A Tale of Two TV Shows

For someone who doesn’t watch much television, this was a busy week for me. My commitment to watch everything with lesbian content is usually perfectly compatible with an empty viewing diary. This week, however, I watched not one but TWO programmes (via online catch-up facilities, of course – I’m not that organised).

On Tuesday evening BBC2 broadcast The Night Watch, a feature-length adaptation of Sarah Waters‘ Booker-shortlisted 2006 novel. Following Waters’ original structure, the drama opens in 1947 and unravels backwards, tracing the stories of four main characters first to 1944 and eventually revealing their “beginnings” in 1941. At the centre, Kay, Helen and Julia form a love-triangle in which everyone ends up as everyone else’s ex-girlfriend, suggesting that lesbian circles in wartime London were as incestuous as The L-Word portrays them to be in twenty-first century LA.

The love stories felt as authentic as the period detail, and the erotic potential of living in constant peril was explored without ever diminishing the tragic reality of the historical moment. I loved the way the viewer was invited to recognise both the sudden freedoms that women experienced as a result of the war and the sometimes devastating limits of that freedom. There wasn’t space in an hour and a half for the characters to be highly developed, but the strength of the performances safeguarded against the drama ever feeling shallow; instead, I was left intrigued by each of the protagonists’ unexplored depths.

I haven’t read any of Sarah Waters’ work (I know, I know – slap my lesbian wrists), but I was really impressed by this glimpse into her storytelling, and will add the book to my “to read” list. In an interview with Lesbilicious, the novelist comments that Paula Milne‘s screenplay doesn’t use much of the original dialogue. This may explain the occasional in-jokes (such as the straight character Robert telling Viv “I know it’s queer me turning up like this”) which, though they made me smile, felt a little out of place amid the melodrama. Waters also highlights that she wrote Kay as a butch character, while the “dainty” (though undeniably excellent) Anna Maxwell Martin’s depiction was more androgynous. The moment when Reggie mistakes Kay for a man is not quite as absurd as Shane having to clarify “I’m a girl” to a lascivious gay man in Season 1 of The L Word, but underscores, nonetheless, Waters’ observation that “television isn’t great at showing butch characters”. While lesbian sexuality has made it to prime-time BBC – that bastion of acceptability – non-normative gender expression still seems to be a televisual taboo.

From a BBC2 adaptation of a critically-acclaimed novel, then, to the polar opposite end of the cultural spectrum. Yes, I’m addicted to Candy Bar Girls, Channel Five’s new “reality” show based around the eponymous Soho bar for gay girls. My expectations were not high. The trailer punning on “PUSSY LOVING LADIES” (you guessed it – she’s just stroking a cat down there) made me roll my eyes. The promotional campaign’s promise of “No Clichés” rang a little hollow coming from Channel Five, whose scheduling highlights (BridezillasCowboy Builders! The Cannibal That Walked Free!) could easily be mistaken for a selection of headlines from the Daily Mail.

I have been pleasantly surprised. Don’t get me wrong: it’s basically rubbish. But not in the way I thought it would be. Yes, the first episode shows us just an average day in the life of your average lesbian pole-dancer. Yes, the one close-up they got of a pastied nipple is shown three times. Yes, all the women it follows are pretty slim, pretty conventionally attractive, pretty femme, almost universally white. This is certainly not a cross-section of lesbians and probably not even a cross-section of Candy Bar clientele. Even so, the programme is a long way from the salacious, reductive, even exploitative fare I was fearing. On the whole it seems to be treating its “stars” as humans and depicting them as honestly and fairly as these things ever do. There are even occasional moments of touching sincerity, such as when Rox and Rachel talk to camera about their families’ responses to their relationship. On the whole, Candy Bar Girls is just trashy in the way that reality TV in general is trashy. Therein lies much of the entertainment.

Because daily life actually isn’t that interesting, programme-makers collude with fame-hungry participants to frame mundane events as catastrophes. Pink-phobic Candy Bar owner Gary is a goldmine of these unintentionally hilarious moments: “These bar stools need rescuing! We need to get the upholstery ordered ASAP!” he cries; a lightbulb breaks and he complains of “the fucking rollercoaster that is life in the fucking fast lane”. For all the mountain-out-of-molehill drama, Candy Bar Girls is super slow at times: I wouldn’t have thought it possible to make a surprise romantic trip to Paris seem pedestrian. In terms of the “characters,” wannabe model Danni quickly cast herself in the essential reality TV role of The One You Want to Hit in the Face, leaving poor Shabby  – who I’m led to believe occupied that prestigious position in the final series of Big Brother last year – to merely be The One You Want to Stop Talking (“I’ve got my fingers in lots of pies… I’m a pie-fingerer.” Oh Shabby: to think that I wanted to sleep with you after that Diva cover photo. Why did I have to have the misfortune of hearing you open your mouth?). Supposedly spontaneous conversations feel like pieces of improv by A-level drama students, with acting so bad that Frankie from Lip Service would blend right in.

The music is cheesy. The editing is poor. The weird neon rainbows flying around London like Death-Eaters in Harry Potter really freak me out. Will I keep watching it? You bet. My girlfriend summed it up when, having given the first episode a relatively warm review, she sighed and concluded “I mean, if it was about straight people, it would be the worst programme of time.”  I live in hope that one day lesbian representation will be so frequent, varied and accurate that I won’t feel compelled to watch every single thing that depicts queer women. For now, whether I’m feeling moved by the strength of Sapphic love during the Blitz, or merely admiring Danni’s undercut, the pure thrill of seeing lesbians on TV at all will continue to take me from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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