchie) and Billa (Sylvia Syms). But look closer. “As far as I was concerned, my character was in love with June Ritchie and I wanted to play it that way, but in those days one could only suggest lesbianism,” Syms later commented. While it was never criminalised, lesbianism was socially taboo and getting anything of substance past the censors was like pulling teeth. Yet Rilla’s neglected masterpiece of minor-chord melancholy and sisterhood marked a quietly significant moment, hinting at Billa’s love for the fragile Ginnie and – in the pair’s ultimate rejection of men – of a future together.
Dream A40 (1965)
Director: Lloyd Reckord
With mainstream cinema still reluctant to tackle gay characters and plots in the mid-60s, Jamaican actor-director Lloyd Reckord took matters into his own hands with this extraordinary underground short that interrogates the psychological impact of persecution.
Made on a shoestring, the film follows a young gay couple as a road trip out of their cosmopolitan bubble descends into a horrifying ‘guilt fantasy’ when a curious youngster spies them holding hands. Whether intentional or not, scenes of the men corralled into a nightmarish underworld evoke the Nazi concentration camps where thousands of LGBT people perished. Reckord was a pioneer in many ways, and was the first black actor to film an interracial kiss in the TV plays Hot Summer Night (1959) and You in Your Small Corner (1962).
Black Cap Drag (1969)
Director: Dick Benner
Since its shock closure in 2015, Camden stalwart The Black Cap has become the focus of a concerted campaign to save London’s rapidly diminishing queer venues. The Cap was a haven for gay men as early as the 1960s, before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. This lo-fi documentary is an extremely rare record of drag performance at the pub, shot by American filmmaker Richard Benner, who later made the drag-themed features Outrageous! (1977) and Too Outrageous! (1987).
We see compere Shane trolling through the West End on her way to work, and performing alongside Laurie Lee, later star of cracking BBC doc Lol: A Bona Queen of Fabularity (1981). What we don’t see is the audience – many men would not have been comfortable being filmed in a gay pub at this time. Unseen in the UK for many years, the film was acquired by the BFI National Archive in 2015.
Goodbye Gemini (1970)
Director: Alan Gibson
Deeply problematic on multiple levels but undoubtedly fascinating, this little-seen shocker pre-empted the ‘video nasty’ when it fell foul of a backlash against 60s permissiveness. Creepy over-privileged twins Jacki (Judy Geeson) and Jules (Martin Potter), the latter increasingly deranged and harbouring incestuous desires for his sister, arrive in London to paint the town red.
Things go awry once they meet pimp and conman Clive (Alexis Kanner) while watching a drag show at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (the drag queen performing on the bar is Ricky Renée, who later appeared in the Oscar-winning 1972 musical Cabaret). Jules is drugged and raped by two members of Clive’s ‘circus’, drag queens-cum-transvestite prostitutes, and gruesome revenge ensues. Perhaps the most exploitative example of queers being equated with perversion, it makes The Killing of Sister George look progressive.
Girl Stroke Boy (1971)
Director: Bob Kellett
Gender fluidity may be all the rage among more enlightened young folk, but they didn’t invent it. Back in 1971, Peter Straker, best known for West End musicals such as Hair, played Jo, a statuesque West Indian brought home to the shires by his white boyfriend to meet the folks. Bob Kellett’s one-of-a-kind comedy has great fun (largely) at the expense of Joan Greenwood’s horrified mum Lettice (yes, Lettice) and dad Michael Hordern, who can’t make out if their flamboyantly-garbed guest is a boy or a girl. Jo sweetly schools the bumbling pair – and by extension the audience: “Who gives a hell whether it’s a boy or a girl; we’re all a bit of both aren’t we?”
Pretty radical even today, Jo is notable too as British cinema’s first queer leading role to be played by a black actor. The film has fallen out of circulation, so grab the chance to see it when you can.
I Want What I Want (1972)
Director: John Dexter
Despite growing visibility, transgender people remain among the most vulnerable and misunderstood members of the wider LGBT+ community. Back in the 1970s, trans characters and storylines were all but invisible, but a few isolated steps forward were taken. The astonishing but little-seen feature I Want What I Want, adapted from Geoff Brown’s 1966 novel, precedes the BBC’s groundbreaking Play for Today Even Solomon (1979) by several years.
Anne Heywood stars as bullied, effete Roy, who goes through a difficult and lonely transition, taking the first faltering steps in a new life as fashion-loving Wendy. Despite occasional crude moments, the compassion shown towards Wendy and her journey – and the fact that you’ll be rooting for her every step of the way – makes this a rediscovery to celebrate.
A Bit of Scarlet (1997)
Director: Andrea Weiss
This one’s a bit of a cheat as it’s a documentary made up entirely of archive footage; a fascinating companion piece to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film version of Vito Russo’s influential tome The Celluloid Closet, released in the US in the same period. Andrea Weiss wittily unpicks gay and lesbian representation in British film and TV, from early coded glimpses to breakthroughs like Victim and the mainstream campery of the Carry Ons.
Narrated by Sir Ian McKellen, this “post-modern queer soap opera for Britain” is a wry and meticulously researched guide to reading between the lines of film history – an essential skill for queers of all ages. If you enjoy Weiss’s film look out for Daisy Asquith’s Queerama (2017), packed with footage from the BFI National Archive.
Stud Life (2012)
Director: Campbell X
Filmmaker and activist Campbell X has been an inspirational fixture on the queer cinema scene for more than two decades, since their sassy short B.D. Women (1994). Their debut feature Stud Life celebrates London’s underground black queer culture and stars the compelling T’Nia Miller as JJ, a black British ‘stud’, providing an introduction for many new audiences to this subculture of masculine-presenting lesbians.
Since its premiere at BFI Flare, the film has won a devoted international fan base but deserves to be more widely seen. Most recently Campbell directed webseries Different for Girls, starring Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) and Rachel Shelley (The L Word).
Dressed as a Girl (2015)
Director: Colin Rothbart
Filmed on the fly over seven years and pieced together from professionally shot and home movie footage, this anarchic doc chronicles the nascent east London drag scene as it blossoms into a phenomenon. The original ‘Gay Bingo’ crew of Jonny Woo, John Sizzle and Ma Butcher are joined by performance artists Scottee and Pia, and Holestar, a trailblazer for female drag queens. The most outrageous of the lot is Amber, whose transition provides the film with an empowering and unexpectedly poignant narrative thread. Woo and Sizzle now run Haggerston hotspot The Glory, which has offered much-needed sanctuary against the raft of closures in the capital.
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