As the new series of Doctor Who is broadcast, Gary Couzens begins a look back at the career of head writer Russell T. Davies with a review of the Region 2 four-disc Definitive Collector’s Edition of his breakthrough 1999 serial Queer as Folk and its 2000 sequel.
Russell T. Davies’s serial Queer as Folk and its sequel Queer as Folk 2 have previously been released separately on DVD. I’ve reviewed them for this site: see the “other content” links at the bottom of this review. These earlier editions are still available, and can be bought very cheaply. Unless you want to try the series out, I wouldn’t recommend them any more. No, if you’re a fan of the serials, and of Davies’s writing generally, there’s no contest: save your pennies for the four-disc Collector’s Edition.
Queer as Folk (9/10)
It’s Thursday night in Canal Street, Manchester’s gay village. Stuart Jones (Aidan Gillen) is well-off, good looking and quite happy to shag a different man every night. Vince Tyler (Craig Kelly) has known him for years, but somehow exists in his shadow: he has very little confidence in himself. Both are approaching the big three-oh and wondering if they can continue to live their lives this way. Nathan Maloney (Charlie Hunnam) is young, still at school, and the one-night-stand who won’t go away…
When Queer as Folk was first broadcast on Channel 4, many people didn’t know what had hit them. There were complaints, notably the entirely willing seduction of fifteen-year-old Nathan (Charlie Hunnam was actually nineteen at the time) by Stuart. That scene, in Episode 1, certainly pushed the envelope for small-screen depictions of sex between men. But ultimately there were more in favour than not, and the serial was recognised as not only groundbreaking in its portrayal of gay life, but an excellent drama by any standard. According to the production company’s research, no straight man under thirty-four watched it, and more than half of the audience was female.
Not neglecting the strong acting and stylish direction, the strength of the series lies in Russell T. Davies’s sharp writing. The three leads are fully three-dimensional, and Davies isn’t afraid to let them be unsympathetic from time to time. Stuart is shallow and hedonistic, but loyal to Vince; there’s an unspoken and unrequited love between them that is tested in the later stages when Vince finds a boyfriend, rich Australian accountant Cameron (Peter O’Brien). Vince is a Dr Who fan, and there’s a funny scene where he picks up a man (played by Jack Deam, now better known as Tourette’s-sufferer Marty in Shameless) who’d rather watch Genesis of the Daleks than have sex. (Considering the authentic references, it’s no surprise that Davies is a Who fan – he’d written one Dr Who novel and has since gone on to revive the series for the BBC.) Nathan is a convincing teenager, simultaneously confused and full of himself. His self-absorption is neatly skewered by his best friend Donna (Carla Henry): “I’m black and I’m a girl – try that for a week.”
The serial’s two DVD-9 discs contain four episodes each, neatly separating the contributions of the two directors. Charles McDougall has a more flamboyant style, of which the crane shot that ends Episode 4 is a good example. Sarah Harding is less flashy, but her episodes dig deeper into characterisation, mirroring the serial’s progression from carefree hedonism to self-responsibility.
As Davies is himself a gay man who lives in Manchester, you can’t doubt the authenticity of the background, but importantly his characters are placed in a network of friends, family and colleagues, straight as well as gay. Most of the supporting cast is equally well drawn, though lesbian couple Romey (Esther Hall) and Lisa (Saira Todd) are noticeably underwritten. It’s that strong supporting cast that is the real strength of the show; the fact that much of it is missing or largely sidelined is one of the reasons why the sequel was a disappointment.
Queer as Folk 2 (6/10)
When Queer as Folk was first broadcast in 1999, writer Russell T. Davies assumed that “only five gay men and an angry vicar” would watch it. Eight weeks later, the serial had been recognised for the groundbreaking drama it was. A follow-up was inevitable, hence this two-part sequel (two hours including the commercials).
The question at the heart of Queer as Folk 2 is, will Stuart (Aidan Gillen) and Vince (Craig Kelly), friends for half their lifetimes, finally get together? In the meantime, Stuart finally comes out to his parents after his eight-year-old nephew tries to blackmail him. Vince’s rival for promotion is a family-values candidate. Alexander (Antony Cotton) is further disowned by his parents, which provokes Stuart to a revenge which takes him outside the law. And Nathan (Charlie Hunnam) faces up to bigotry at school, not just from fellow pupils but also from his teacher.
What made the first series work was the rich supporting cast, locating the central three characters in a convincing world made up of family, friends, relatives and colleagues. With the emphasis more on Stuart and Vince’s will-they-or-won’t-they many of these supporting characters are either absent altogether, sidelined or dealt with briefly in subplots. The only two who seem to have developed since the first series are Hazel (Denise Black), Vince’s forthright Mum, who’s just as much a fixture on the gay scene as he is, and the very camp Alexander, whose estrangement from his homophobic parents was touched on in the first series but is dealt with more fully here. Even Vince’s Dr Who fandom, which helped round out his character in the first series, is missing.
The Stuart and Vince story is a gay variation on the old one about how a man and a woman, if both straight and unattached, can be just good friends without sex getting in the way. (They can.) As the makers of The X Files, for example, well knew, sexual tension is much more intriguing than its release. Also, the writing falters occasionally, causing Stuart to deliver some very theatrical speeches. To be fair, he could have prepared his coming-out to his parents, but his last speech to Nathan is symptomatic of a descent into silliness in the final half-hour. They were right: two hours was enough.
The Definitive Collector’s Edition comprises four discs: the first serial on two DVD-9s, the sequel on a DVD-5 (all with commentaries) plus another DVD-9 of extras. The DVDs are encoded for Region 2 only.
