Twenty years have passed since the original British version of Queer as Folk finished, a show that was seen as pioneering in its bold depiction of gay life. It ended after only two seasons but managed to create quite a stir in the time that it was on air with its brash, amoral characters and casual sex. The show is still significant today, too, being a distinctive piece of representation amidst a landscape that hasn’t allowed much competition in the years since release. Queer as Folk presents gay life at the very centre of its story and with immense confidence and, as a result, has an impact on viewers like me twenty years later.
It’s a Manchester-set story with three characters at its centre: arrogant ad exec Stuart (Aidan Gillen), best friend Vince (Craig Kelly), and schoolboy Nathan (Charlie Hunnam). All are dealing with their own issues around their sexuality, making for a mixture of heart, humour, tragedy and drama; but the spark of the show is that it’s underpinned by sex and desire. It’s a volatile recipe for an exciting bit of entertainment, but one that isn’t content to focus on just one aspect of gay life – and this riotous energy is the source of much of its controversy. The variety also gives it a broad appeal, with Nathan a hook for younger viewers, conservative Vince perhaps being the most identifiable, and Stuart the firecracker that acts as the drama-creating, compelling, and undeniably charming centre of the show.
Having such an unrestrained expression of gay sexuality made it major news on its 1999 arrival, and putting sex at the forefront was a very much conscious decision on the part of showrunner Russell T. Davies. It might have been a startling watch then, and it still is today, partly for so brashly exploring sex with the verbose, poetic, semi-fantastical scripting now expected of Davies. The most striking element, however, is the show’s moral compass; there’s an effort not to ascribe too much judgement to the show’s characters. All of the characters make poor decisions but they aren’t presented as just their mistakes, making them complex, intriguing, and, through the show’s joyousness, quite loveable.
Though it might have been a breakthrough in many ways, nevertheless it was, and is, probably controversial even for its target audience. Davies recently explained to the New Statesman how it was criticised for not exploring some serious issues, as it makes little reference – if any, as none can be recalled – to the AIDS crisis and its aftermath. It also had a laissez-faire attitude to the idea of a 15-year-old having sex with a 29-year-old: a hardly palatable one today without some moral questioning. The show might have avoided tackling these issues in order to portray gay life largely at its most upbeat and thrilling, but evasion of the latter with leave significant gaps for many modern viewers.
That’s not to say, though, that it doesn’t look at a variety of different issues. Perhaps its core one is the excitement and challenge of discovering yourself, whether that’s coming out for the first time, learning how to be confident with your sexuality, or even supporting someone who’s still coming to understand themselves. Davies’ energetic approach makes for some seemingly unlikely, complex looks at these situations, but never without the fun and chaos that characterises the show. It feels more like the authentically unsettled nature of life itself than something superficially grounded might.
Some might find, despite so much to celebrate, that the ending goes a little too far or even not far enough. There was certainly a part of me hoping for great, butterfly-inducing romance between Stuart and Vince, and I’d still welcome it – and think we should see it – all these years later. However, everything takes a particularly interesting and quasi-fantastical turn, the now-couple jaunting across the USA and Stuart memorably raising a gun against a vocal homophobe. This Thelma and Louise type turn is a typically wittily-delivered message of reassurance that gay people can take on the world, be happy, and have a life of unreserved joy.
Queer as Folk has understandably had a notable influence, even if its impact hasn’t been ceiling-shattering. The show set the stage for its five season American remake, as well as the likes of similarly real and anarchic lesbian drama Sugar Rush, and maybe even gave an opening for modern shows like Looking. The empty playing field that it burst on to, however, is still not even half full. Where is the great array of new shows? The mixture of both bombastic and grounded tales? Where is the representation across the screen in general? There hasn’t been the explosion of content that it would’ve been hoped the show would herald.
It seems to me that – though unlikely to be the perception elsewhere – Davies’ 2015 follow up of Cucumber is the bolder legacy of the show. The protagonist makes for a more complex and relatable individual as he’s certainly no hedonist; he’s your average type of reasonably conservative, polite and superficially kind individual. Henry (Vincent Franklin), however, is also self-restrained and, as a result, self-absorbed. It’s a fun and somewhat chaotic show, too, though a much harder hitting drama and, with Henry’s awkward personality, less promise of resolution. Perhaps its mixture of high drama and uncomfortable truth, however, was too jarring for most viewers.
Queer as Folk still stands out because its bold representation is tied up in it being thrilling television. There’s brilliance in its morally ambiguous characters, the pushing against expectation without compromise, and making unashamedly, vividly, excitedly gay entertainment. It says that gay life is all around us, and is as exciting, messy, surprising, and average as any of our lives. There’s little doubt that a show with such such zest for the chaos of being will last far beyond its release, but that it still has such impact should remind writers that its mission of making gay lives normal to see on the screen is still not complete.
Queer as Folk can be watched in the UK on All 4 or internationally on Amazon