Paying Lip Service to proper drama
BBC3’s dire new show recycles every dating and relationship cliché known to man, only with lesbians.
Oh good: a new lesbian-themed relationship drama has hit our screens.
It’s difficult to know who you’re going to hate more when a momentous event such as this occurs: the members of the right-on brigade who will praise any old tat which features gays being gay on telly as a victory for equal opportunities or the members of the right-on brigade who will complain that it’s simply not representative enough (ie, it’s not a programme which exactly replicates their own narrow experiences). Then there’s the age-old war between the tired old reactionaries who will denounce This Filth or the trendy-wendy crowd who will denounce it all for simply not being shocking enough, or too shocking as it might mean that dirty people have dirty thoughts about dirty lesbians while watching it.
There was plenty of fuel for all of them with new drama Lip Service, which began on BBC3 this week. It follows a group a young(ish) lesbians in Glasgow as they go about their daily lesbian business of being lesbians: there’s the sexy promiscuous one, the pretty blonde ditzy one, the sensible one, the butch career one and the glamorous closeted one. There was the requisite controversial scene (lesbian sex in a mortuary) and plenty of slightly more tasteful girl-on-girl action interspersed with them talking about their feelings (lest we think it’s porn).
So far, so very formulaic. Anyone who ever wondered what a Glaswegian The L Word would sound like, or what Sex And The City would look like if they set it in Glasgow and made it exclusively about lesbians, now need wonder no more. It has, slightly predictably, divided opinion. The Times described it as ‘possibly the worst programme ever made’. Metro accused it of ‘tokenism’. A Guardian reviewer felt it was an important moment for the gay community, but was upset by the absence of diesel dykes. Independent reviewer Amol Rajan simply shrugged, and observed that it wasn’t particularly good.
You can see his point: it isn’t particularly good. The dialogue is dreadful, filled with risible attempts at gay-scene slang (which they then have to explain, for more confused viewers) and the sort of pillow talk dreamt up by somebody who sits writing at a desk all day. Frankie, the show’s heart-throb and star, is as televisually dull as all promiscuous people tend to be outside of porn (because if being an easy lay is a central plank of your personality, being interesting doesn’t generally come as second nature). Every dating and relationship cliché known to man is recycled, because it’s somehow made fresher when it’s girlies doing it with each other.
That said, show creator Harriet Braun has been keen to play down the ‘landmark’ angle. She’s stated her aim to avoid dealing with sexuality ‘ishoos’ and avoid worrying about representing the gay ‘community’. She just wanted to make a programme about lesbians which shows them doing everything twentysomethings do: get drunk, fall in love, have sex, break up and deal with crap jobs.
In fairness, that does sound like the worst TV programme in the world, but it’s not the first to do that, is it? We’ve had shows about aimless kidults who are hairdressers, teachers, mistresses, unemployed, nurses, IT professionals and – in the case of Skins – people whose sole business is being young. I suppose it’s time lesbians had a go; it’ll probably be the turn of TV columnists next. As for the crowd who grumble that these are all under-representative in terms of being slim, attractive and having lots of sex and drama in their lives, you have to ponder whether they ever take time off from writing infuriated academic theses on ‘transgression’ and media representations on sexuality to actually watch TV.
It’s not as tragicomic as early Teachers, as fun as No Angels or as good as This Life. At most, it echoes the joyful spirit of Queer As Folk which had as its primary argument that life may be shit as a gay teen, but when you grow up into an adult you can buy lots of cool stuff, have loads of fun and generally not give a shit what other people think of your lifestyle choices. Which is still a good philosophy for these cheerlessly austere and hyper-regulated times.
Lip Service sadly reveals that it still requires a good script and interesting characters on top of a promising worldview to make good TV. But let’s not pretend that its failings aren’t shared by most British drama, regardless of how representative it is or not. Perhaps now that lesbians have been allowed to come out of the ‘role model’ closet we can all get over the obsession with having realistic portrayals of minorities on TV and instead get on with the more interesting question of finding something truthful to say about the world. Now that really would be groundbreaking.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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