Suspended disbelief: Elizabeth Streb’s dancers.
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Defying gravity: LGBT voices and daredevil acrobats delight Ryan Gilbey at BFI Flare

BFI Southbank's LGBT film festival Flare has become more eye-catching. Now it dazzles.

When the actor Russell Tovey expressed relief that his tough upbringing had saved him from becoming one sort of gay man (the type who “prances around”), he was campaigning on behalf of another: those who make themselves less demonstrative and eye-catching lest they incur the wrath of a hypothetical foe. That streak of denial and self-loathing is addressed in Do I Sound Gay?, which is screening as part of BFI Flare, the institute’s annual LGBT film festival (19-29 March). Formerly known as the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, it underwent a makeover last year, reshaping itself to be more eye-catching, not less.

David Thorpe, the director of Do I Sound Gay?, finds himself newly single in his forties and resolves to investigate something he feels is hampering his prospects of happiness: his voice. A more honest film would have admitted that this is as much about a documentary-maker’s search for a subject but the conceit holds for a while. Thorpe consults a speech therapist, who identifies an elongated “O” and prescribes vocal exercises (“Roberto was aglow and the fish was local”). We also meet the writer David Sedaris, who looks crestfallen at the regularity with which he is addressed as “ma’am” when phoning the reception of a hotel.

The mood is playful to a fault: Thorpe doesn’t wrestle with his subject so much as tickle it. Despite interviewing Zach King, who refused to modify his voice or gait even after a homophobic attack on him was filmed by classmates when he was 15, and admitting to his revulsion at the sound of “braying ninnies”, Thorpe loses focus and momentum. His analytical powers are also suspect. Complaining that the only audible gay voices in his youth belonged to the camp or effeminate, Thorpe doesn’t realise that this was because the mainstream wouldn’t countenance other kinds of gayness. Had Tovey been acting then, he would have needed to polish up his prancing or else grow to like the inside of his closet.

Any confined spaces in Catherine Gund’s Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb v Gravity exist to highlight the boundlessness of the human body. Streb, a 65-year-old choreographer, wears a black suit, black specs and ink-splash hair; she’s John Cooper Clarke’s Mini-Me. As the founder of Streb Extreme Action, she urges her company on to the far reaches of physical endurance and injury (“More force! More velocity! More risk!”) and asks: “If you’re not flying, what’s the point?” One collaborator traces this to Streb’s sense of rootlessness as an adopted child. Streb Extreme Action has become an unofficial home for performers whose approach to family has been DIY.

BORN TO FLY: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity [Official Trailer] from Aubin Pictures on Vimeo.

Her dancers turn somersaults inside oversized hamster wheels; one plucky lass is spun horizontally inside a giant egg whisk at the end of a rotating robotic arm while others leap through glass or dodge spinning girders and pendulous breeze blocks. It’s the only dance company that should be wearing hard hats instead of tights and leotards. One of the most spellbinding pieces is “Little Ease”, named after a medieval torture cell into which the victim was crammed. There’s a persuasive continuity between this minimalist work and Streb’s epic One Extraordinary Day event, staged as a taster for the 2012 Olympics and featuring dancers inching along the spokes of the London Eye, with Streb walking upright down the cloud-carpeted exterior of City Hall. Gravity and space are reduced to mere formalities.

The trailer for The Vagine Regime. Warning: potential tears

I also enjoyed another documentary, Erica Tremblay’s In the Turn, in which an LGBT roller derby team, the Vagine Regime, zooms on to the rink through the parted curtains of a pair of pink fabric labia. Its antics have a serious point, as shown by the inspiration they provide to Crystal, a transgender child with suicidal impulses. Frangipani, Sri Lanka’s first gay film, brings an ingenuous sweetness and a delicious visual aesthetic to a familiar love triangle: boy chases girl who won’t give him back his nail varnish remover, girl holds a candle for him, boy is more interested in getting his hands on another boy’s candle. Melodrama creeps in but there’s no disputing the eye or the heart of the director, Visakesa Chandra­sekaram. He brings extra flair to Flare. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era