The two serials are presented in their original episodic format, complete with “previously” and “next” material at the beginnings and ends, which sometimes includes shots not in the final versions of the episodes. This material was missing from the original releases. Both serials, being recent British television productions, are in the correct broadcast ratio of 16:9, and are anamorphically enhanced. This is a big advance on the first release of Queer as Folk, which was non-anamorphic. The new transfer is brighter, with better shadow detail. There’s some film grain, inevitable in darker scenes, such as the many set in clubs. Queer as Folk 2 has always been anamorphic, but the first release edited the two episodes into one. Apart from that, it’s the same transfer, with identical chapter stops. Screen captures follow, two from Queer as Folk (original release first, then Collector’s Edition) then one from Queer as Folk 2.
The soundtrack is Dolby Surround, as it was on original transmission. It’s not the most elaborate soundmix, with the left, right and surrounds largely given over to Murray Gold’s score and the many music tracks played. Incidentally, for contractual reasons, some of these have been replaced from the broadcast version, though unless you have that on tape and know it by heart, you’re unlikely to notice the difference.
Both serials and all the extras have subtitles for the hard of hearing, which is another improvement on the original releases. There are four chapter stops per episode for the first serial, eight per episode for the second.
The extras are a combination of those on the original DVDs, plus new material. First amongst the latter are commentaries on both serials. Davies has proven himself a good commentator, at his best with at least one other person to bounce off. Here, he’s joined by Aiden Gillen, Craig Kelly, Denise Black and Antony Cotton. Producer Nicola Shindler joins in on Queer as Folk 2. The commentaries are done in various combinations: Davies, Gillen and Kelly for the first two episodes, Black and Cotton for the second two. Gillen tends to be quieter than the rest, though his contributions are worth listening to. Cotton is very camp. Davies, Kelly and Black say the most, but the rapport between all of them is obvious.
On to disc four, and the extras begin with deleted and extended scenes, 43:29 of them from the first series, 14:48 from the second, with optional commentary from Davies and Shindler. The reasons for deleting the scenes is often obvious: pacing for one, restructuring the opening of the first episode to cut to the chase and make it seem less sinister for another. The final episode’s phone conversation between Vince and Cameron is shown in an alternate version, with close-ups of both characters – the final version is played out on Vince’s face alone.
Eight trailers, three of them teasers, follow: this extra is a carry-over from the original Queer as Folk 2 DVD. There is a Play All option.
Interviews next. The first set, “Behind the Scenes” (7:05) originally appeared on the previous Queer as Folk disc, though there it was split into two with each part on separate discs. This consists of two short extracts from an unidentified TV programme, with on-set interviews with Davies, producer Nicola Shindler and some of the cast. These pay undue attention to the non-issue that most of the actors playing gay characters were actually straight, but doesn’t tell you much you didn’t know already. It is presented in 4:3.
Next up is an extract from the edition of Right to Reply (11:19) that followed the first episode. Shindler and Channel 4 Head of Drama Gub Neal defend the programme against criticism from viewer Mark Fearn and Angela Mason, the Executive Director of Stonewall that the serial uses every stereotype in the book, and will only give ammunition to bigots. This is presented in 16:9 anamorphic. This is a useful extra to gauge the initial reaction to the serial, but it’s fair to say that anyone buying this DVD will be in favour of the serial to begin with.
The final interview comes from Channel 4’s show T4 and is with Charlie Hunnam and Craig Kelly. It’s also in 16:9 anamorphic. It’s short and superficial, as the running time (4:15, including a couple of clips from the serial) would indicate.
“What the Folk” is a longer (46:23) featurette that originally appeared on the first release of Queer as Folk 2. Although it’s rather shambolically organised and padded out with clips (not all of them of relevance to what’s being discussed), it’s still more substantial than many such efforts. There are interviews with the cast and a few Manchester vox-pops, but the bulk of the interview time goes to Davies (filmed against a purple background, which oddly gives him a halo) and producer Nicola Shindler. They talk about issues such as how representative of gay life the series have to be. There are extracts from the edition of Right to Reply shown in full elsewhere on the disc. Davies and Shindler reply that, with the dearth of convincing portrayals of gay men on TV, they cannot hope to be fully representative, and their main concern was to create fully rounded characters. Interestingly, Shindler cites Ally McBeal as an influence on the series’ look, its colour and lighting giving an emphasis on gloss rather than grit. We also get Joel Schumacher, no less, discussing his then-forthcoming US version, to be set in New Jersey. Incidentally, if you want further evidence that TV is not a director’s medium, note that only one of the three directors makes an appearance, and that briefly. The featurette is 16:9 anamorphic and divided into six chapters.
The extras are continued by two self-navigating stills galleries (3:21 and 1:26), video montages of Stuart, Vince and Nathan, and quotes from the major characters. These are pretty much filler, though given a colour printer you could create your own posters from the stills, many of which fill the 16:9 screen. There are also biographies for Aiden Gillen, Craig Kelly and Charlie Hunnam, which are basically film, TV and stage appearances. Finally, there’s a thirty-two-page booklet, which comprises a long, and very good, essay by Davies, plentifully illustrated with stills from the series.
Russell T. Davies is, along with Paul Abbott, one of the leading younger (that is, under 45) TV writers in Britain at the moment, and the original Queer as Folk was a breakthrough serial for him. If the serial doesn’t quite live up to it, it’s still worth having. This Definitive Collector’s Edition has some filler amongst the extras but it does live up to its name.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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