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It was announced this week that Heading Out, the BBC sitcom written by and starring Sue Perkins about a 40 year old lesbian vet who hasn’t yet come out to her parents will not be returning for a second series. I find myself feeling torn about this decision and completely irrationally, a bit guilty.
After the first episode there was a veil of polite silence about how bad this show really was, because what kind of monster wants to be mean about Sue Perkins? Exactly, no one. I, along with many of my polite, determined friends even watched this programme a few times, quietly and notably without snide twitter comment before accidentally finding ourselves busy on a Tuesday night and then not quite catching it in time on iPlayer, then making vague suggestions about getting it on DVD before never mentioning it ever again. The guilt that came with this descent was immense. I am being a bad lesbian, I thought. I am not supporting the gay sisterhood and more importantly Sue, who I admire, respect and frequently find completely hilarious. After I’d allowed myself to admit that I simply didn’t enjoy this show, that the comedy was just a bit too gentle, the storyline a bit too familiar and the characters a bit too cliché that I started to question why it mattered so much and why not enjoying one programme came with a side order of shame.
Quite simply it is because there are not enough leading gay characters on TV, so when there is an entire comedy commissioned written by and starring a gay woman with an actual real life gay theme in a prime time BBC slot, there is a huge amount of pressure on it to succeed. So when it wasn’t great and it got cancelled it didn’t mean that we lost a lesbian show, it meant we lost THE lesbian show. I can count the amount of TV programmes I’ve watched with leading lesbian characters on one hand. The last commissioned and then cancelled by the BBC being Lip Service, which I also dutifully watched throughout its terrible storylines and some of the worst characters ever created, but maybe it was more palatable because there was more sex and some of them were quite fit.
I am no TV executive, but as someone who watches, talks and writes about it a lot, I have gained some perspective of what a gay audience would actually like to watch and what a straight audience will tune in to; it’s not so different FYI. For the most part, a show with gay characters does not have to revolve around them being gay. Other than who they want to sleep with, there is not a whole lot more to be said. Not every single gay character needs to have a long, emotional coming out storyline, nor a ‘confused by suddenly fancying the opposite sex’ moment. These are the kind of things which make everybody roll their eyes and switch off. If serious and sustainable gays with proper storylines and legitimate character development were written into TV programmes in general then there would not be this kind of pressure on ‘gay’ TV programmes to work out.
Ultimately it is brilliant that Sue Perkins got her comedy commissioned in a prime time slot, and sad that it didn’t work out, but the outrage on part of the loyal lesbian brigade is not because they genuinely think it was a great show, it’s because it was the only one. Let’s hope the BBC have more gay characters up their sleeves, so that hopes don’t get pinned on just one. In the mean time, the most important thing to focus on is that Sue will soon be back on our screens, in a tent making innuendo filled puns about tarts. Where she belongs.