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Review: BBC's 'Queers' an intimate look at decades of gay British life

Alan Cumming in BBC's Queers.
Alan Cumming in BBC's Queers.
Published Oct. 13, 2017

The recent BBC series Queers is a deceivingly simple take on decades of gay life in Britain. One pub. One character. 20 minutes.

The eight episodes were produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalized sex between men. (That doesn't mean gay people weren't still criminalized, though.)

But far from simple, each intimate episode focuses on complex lives in poetic monologues from actors who become their roles so well it's easy to forget their star names. Director Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) filled the cast with Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk), Kadiff Kirwan (Black Mirror), Gemma Whelan (Game of Thrones), Alan Cumming (Battle of the Sexes), Ben Whishaw (London Spy), Russell Tovey (Quantico), Ian Gelder (Game of Thrones) and Rebecca Front (Humans).

The performances quietly draw you in, indeed treating you as the only other soul in the pub for a friend's confessional - anxious, angry, solemn, triumphant, sexy. It's essentially a high-quality theater show brought to the small screen, often with the 20 minutes passing quickly. The piano score provides a soft, cozy atmosphere in the pub where past LGBTQ patrons fade away.

The characters - crafted by new and established screenwriters Matthew Baldwin, Jon Bradfield, Michael Dennis, Keith Jarrett, Gareth McLean, Jackie Clune, Brian Fillis and Gatiss - don't blatantly say "I'm gay." Instead, the body language those of us in the LGBTQ community know so well is on full display. A "certain liquidity of the eye," the curl of a lip. And then, of course, the exuberance that spreads across the face while sparing no sexy talk.

And there's quite a bit of that, more open descriptions of queer longing and sexual acts than you'd hear or see on most American television.

In "Safest Spot in Town," Kirwan - the only actor of color in the series - as 1941's Fredrick is a pure delight as he remarks "Oh my god, if their overalls could speak" and later "he tasted of the suburbs, like he had a Hammersmith wife waiting for him at the back of his throat" to describe an air raid warden during the Blitz. Fredrick then employs a sublime metaphor for a spot that for decades has been loaded with shame and derogatory jokes: He calls "the lavatories around Piccadilly where men who speak my language like to entertain each other" the theater.

Then in "The Perfect Gentleman," Whelan as 1929's genderqueer Bobby plays with pronouns: "She is not what he seems, and she, as he, can rattle around as he pleases," cheekily adding: "One can carry on being a cake-eater till one has had one's fill. Did you clock it?" Bobby goes on to describe using a candle for an, uh, encounter and the complications of love and lust while dressed as a swaggering gent.

Cumming brings the series into 2016 with "Something Borrowed," a sweet look at groom-to-be Steve (yes, Adam and Steve are getting hitched). Steve anxiously prepares his speech while being cognizant of those who suffered before him as well as the conflict of buying into the straight institution of marriage for LGBTQ folks.

It's hard to imagine many straight people sitting down to watch the series. But does that matter? Plenty of entertainment that talks, jokes or shows PG relationships and explicit sex scenes between straight people never gets questioned about why they're potentially off-putting or alienating to LGBTQ viewers.

And after all, not everything needs to, or should, be for a straight audience.

Despite its compelling performances and refreshing structure, Queers is not perfect television, with one of its weakest episodes - "A Grand Day Out" - kicking off the series. (The other weak episode, "Missing Alice," focuses on the wife of a gay man in the 1950s.) Each story narrows in on different gay lives over a century in Britain but mostly focuses on white, gay male experiences. While it shows queer people have existed throughout history in various professions and social statuses, it could have shown more with a diverse cast.

Still, each episode poignantly puts a face to historical injustices. The series connects these characters separated by decades, showing community, love and light can be forged in the darkest of times.

And hopefully, Queers will spark unaware viewers to learn more about the British government and society's handling of the AIDS/HIV crisis, the 1957 Wolfenden Report and the 1967 Sexual Offence Act.

Contact Ashley Dye at adye@tampabay.com. Follow @ashleycdye.

WATCH

Queers

The eight-episode serie is available on BBCAmerica.com, VOD and the BBC America app.

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