Zoe Williams - Born to bitch
Television - A cliche-ridden documentary fails to get same-sex marriage in focus, writes Zoe William
Cengey and Mark are two South Africans who are about to get married. Both of them are men; anti-gay discrimination was outlawed in South Africa in the post-apartheid new dawn - but this is still a bridge too far, and is not recognised legally.
John Simm, narrator of Gay on the Cape (10pm, 9 June), has an explosive, very serious delivery. When he talked about Cape Town, the gay capital of South Africa, and its pink tourism, he pronounced "pink" as if it were an Anglo-Saxon swear word, or the shoot-to-kill policy of an oppressive regime. "Before they met," he intoned, "they used to cruise the gay clubs [important pause] in search of [deep breath] sex." Jesus - does he mean to tell us that two single people, in their early twenties, went out for drinks with a mind to getting laid? I must go and have a little lie-down.
In a very short time, he begins to sound very riled, and it is honestly impossible to tell what has riled him. Is it the country's failure to ratify homosexual unions? Or the homosexual unions themselves? Does he like gays a whole lot, or does he not like them at all? All I know is that he's definitely not neutral on the matter.
Likewise, the documentary (part of BBC2's This World - World Weddings strand) had an agenda somewhere, and it was a very important one - but I couldn't tell you what it was. There was some talk about both men having grown up in the townships, where gay-bashing was routine, but neither of them really discussed it. Both men are of mixed race, and there was definitely a racial subtext to the rather gnomic descriptions of their sexual pasts - Cengey talked about sleeping with white men, when he was younger, because they had more money. There was a vague suggestion of exploitation. But when Mark visited his best man, a porn-shop supplier, they had a jape about how Mark liked porn only with white men in it, so that's . . . well, it's neither here nor there, really. The programme-makers evidently thought there was some white man/slave dynamic going down on the South African gay scene as a whole, but, lacking the guts or indeed evidence to say it out loud, the documentary simply hinted at it darkly.
Mainly, however, it concerned itself with the couple's ceaseless bickering. If you ask me, they ain't very well suited. Cengey was precious to the point of poetry. On the morning of the wedding, he had a tantrum about "the flowers . . . and the lost little things that I need". Mark, whose commitment to the wedding seemed somewhat half-baked, let him down badly with the napkins, prompting one of the most delightful questions ever asked in English: "What must I do with pink serviettes, Mark Rodriguez?"
Someone in the editing suite evidently thought it hilarious the way gay people could be so very gay, but it struck a slightly strange note in a programme which, 40 seconds earlier, had thought it was about the political context of homosexuality. I believe the kindest word for Mark is negligent. Mind you, I can afford to be kind, as I don't have to marry the guy. If I were married to him, I'd probably call him a slothful, self-centred bastard. He said of Cengey: "He wants everything to be perfect. If something doesn't happen, it's some kind of failure." I'd like to see a documentary about the modern discourse of multiple perspectives that allows people to say such things as "If I don't do something I said I was going to do, it's as if I've let someone down!" and still keep a straight face. I don't think that will ever be made, however.
Connected thought is clearly not a Rodriguez family trait: Mark's mother mused, "He'll be heartbroken if I don't go [to the wedding], since it will be the first time I'll have gone to . . . something like this." Yeah, right. Even if she went to gay marriages all the time but didn't show up to her son's ceremony, he would be fine. Anyway, regardless of the heartbreak, she was a no-show, which gave some basic, pop insight into the tinny, makeshift affection that Mark meted out to Cengey. Yet the truth is that there are couples the world over who bicker about serviettes, who love each other in ways that seem to the rest of us to be ill-conceived and self-deluding. This carried the sly and nonsensical suggestion that the reason they were bitching at each other was that there was something rotten at the core of gay matrimony.
But Pastor Marlow redeemed humanity for me. Easily the most charming man of the cloth I've seen outside fiction, he included in his ceremony a hilarious list of things that would probably go wrong. "You are gonna be persecuted! You are gonna be troubled! You are gonna be tempted." The storms of life, apparently, would rage around the couple. I wish that all marriage services were like this; that quaint English vicars would harry newly-weds with "You are gonna be bored! You are gonna be disappointed! In two years' time, you're gonna be horny like hell for anyone who isn't your spouse!"
For that, I'd buy a hat. For Mark and Cengey, I keep my fingers crossed and my hopes low. Of South African attitudes to homosexuality, I now know more or less next to nothing - same as I knew before.
Zoe Williams is a columnist on the Guardian. Andrew Billen is away