Lesbians: not as much fun as you hoped

Despite the in-your-face advertising, Five’s Candy Bar Girls had little to offer in the way of Sapphic frolicking.

David Bowden

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In an age of ‘affluenza’, ‘social phobia’ and ‘chronic lateness syndrome’, it is right to be cautious about diagnosing yourself with the latest therapeutic fad. Yet I think I have, of late, come down with a serious case of what William E Findlay once termed ‘urbanitis’ or ‘the metropolitan disease’.

In fairness, it’s not that I actually want to escape the numerous pleasures of what William Makepeace Thackeray called ‘naughty London’ and – quelle surprise – I’m a big fan of metropolitan living. But sometimes it’s difficult not to be gripped by an intense, creeping fear that actually everything has this time just gone too far, that modern life really is as gaudy and soul-destroying as the Daily Mail claims. The latest bout came when I was confronted with a giant poster on the Tube proclaiming, simply, LESBIANS. I’m all for celebrating people’s lifestyle choices, and in fact am generally on side with them flaunting it in my face; but I simply have to draw the line at advertising themselves on the Tube like they’re some common or garden New Atheist. If nothing else, girls, desperation is bad for business.

Naturally, the morally vertiginous giddiness faded when I realised it was actually an unsubtle advertising campaign of a rather more quaint kind: for Channel 5, now controversially in the grubby mitts of porno-tycoon Richard Desmond. Touted as the broadcaster’s big challenger to The Only Way Is Essex and Jersey Shore, Five promised to take us behind the scenes of Soho’s trendy lipstick lesbian Candy Bar and reveal all the sexy Sapphic frolics within.

The result? Well it was a bit like going to Soho’s trendy lipstick lesbian Candy Bar, which is only of moderate titillation if you are actually a lesbian and, even then, it still helps if you’re kinda drunk. Far from the wild show-off excesses and high camp melodrama of mockumentaries like TOWIE, this was a relatively old-school fly-on-the-wall doc following the bar owners and patrons as they went about their respective daily business. The stars are generally as annoying and self-absorbed as you’d expect patrons of any trendy London bar to be – before we factor in that one of them used to be on Big Brother – and it generally downplays the raunch factor in favour of real people talking about babies and relationships and stuff. Like the Ibiza Uncovered shows of yesteryear, I imagine its target audience are those either too young or too old to do this stuff for real, but with moral sensitivity standing in for the pseudo-outrage those shows aimed to generate.

Anyway, it’s nice to have a show on television which shows young people going out and having fun without being lectured about their choices – which could only happen in a programme about gay bars these days. If these girls were straight we’d be asked to judge them on how many units of alcohol and regretted sexual encounters they were clocking up. Some battles have been successfully won, but it’s worth reminding yourself that the struggle to have the freedom of lifestyle choices is still an ongoing war regardless of who you drink or go to bed with.

‘LESBIANS’ were also a big theme on the BBC, under that other scoundrel’s banner of ‘artistic representation’. Fortunately, it came in the form of a film adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 2006 Blitz-set novel The Night Watch. Waters caused quite a stir when Andrew Davies did a racy adaptation of her ‘lesbo-Victorian’ Tipping The Velvet back in 2002. Behind her somewhat self-effacing demeanour, Waters is one of our finest and most interesting contemporary novelists, winning as many admirers for her elegant post-queer pastiches of Victorian literary forms as for her subject matter.

The Night Watch is one of her finest novels, moving beyond her knowing literary ‘lesbo-Victorian’ (her words) niche into weightier topics. Narrated backwards, the novel tells the stories of four women and one man interlinked by sex, gender and social upheaval during the Second World War. Neatly picking up on the manner with which the Second World War tends to get recast by successive generations to suit the political prejudices of the present, the backwards-looking structure of the novel seemed to act as a perfect metaphor for a very contemporary political stasis, proud of what progress used to mean (sexual liberation, rising living standards, better opportunities for female equality) but utterly uncertain what it should look like tomorrow.

A question just as pertinent and confused in its answers as it was five years ago, then. Shorn of the clever artfulness of her prose and condensed down to a mere 90 minutes on screen, however, The Night Watch became what her earlier novels could have been accused of being: a stylish imitation. This was BBC drama back in its comfort zone of producing classy-looking adaptations of sophisticated novels, but failing to provide little more than effective dramatisation. It served as a nice taster and advert for the novel, but lacked any serious substance as a film in its own right. Once again, when held up in competition against the original and richly contoured dramas of The Killing/HBO mould, you found yourself wondering where the next generation of great British television dramatists is going to come from.

BBC2 has pinned a lot of hopes on the six-part Fifties newsroom drama The Hour, penned by rising star Abi Morgan, which starts next week. On top of the flawed The Shadow Line, it at least suggests that British television harbours some ambitions to match the insight and perception of the cream of its novelists.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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