A kiss is just a kiss – or is it?

Suddenly, everybody wants to get into the same-sex kissing market, it seems. Started by the two policemen in the Bill, who gave new meaning to the term “bent coppers”, now the BBC is getting in on the act with a storyline that features in both Casualty and its midweek sister soap, Holby City.

In both hospital dramas, A&E nursing assistant Tony Vincent (Lee Warburton) has been seeing midwife Ben Saunders (David Paisley). The tabloids concocted their usual fury when, as part of this relationship, the pair indulged in a passionate bout of tonsil hockey in the staff room. The Sun, in particular, got all hot under the collar, saying that the BBC had received over 400 complaints. That the extent of the public ire is exaggerated should come as no surprise – a quick call to the BBC press office confirmed that the number of complaints was far smaller. But did the BBC know that the kiss would create such uproar? Were they, in fact, using it for more publicity?

Well, of course they were. After all, there is little dramatic need for a plot straddling both of the channel’s medical dramas; impetus for such an event comes at a basic level from a desire to get viewers of one show watching the other. The idea of a romance between characters is a sound one, since it draws on the viewers’ familiarity with the characters. The choice of two gay men as the focus of such a plot, though, is surprising. Maybe it’s just got something to do with the fact that all the straight doctors and nurses on each show are too busy getting off with each other to look to other wards in the hospital for love? It could be that simple. But other motives may well have lain behind the choice.

Eighteen months ago, “The Bill” was a dull, leaden programme occupying swathes of ITV’s primetime schedule with little award. When incoming producer Paul Marquess took over, though, that began to change. One of the major storylines he introduced involved the series’ first gay officer, Sgt Craig Gilmore, having an affair with a younger PC. A clinch between the two caused a flurry of complaints to the Independent Television Commission (ITC) on the grounds that it was unsuitable and offensive – charges that the ITC rightly threw out.

The ITC’s ruling, though, got masses of column inches in the press, generating useful publicity for a rejuvenated programme whose ratings started to pick up. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe that the BBC would be conscious of the publicity a similar outcry would create for its two hospital dramas? While the Beeb are not regulated by the ITC, producers would know that similar rules would apply.

While the majority of viewers would have no problem, there will always be a vocal minority that rises up in protest whenever gay people are shown expressing genuine affection. So, include a storyline that’s in no danger of being censured by the powers that be but includes gay people, and voila – instant press coverage and lots of free publicity for a show whose audience numbers could do with a boost.

Conservative groups claim that TV producers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what the public deem acceptable, despite research that indicates that a majority of people find nothing wrong with gay relationships on screen (a 1999 poll said that 66% of 16 to 24-year-olds, 70% of 24 to 35-year-olds and 45% of 55 to 64-year-olds found gay scenes acceptable on TV). They may have a point: a recent telephone poll on Channel 4’s teatime magazine show, Richard and Judy, asked people whether a gay couple on the show should end the show by kissing.

Producers say that they received 32,000 calls, with 75% saying that no, they didn’t want to see them kiss. While that’s a disappointing figure in itself, there are plenty of reasons why a result like that may have come about – from the older, more conservative demographic of Richard & Judy’s show, to those who had no problem with the couple kissing not bothering to call in because they didn’t feel strongly enough about it.

But if TV producers really are ahead of general public opinion on the matter of portraying gay relationships honestly, then they’re surely extending their public service remit to their drama programming. The advances of the last fifteen years in terms of public acceptance would never have been made if it weren’t for accurate, sympathetic portrayals of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters living, working and playing alongside their straight colleagues. People are far more accepting of gay people now than they were nearly fifteen years ago, when a chaste peck on the lips between Colin and Guido in EastEnders resulted in a front page denunciation in The Sun (who described it as ‘a homosexual love scene between yuppie poofs… when millions of children were watching’).

Okay, so maybe The Sun hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of us yet…

Originally published on Gay.com UK (website no longer available)

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.