Queerama Review

“About one person in twenty, of both sexes, is homosexual. On any busy street you'll pass half a dozen every five minutes, because contrary to popular opinion, most of them don't look any different to anyone else.” This was Bryan Magee, talking to camera, Trafalgar Square behind him, as buses passed and pedestrians went about their business in the background on a rainy day in 1964. And if you were watching This Week on ITV at 9.10pm on the night of Thursday 22 October that year, you would have heard these words in your own living room.

2017 was the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts in private between men – as long as they were both over twenty-one, did not belong to the Armed Forces or Merchant Navy, and did the deed in England or Wales but not Scotland or Northern Ireland. It was the sixtieth anniversary of the Wolfenden Report, which had recommended partial decriminalisation. Before the 1967 Act was passed, countless gay men had been blackmailed and 75,000 had been arrested, trialled and imprisoned for the legal offence of gross indecency. Homosexual acts between women had never been illegal, allegedly because Queen Victoria, when the previous Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 was passed (removing the death penalty for male homosexuality but it still being illegal and punishable by imprisonment), could not believe that British women could do such a thing. However, many lesbians remained subject to social disapproval and risked losing jobs, families and friends if they ever came out or were outed. This Week: Homosexuals was followed in short order by This Week: Lesbians on 5 January 1965, again with Bryan Magee presenting. Programmes like these, and films such as Victim (1961) contributed to the debate in the ten years between Wolfenden and the 1967 Act. A month before the passing of the 1967 Act, the BBC ran two documentaries in their Man Alive slot – Consenting Adults: The Men and Consulting Adults: The Women, on 7 and 14 June respectively.

Queerama, directed by Daisy Asquith, tells the story of a century of gay experience, compiled from a plethora of extracts from film and television from silent days to the present. There isn't a voice-over narration, but structure is given by some captions, several extracts from the two This Week reports mentioned above, and songs on the soundtrack by John Grant, Goldfrapp and others. The extracts span a time when any representation of gay people on screen was a matter of coded subtext, a not saying so overtly, but with a knowing wink at the audience – to name just one example, Charles Hawtrey, who we see in a clip from Carry On Constable. Victim wasn't quite the first British film to refer to homosexuality (see, for example, Serious Charge, from 1959) but it was the first to be explicit enough to include the word “homosexual” in its dialogue – and to be allowed to by the British censor. As with many films and televisions dealing with a minority group, said minority is first dealt with as a problem to be dealt with or at least worried over, but in time LGBT characters become integrated into storylines as they would be into the fabric of the characters' lives, and are placed centre stage and indeed celebrated.

Where once gay male and lesbian characters could only kill themselves or meet an otherwise unhappy end (and we see some examples of that) they could now live and love happily ever after. Also, discussion has become more nuanced. While in 1964/65, This Week singled out just Homosexuals and Lesbians, there are also the Bisexual and Transgender parts of LGBT (let alone more recent acronyms such as LGBTQI+ or QUILTBAG). Possibly inspired by the widely-reported gender transitions of April Ashley and others, transgender and non-binary themes appeared in television and films such as I Want What I Want (1972) and Girl Stroke Boy (1973), the latter extracted here. One of the interviewees in Consenting Adults: The Women, Steve, is referred to as “aggressively masculine” by the narrator and could perhaps identify as a trans man nowadays – if he's still with us. Near the end, George Montague, now in his nineties, refuses to accept the government's pardon for all the men jailed for gross indecency, including himself. A pardon implies that someone did something wrong, and he didn't.

Captions do give some historical context, and introduce particular subsections: the passing of the 1867 Act and some of its high-profile victims, such as Oscar Wilde; the impact of AIDS, first publicly known about in 1981; the passing of laws equalising the age of consent to that of heterosexuals (including some excruciating footage from televised Parliament) and allowing first civil partnership and then same-sex marriage. The clips aren't identified, except for a long list in the end credits: there were plenty I recognised but others I didn't, and many viewers of this DVD will be intrigued enough to seek some of the less familiar ones out.


The BFI have released Queerama on a dual-layered PAL-format DVD encoded for Region 2 only. Queerama itself has a 15 certificate, but the package is raised to a 18 by the inclusion of Rosebud amongst the extras. The Ballad of Reading Gaol also has a 15. Being documentaries, the two This Week episodes have not been submitted to the BBFC, but it's safe to say that horses will remain unfrightened across the land.

