Same Same spoke to the creator of BBC TV’s lesbian drama Lip Service, and got some insights into playing gay from two of its stars – including a former Sydneysider who plays the show’s sexy doctor.
When writer Harriet Braun was asked to create a lesbian drama to pitch to the prestigious BBC, she knew that Lip Service would be several things: equal parts drama and humour, more diverse and more true-to-life than US’s lesbian-centric The L Word.
Given that it was The L Word that, for better or worse, set the benchmark for lesbian drama, Braun says that she always knew “no matter what I wrote, and no matter how differently I wrote it, it’d always be compared to The L Word. That was inevitable, so that was something I went into the whole process just accepting.”
Addictive though it was, The L Word was also the antithesis of Lip Service.
Set in Los Angeles, it was a show that drew you in as a viewer, right up until the bitter and unintentionally hilarious end, but you were always aware of its artificiality and limitations.
Though, over its six seasons, The L Word tried to ‘deal’ with various ‘issues’ by documenting one couple’s quest to become parents, introducing a transgender character and also several characters of colour, it focused mostly on a group of white, privileged, femme lesbians.
As one critic wrote at the end of the show’s first season: “It winds up in a toothless nowhere land of quips and flat characters. These characters feel remarkably similar to one another because they have no unique traits, perspectives or problems. Each one of these women is slim, stylish, fulfilled, young and beautiful.”
“Their sexuality is very much a huge part of them, but it’s not always hampering them.”
Lip Service, likewise, has received some criticism, most of it to do with its lack of characters of colour and, again, a perceived lack of diversity, namely an absence of lesbians who don’t adhere to mainstream notions of thinness and beauty.
Unlike The L Word, however, it has been praised for the high quality of its scripts and its textured, realistic storytelling, both of which offer viewers something substantive and relatable to watch, something that might seem in some way reflective of their own lives.
Lip Service focuses on an established group of friends, in their late 20s and early 30s, living in Glasgow, grappling with issues that are both directly related to their sexuality and, in many cases, simply emblematic of the growing pains we all experience at that time in our lives, regardless of sexuality.
“I knew it was inevitable that we’d be compared to The L Word. I enjoyed it, it did a lot for lesbian women in terms of getting to see those sorts of experiences onscreen, and I suppose, in writing Lip Service, I felt that there was room in the world for more than one lesbian drama in the same way that there’s, you know, room for more than one police or hospital drama,” Braun reflects.
“It would be a bit tragic, I think, if we felt that there could only ever be one drama and that there wasn’t room for another. Obviously, The L Word is finished now, but it’ll live on in the sense that lesbian women will continue to seek it out. It was always my hope that people could watch and appreciate both. When you brush aside the obvious comparison, which is that they’re both depicting the lives and experiences of gay women, there really aren’t a lot of similarities. They’re such different shows.”
Braun, herself a lesbian, had experienced success with two BBC series before creating and pitching Lip Service, an idea that was initially put to her by Derek Wax, an executive producer at a company called Kudos.
He, like Braun, felt there was room on television for another depiction of lesbian life and identity. Indeed, the brief given to Braun was “so open and so wide-ranging” that she confesses to initially feeling “a bit intimidated by the broadness of the possibilities that were there in front of me.”
“The BBC had done stuff that was historical, in terms of adapting Sarah Waters’ historical lesbian novels for the screen, so I worked on Lip Service on the assumption that it was contemporary. In creating a show, one of the first things I do, over and above everything else, is focus on developing the characters. They, in a way, dictate the story, so you need a very strong grasp of who they are and what they’re about,” Braun says.
“You’re writing characters through a lens that is you, I suppose, so consequently your own thoughts and the traits of people you’ve known will inform how you write them. There always an element of wish fulfilment, too, in that in life you can’t rewind and say all the things you’d like to, whereas with a show, people can be good or badly behaved, witty and very quick with a quip in the moment, whereas real life is very rarely like that!”
Though Braun concedes “issue-driven drama is very important, especially with regard to depictions of the gay and lesbian communities,” she says she was cognisant of not wanting to “do something that was, first and foremost, issue-led.”
“I didn’t necessarily want to altogether avoid issues, not at all, but I think it’s really very important to have gay characters on television whose sexuality informs who and what they are, but isn’t the whole story. I didn’t have an agenda in that way. I loved the US series of Queer As Folk, absolutely loved it, but what I loved about it was that it was often very irreverent while still touching on issues and not kowtowing to any notions of positive representation,” Braun clarifies.
“It was just, in many ways, showing gay people living their lives and being as well-behaved or as dreadfully-behaved as anybody else. They were human. I think coming out stories and stories about homophobia are very important, but it was important to me, for these characters, that while their sexuality informed who they are, I didn’t want it to be everything behind their stories.”
Indeed, the topic of representation of gay and lesbian characters on the small screen is one Braun is passionate about. We talk for a long time about some of our favourite dramas – HBO’s Six Feet Under and The Wire – and their disparate, affecting representations of the myriad experiences of gay and lesbian characters.
“I do think, sometimes, if you’re talking about younger viewers who watch soaps and the like, that you could be left with the impression that you’re constantly struggling if you’re gay, that you’re perpetually being persecuted or unhappy. It was important to me, in writing Lip Service, that they weren’t women thinking about being gay all of the time. They’re just getting on with their lives and falling in love, moving house and making career choices. Their sexuality is very much a huge part of them, but it’s not always hampering them,” Braun says.
“If you look at The Wire, I love that show’s gay characters for the fact that, yes, they are central gay figures within that drama and, sure, there might be instances where they come up against issues because of that, but, a lot of the time, they’re just taking part in the story, a story that isn’t necessarily about their sexuality. That interested me and that was something I wanted to do. I think that’s important.”