Made-up men

Television - Andrew Billen glimpses the not-so-private lives of Manchester's drag queens

One does not want to open old wounds, but anyone who agrees to be the subject of a Paul Watson documentary puts their life in his hands. From The Family in 1974 through to its Australian descendant Sylvania Waters in 1992, Watson has proved that the perspective of the fly on the wall can be as jaundiced as anyone else's. However, perhaps out of financial necessity, or maybe because Big Brother and other examples of reality TV have devalued the impact of observational documentaries, Watson has recently strayed from the technique he helped forge. The Queens' Wedding (5 February, Channel 4) was instead a triumph for old- fashioned interviewing - a craft that, in his case, mixes a tone of genuine concern with faux-naive nosiness. From their own words emerged a sympathetic portrait of a vulnerable, rather brave community of Manchester drag queens.

Anyone hoping for an old-style Watson film, a sneering look at the absurd rituals of get-up, make-up and karaoke around Canal Street, was prepared for a disappointment from the off. Before we went down Anal Strut (as the graffitologists have renamed it), we visited a vile pub where a selection of working-class men voiced their solutions to the gay "problem", which ranged from tattooing "their" foreheads to using "them" for spare-part surgery. "String 'em up," someone said, which I really thought was confined to Private Eye's black cabby parodies. Next to these imbeciles, the overly made-up men who squeezed into formats of femininity abandoned long ago even by Liza Minnelli and Bet Lynch seemed comparatively normal, and certainly harmless.

The first interviews were nevertheless disturbing. It took me a couple of minutes to realise that the Steve and Petra who were being alternately interviewed were the same person. Such a Psycho-style splitting of personality was being presented that Watson had to ask why Petra, Steve's drag queen persona, was such a bitch. Steve explained that, while he "liked" himself, he "admired" Petra, an outrageous flirt who encouraged men to look but would "snap their neck" if they touched, and who drank Strongbow through a straw. "Underneath all the slap and paste, it's still Steve," he said. But the slap and paste was good armour.

A young cross-dresser, a ballet dancer called Jon, looked even more vulnerable out of his kit. He admitted to finding the bitchiness of his world alienating, and longed to visit his mother for a cuddle. His alter ego, Crystal, was an icily gorgeous brunette who posed on snooker tables and stood statuesquely at bars, talking to no one. Crystal, he explained, "doesn't give a fuck". She was a "badass babe", a "ballerina bitch" and, at the end of the evening, she went home alone - or, rather, with Jon.

By now, the irritating crimping and queening had been revealed as gestures of defiance from a group who knew that the hardest person of all to come out to is oneself, and who attracted bisexual men who found it easier to be gay if their prey was dressed up as a woman. Watson increasingly dwelled on the physical dangers of these lives: Aids, spiked drinks, being beaten up by lovers, street attacks and the murders of rent boys, whose bodies were thrown into the canal by "straight" clients in fits of self-disgust. Watson's camera, which enjoyed contrasting the tacky glamour of the gay cabarets with the monochrome grimness of where their clientele lived, pointed in a meaningful way at an industrial-sized hypodermic syringe bobbing in the scum.

If he was looking for someone to break our hearts, he found it in "Ruby", a fat, middle-aged barman who had not had a relationship since his last ended in violence years ago. Augmented by two sacks of birdseed in his bra, Ruby took hours to make himself up into a version of Betty Turpin from the Rover's Return. We left him recording a message on a sex-line, advertising himself as a "six-foot, chunky, well-built guy looking for bisexual men". "Can accommodate," he added. Like the rest of them, his original posture was rude and brusque, but the fluffy pink handcuffs hanging from his bed spoke of a prisoner held captive by the delicacy of his sensibility.

What optimism there was to be found in the film came from its central subjects, Neil and Mark - or, to put it another way, Vixen and Missy - whose "wedding" ceremony punctuated all the interviews. Watson caught them in their civvies one morning, examining the council flat they would move into when married. The poor things assured themselves they were in the best of the blocks, discussed what "till death do us part" meant to them, and struggled over if and how to have children. They ended in each other's arms, overwhelmed by the scale of their commitment, as about-to-be-marrieds should be. Watson caught this moment of everyday intimacy, and then he cut to their eight o'clock selves. When we looked at the poseurs Vixen and Missy this time, however, we could have been persuaded that their wedding, flamboyant and dragged up though it would be, was no pose. Interrogated this time by their priest, two screaming queens exchanged their vows of love softly. We believed them - and, I think, the sceptical Watson did, too.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Take cover: evil is back