Queerama is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, not anamorphically enhanced. The non-widescreen ratio is no doubt due to the fact that film is made up entirely from extracts, both black and white and colour, from films and television programmes from before the widescreen era. Those that were from after that are shown open-matte, though the one Scope film featured (The Leather Boys, from 1964) is panned and scanned. Needless to say, the picture quality is widely divergent, as reflecting the wide range of source material: 35mm, 16mm, video both SD and HD. There's nothing untoward about the transfer at all, and other than the fact that this is a DVD from a HD master, I don't doubt this reflects what you would have seen if you saw Queerama in a cinema.

The soundtrack has three options: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround (2.0) and an audio-descriptive Dolby Surround track. The 2.0 is mixed louder than the 5.1, but otherwise there's nothing much to choose between the first two, given that the film is made up from extracts from films and TV almost all with mono soundtracks, with the surrounds being used for the music. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available for the feature but not the extras.

Those extracts begin with an interview with Daisy Asquith (7:55) where she is interviewed on stage after a screening of Queerama at the BFI Southbank in London on 24 July 2017. The interviewer is Simon McCallum, BFI Archive Projects Curator. Asquith talks about how Queerama was a follow-on to her previous cycling documentary Velorama, on which she collaborated with John Grant. She says that she wanted to tell the story through archive material, and not have the film be a simple step-by-step account of changes in the law. There were also restrictions due to rights and licensing costs.

The two This Week documentaries are next: Homosexuals (22:32) and Lesbians (26:09). The former derives from what looks like a 16mm print for non-theatrical distribution, and is certainly not in the best of shape. Lesbians is in much better condition. I don't know what Bryan Magee would say about these programmes now, he's a month short of eighty-eight as I write this, but “of their time” is about right. Magee's questions come from a perspective which is distinctly heteronormative (to use a word not in circulation at the time), emphasising the disgust that society felt at what gay men and women did behind closed doors, and he also gets to ask if homosexuals can become heterosexual (the consensus is no) and asks “What do lesbians do?”

While these documentaries are frequently toe-curling nowadays, they are important parts of the history covered by Queerama, and you have to commend the courage of the men and women willing to be interviewed, although all of the men and most of the women are filmed either in shadow or with the camera pointing at the backs of their heads. The producer of both documentaries, Jeremy Isaacs, has said that he came in to work the day after the broadcasts expecting phones to be ringing off the hook with complaints, but that didn't happen. The most vociferous complaint he did receive was because the narration referred to Amsterdam (which we visit briefly to show that attitudes and legality were different in continental Europe) as the Dutch capital. Both documentaries are presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Two short films follow, both of them also extracted in Queerama itself. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (11:23), directed in 1988 by Richard Kwietniowski. This was made at a time when public discourse in the UK was distinctly homophobic, fuelled by the AIDS pandemic. In that year, the government enacted Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which prohibited local authorities from intentionally promoting homosexuality or publishing material with the intention of doing the same. That provoked much protest and an outpouring of art in all media in response and opposition to it. The Ballad of Reading Gaol doesn't so much promote as celebrate, drawing on the injustices of the past. The film takes its name from Oscar Wilde's poem, but this short film uses Wilde's testimony in court where he famously referred to “the love that dare not speak its name”. For most of the film, it reproduces Wilde's words over homoerotic imagery past and present, to music by Startled Insects . Then we hear Wilde's words on the soundtrack, read by Quentin Crisp, as we visit Wilde's grave at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and the London locations of the acts Wilde was put on trial for. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1.

Rosebud (13:26), directed by Cheryl Farthing (who had been production manager on The Ballad of Reading Gaol) in 1991, is dialogue-free, following an artist (Julie Graham) who at first sees a lesbian couple upstairs (Jessica Adams, Rachel Grimstead). Her curiosity provoked, the artist finds her way to the local lesbian bar (Rosebud) and the film ends with her slow-dancing to Rita Evans's “Beautiful Eyes” with a biker (Sadie Lee). Rosebud is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

Also on the disc is the trailer for Queerama (1:30).

The BFI's booklet runs to twenty-four pages plus covers. It begins with a single-page introduction by Daisy Asquith, in which she describes how the film came about, and the help she received from her assistant director Mike Nicholls and editorial consultant Campbell X. Simon McCallum is credited as BFI Archive Consultant and he contributes the next essay, “Queering the Archive”. Here, he gives an overview of how British cinema and television depicted queer lives, not always successfully, and how much the archive was drawn upon to make this film, which went from commission to premiere in just twelve weeks. Another historical overview is “Glimpsing Queer History” by Lucy Robinson, who acted as the historical consultant on Queerama, giving details of the court cases and other episodes (such as the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in the USA) which caught public attention and in their way contributed to the changes in the law. Also in the booklet are full credits for Queerama, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.

7 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
7 out of 10

An entertaining if at times disquieting look at a century of British queer history, selected from extracts from archive film and television.


out of 10

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