Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches: Queer As Folk At 20

Russell T. Davies’ groundbreaking gay drama didn’t have anything as stodgy as a message: it simply shone a light on characters we’d never encountered before on British TV.

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There was never anything shy about Queer As Folk. Like its strutting, sexually confident, carnally voracious lead, Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 drama didn’t arrive with a timid shrug or a bashful half-smile. When Stuart, cruising the gay bars of Manchester’s Canal Street like a Terminator with a hard on, picks up a one-night fuck, only to discover he’s 15, he doesn’t pause, and he doesn’t walk away. Before the credits of episode one, screened 20 years ago this Saturday, have rolled, teenage Nathan has been successfully wanked off and screwed by a man almost old enough to be his dad.

Shocking, yes – but Queer As Folk was never outrageous for the sheer sake of it. The Daily Mail may have predictably wailed, and gay rights charity Stonewall may have decried it – but then, Queer As Folk arrived in February 1999 with a back-breaking weight of expectation that few other TV shows are ever burdened with. When there’s never been a “gay series” before, how do you bottle the story of hundreds of thousands of men and women? Stonewall called the series a “missed opportunity” – you can almost hear the disappointed, headteacher-like sigh – as if art has a job to do. But Queer As Folk didn’t have anything as stodgy as a message: it didn’t need to. It simply shone a light on characters we’d never encountered before on British television.

TV had explored gay plotlines in dramas before, although not many, but Russell T Davies’ series was the first to zoom in on the gay experience. And crucially, it wasn’t about its characters being anguished or miserable or tortured by their situation. There’s a giddy, intoxicating, glassy-eyed euphoria to it, as if the ecstasy that Stuart regularly pops is pumping through the veins of the show itself.

At the time, Queer As Folk felt like a genuine cultural-quake moment: 200 journalists were in attendance at its press screening, which is around 170 more than your standard turnout. After all, it was only in 1987 that EastEnders had made history by showing the first ever gay kiss on TV, and even that was a perfunctory peck on the cheek between two of its most boring characters. There were just 12 years between Colin and Barry’s passionless peck and Stuart Jones buttslamming a teenage boy at 10.30pm on Channel Four. That’s how far TV had travelled in the 1990s.

And in the 19 years since Queer As Folk signed off, gay sex on TV is now, if not exactly commonplace, then notably less controversial, so much so that even a classy Sunday night BBC1 drama like A Very English Scandal (penned, incidentally, by Russell T Davies) can include a line like, “Hop on all fours, there's a good chap” without even triggering Richard Littlejohn.

Queer As Folk only lasted two seasons, a total of just ten episodes, and that’s probably a good thing. It burned fantastically bright and never had a chance to fizzle out. A spin-off series was mooted, and ultimately nixed, and an American remake ran for five seasons on Showtime. But as impressive as the US version was, it couldn’t match the original for wit and cheek and heart.

20 years on, Queer As Folk still feels thrillingly brazen and deliriously drunk on the skyscraping highs and gutter-tasting lows of life. Two decades haven’t dulled its lusty, youthful power, and we should probably give Russell T Davies a thankful bear hug for not indulging in a nostalgia-driven Trainspotting 2-style revisit.

But did it really usher in a new age of LGBT-friendly TV? It’s telling that the only other gay-honed drama to have emerged in the UK since Queer As Folk was Russell T Davies’ own Cucumber, a series that shifted the spotlight from the cruising clubbers of Canal Street to a group of mortgage-aged gay men.

Be happy that Queer As Folk ended where it did. A brilliantly brief series that came in, rearranged the furniture, splashed the walls with colour and then fucked off. Punk TV at its most deliciously boisterous and subversive. Happy birthday, guys.

Steve O’Brien is a TV & film writer.