Sunday, 4 October 2009

A kiss is still a kiss

EastEnders actor John Partridge has been talking to the press about his role as Christian Clarke, the latest in a long-line of feather-ruffling gay characters on the doomy, depressing soap insitution. Unlike Coronation Street, which is about as accurate a representation of multi-cultural Manchester as a souvenir tea-towel, EastEnders has always been keen to place gay storylines front and centre.

Eighteen months after the show's launch, producers introduced 'Gay Colin', played by gay rights activist, and now member of European parliament, Michael Cashman. Strangely enough, Colin's middle-class sensibilities were more problematic than his sexuality in terms of integrating him into the Walford pantheon.

Nonetheless, Cashman stuck with the role for almost three years, with Colin eventually being written out of the show with multiple sclerosis, but not before shocking middle England with British TV's first mouth-to-mouth gay kiss in January 1989 (described by The Sun as a "love scene between yuppie poofs").

Since Colin's departure twenty years ago, Walford has welcomed a wide range of LGBT characters - some well received, others less so. The one thing connecting them all though, is the controversy that erupts every time a same-sex kiss is depicted on screen. Few things in life are as reliable as the nutjobs who write angry missives to Points of View about a gay kiss going out before the 'watershed'.

It's hard to believe that anyone could get worked up about about a kiss, so I'd like to see the producers stage a tea-bagging scene on that park bench in Albert Square, so at least those viewers will have something to write home (or to the BBC) about.

Still, nothing pulls in the viewers like a little controversy. So when gay actor John Partridge joined the cast as Christian, the show's producers decided to stir things up a bit, by planning a relationship with gay Muslim Syed Masood, played by Marc Elliott.

Once again, the telegenic twosome's first kiss (staged on the bench that's seen more action than the toilets at G.A.Y.) inspired the ire of 145 of those letter writing weirdos. One of them even claimed "I had to explain to my seven-year-old son what was happening. He now thinks he is gay because he kisses his dad."

So it's funny that, despite all the success, Partridge still feels that Team EastEnders could be doing more to introduce gay characters to the soap. As proud as he is of his role, and the 'Sexiest Male' award he won at this year's Inside Soap Awards, he feels that there should be more gay plotlines. I'd even be tempted to agree with him, were it not for his unfortunate justification for this viewpoint. "Of course I'm going to say 'yes' - I'm a gay actor and if there were no gay characters or storylines, I'd be out of a job!"

It's remarkably short-sighted, idiotic even, for an actor to claim that his sexuality precludes him from taking on certain roles. And it perpetuates the belief that successful actors should stay in the closet since the audience would be unable to look past their private lives to believe in the role they were portraying.

To be a gay actor, is to be able to act. Gay or straight, the sexuality is largely irrelevant, so why would any actor choose to close themselves off to any opportunity? If a straight actor spoke about choosing roles according to their sexuality, there'd be an outcry.

As Partridge says, " We've got Graham Norton, we've got Alan Carr, journalists, presenters... they are some of the highest paid people in primetime television who are loved and adored and they are gay. It's not that big a deal any more..." If only he'd take a leaf out of his own book.

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