There’s a growing sense these days that Manchester’s Canal Street is far too, well, straight. Many ascribe this to the appeal of Queer As Folk: All the straight girls started coming down to gawp, with the hetero lads in hot pursuit. If there is any truth to that, it’s only partial. The area was already on the decline before Russell T Davies wrote his series of life and lust on the Manchester scene. His latest work, Bob and Rose, is less likely to stir up similar feelings regarding his portrayal of inner city nightlife, but may provoke other reactions.
For while Bob does hit the scene occasionally (indeed, he quotes one of his favourite haunts as Babylon, the fictional club from QAF) and is not averse to pulling complete strangers. The potential for controversy, however, comes not from drug use or underage sex, but from a subject far more incomprehensible to many gay men: Bob Gossage, comprehensive teacher and well-adjusted gay man, falls in love with a woman.
Russell Davies’ press interviews prior to the broadcast have concentrated on the fact that his inspiration came from the real-experiences of a friend. This has possibly been an attempt to counteract the opinion (voiced by more than one friend of mine) that “it’s just not possible – you can’t be gay AND like women.” He needn’t worry, though, for the cast and production team whose job it is to bring this unlikely situation to the screen do so in an utterly compelling and believable manner.
It does help that the central character of Bob is played by Jonathan Creek’s Alan Davies. Here is a man whose sexual charm is lost on most men, but who has acquired some degree of a following among straight women. The everyman persona he has created through his stand-up comedy and acting roles is just about believable as a single gay man who pulls relatively easily and whose bewildered, little-boy-lost look is perfect for a man, who feels completely overwhelmed by the emotions that are induced by a completely unexpected source.
Davies is matched and, indeed, surpassed in every way by Lesley Sharp, a character actress of the highest calibre without whom Playing The Field, Clocking Off and The Full Monty would have been the poorer. In her first role as the ‘romantic lead’ instead of an ensemble player, she finally gets the chance she has deserved for so long. Both leads are perfectly served by Russell Davies’ warm, funny and occasionally painfully honest script, as both Bob and Rose deal with their own and each other’s vulnerabilities.
To carry six hours of primetime television, though, you need more than two characters. At first glance, the supporting roles seem to conform to various stereotypes: Rose’s ineffectual, even ditzy, mother and her no-good boyfriend; Bob’s best friend Holly, who is jealous enough when Bob’s time is taken up with other men, let alone another woman.
In episode two we’re introduced to Bob’s parents. Monica, played to a T by Penelope Wilton, is the ringleader of Parents Against Homophobia!, always up to date with the latest human rights injustices around the world and who spends her spare time stuffing condoms into safer sex packs. In contrast, Bob’s father (John Woodvine) can joke about condom use with the other women of PAH!, but is monosyllabic in Bob’s presence.
As with Queer As Folk, however, it’s quickly apparent that while on the surface these characters could be viewed as ciphers, there is far more to them. Each has their problems, neuroses and secrets just bubbling under the surface.
By far the hardest job in this regard falls upon the shoulders of Jessica Stevenson (Spaced, The Royle Family) who has to win us over to thinking of her character, Holly, as a viable best friend to Bob even while she’s plotting to eradicate any chance of happiness he has that doesn’t directly involve her. It’s the performance of her career to date: a lesser actress could easily have us hating Holly from the start, but Stevenson’s scene-stealing portrayal gives us a suspenseful ambivalence towards her true motives.
Indeed, with all the characters, there’s a significant lack of malice. This is not a piece about homophobia or, come to that, heterophobia, in the traditional sense. Instead one gets the impression that there’s an underlying theme of the danger of secrets, a need for openness, and how Bob and Roses’ eventual honesty about their own feelings towards one another could give their friends and loved ones a route to an outlet of their own.
If there’s a downside at all to Bob and Rose, it’s minimal. Both Queer As Folk and Red Production’s other recent hit, Clocking Off, benefited strongly from the musical genius of Murray Gold. The absence of his exuberance here (replaced by the understated subtleties of a score by Martin Phipps) is noticeable, but the subtlety of incidental music does draw attention to the myriad awkward silences that punctuate the course of the protagonists’ relationship. Indeed, it does at times seem rather melancholic, although it does contain some of the finest comedy the channel has seen in some time; it’s quite feasible, for example, that nobody watching the first episode will ever be able to give a serious name to a pet dog ever again.
In crafting a completely believable, normal gay man caught up in a strange, yet honestly compelling situation, ITV has produced in Bob and Rose something that Queer As Folk never quite managed to evoke – a painful, honest account of everyday life among gay people and their friends in a way that all, gay or straight, can immediately feel they relate to.
It’s also, despite its subject matter, a very traditional morality tale; yes, there is someone out there for each of us. It may be someone who we may only meet by chance and could be far removed from our own preconceptions, but for everyone there’s the chance of a happy ending.
* Originally published on [Gay.com UK](http://uk.gay.com)