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British Television  
 
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Television has been inadequately rendered as part of gay and lesbian artistic and cultural history. Many important milestones continue to be dismissed or ignored by lesbian and gay academics and cultural commentators. Unlike the study of gay and lesbian cinema, the discussion of television is predicated on ill-informed and historically naïve viewpoints that would be unacceptable if applied to other art forms.

Early Television History

A large proportion of early television productions in Britain (1936-1960) no longer exists, and what remains is often imperfectly preserved on crude technology. However, this does not mean either that gays and lesbians were not represented in the ebb and flow of programming during this time or that fugitive details of their existence are not available.

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Until September 1955 there was only one channel: the license-funded, politically neutral British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), or "Aunty" as she was affectionately or slightingly known.

The BBC offered a relatively broad-based range of choices: while stuck in traditional, white, middle-class values, the Corporation employed enough oddballs and eccentrics to spice up the most conservative fare. Carrying on the quality-first philosophy of the Corporation's first director-general, John Reith, the BBC believed in diversity: of talent, culture, geography, and even--though this had to be masked--of sexuality.

In glorious fuzzy black and white, with frequent breaks in transmission and hilarious glitches because most of the shows went out "live," British television provided a number of regular "queer" sightings in the 1950s: a "mannish" policewoman, based on a real lesbian police officer, and an intellectual tramp disowned by his family in the enormously popular bobby-on-the-beat drama series Dixon of Dock Green. The tramp, Duffy Clayton, was based on a gay man who was a mentor for the show's creator and principal writer, Ted Willis.

Real-life lesbian, journalist Nancy Spain, with her close-cropped hair, cravat and trousers was often seen on the small screen, as was gruff and ungracious Gilbert Harding, with whom she was, for a time, "romantically linked."

A panelist on the quiz show What's My Line?, Harding specialized in rude outbursts to contestants who were not quick on the uptake or who were syntactically challenged. His zingers were the talk of the nation the next day. The first British small screen superstar, his private life remained publicly asexual. Maybe a word to the wise was being sent when an aging character actress based her role of a querulous fairy godmother in a 1955 children's television play, Pots of Money, upon this titan of tactlessness.

Gilbert Harding's lifelong attraction to males was masked by a façade of the snapping bulldog that prevented too many questions being asked by a post-war British public that, anyway, was officially ignorant of homosexuality. Indeed the very word could not be spoken, let alone its meaning discussed in a direct manner. Television, nevertheless, was awash with clipped male poodles and sturdy female stallions: British culture's acceptance of eccentricity was their protection and their potting mix.

Homosexuality Rises to the Surface

It was the very rigidity of British society, its cap-doffing deference to royals and aristocrats still in place despite two devastating world wars and the destruction of an empire, that eventually forced homosexuality to rise to the surface, making it a television staple without which no viewing week would be complete.

With the arrest in 1953 of the esteemed and recently knighted actor John Gielgud and a high profile court case a year later involving a lord and a boy scout or two, the establishment, that interbred, intermarried coterie without which the status quo could not be maintained or even slightly adjusted, decided to act.

Suddenly, certain realities were faced. There were men who were attracted to other men. Their natures led them to be prey for blackmailers and the law courts. Some were imprisoned for loving. Some didn't get that far: they just killed themselves.

A committee, significantly on homosexuality and prostitution, was set up under the chairmanship of John Wolfenden. The publication of his report, recommending the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in private, was the Open Sesame! for the discussion of homosexuality, male and female, as well as other unacceptable facts of intimate human contact.

The relatively new and untried commercial network, which took the form of regionally based companies under the overall banner of Independent Television (ITV), took Wolfenden's findings--which were finally published late in 1957--and presented dramatizations of Oscar Wilde's trials, as well as adaptations of stage plays such as South in which television heart-throb Peter Wyngarde risked his reputation if not his career by playing an unmistakable, if repressed, homosexual.

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