The British L Word? Meet the stars of new BBC3 lesbian drama Lip Service
Lee Beattie and Sarah Longley go on set to meet the actors and writer behind the groundbreaking new show.
BBC3 / Lip Service
We are standing in a huge flat in Glasgow's trendy Merchant City, at one of the best parties we've ever been to. It's full of beautiful girls dressed as cowboys, but it's difficult to look at anyone besides the party's gorgeous host, who is riding a pantomime horse across the kitchen like a lesbian John Wayne, but with a much sexier swagger. A new couple arrive and the host is obviously on edge as she welcomes them, and suddenly the party enters the realm of dyke drama… then the director shouts "Cut!", Lip Service creator Harriet Braun makes a suggestion, Ruta Gedmintas gets back on her horse, Laura Fraser and Heather Peace back out of the door and the scene begins again…
Since it was announced that Kudos (Ashes to Ashes, Spooks) would be making a six-part lesbian drama for the BBC (yes, lesbianism is now a public service), the blogosphere has been wild with conjecture. Will it be like The L Word, or better, or not as good, and will it truly represent the British lesbian? The speculation and hype around the show was only heightened when its planned transmission date of April was pushed back to October this year.
No one is more aware of this than the show's writer and creator Harriet Braun who has been involved in every aspect of the production along the way. The admiration that the cast feel for her is clear: one after the other they describe her to us as 'awesome' and 'amazing'. We meet her on the last day of the show's filming, and she talks passionately about Lip Service, peppering her speech with occasional loud bursts of what can only be described as a rather filthy laugh. As a gay lady herself, Braun already knows that dykes can be a particularly critical audience, maybe due to the fact we so rarely see ourselves portrayed on screen.
We ask if she is nervous about the reaction. "I remember reading an article with Russell T Davies when he made Queer As Folk and he said at first he felt like he had to represent everybody and it was just impossible, and I knew I could not attempt to do that."
We suggest that would be like Sex and the City representing all straight women. Braun laughs and then says seriously, "I hope that the audience will be supportive of the fact that this is not a documentary, it's a story and I can only aim to tell it as authentically as I can, and it feels authentic to me." So far, it looks authentic to us too. Everyone involved tells us that Lip Service is not "issue based" like The L Word. There are no couples seeking sperm donors, no gender transitioning, no one is fighting a horrific illness and no one is facing a career crisis. Lip Service is more about late-20-something life when you don't have many responsibilities and there are no massive career decisions.
When Braun was asked by Derek Wax, executive producer for Kudos to "go and write a lesbian drama", her starting point was the image of someone going for an audition. "But a really terrible audition," she laughs. "And then I had an ex-lover returning from somewhere. So the script started from little things like that and then it grew. I always knew that I wanted to explore themes of love and rage, desire and jealousy and I definitely wanted it to be funny."
At heart, the show is a relationship drama about a group of friends hanging out in Glasgow, partying, going to work and having sex - lots of sex. Laura Fraser confesses to filming three sex scenes in one day and nine in total. Heather Peace said that she snogs Laura Fraser in almost every single scene and Ruta Gedmintas' toughest challenge was projecting the predatory confidence of Frankie while naked on set. The story revolves mainly around the characters of Cat (Laura Fraser), Tess (Fiona Button) and Frankie (Ruta Gedmintas). Uptight architect Cat is almost over the heartbreak caused by Frankie, her first love, when she struts back into her life and, in Laura's words, "shoots Cat's routine to hell", complicating her new relationship with sexy police officer Sam (Heather Peace). Tess, who is Cat's flatmate and Frankie's friend, is described by Button as: "The girl who always gets trodden on. She has to deal with lots of rotten auditions and a really complicated love life. Odd things just seem to happen to Tess."
Backing up the lead characters are Lou, a daytime television presenter played by Roxanne McKee, whose tight leather trousers caused a tabloid frenzy on the streets of Glasgow during filming. And lastly, Emun Elliot and James Anthony Pearson, who portray the girls' two straight pals Jay (Cat's workmate) and Ed (Cat's brother). Rather than just being token men, Braun says that she was interested in exploring the relationship between straight men and gay women simply because she has a number of straight male friends: "I think a thing that has often been overlooked is that gay women and straight men have a lot in common. We both fall in love with women and have relationships with women, and I was interested in looking at that dynamic."
Considering that Lip Service is only the second ever drama series specifically about lesbian life, when trying to process each character and the storyline, it's inevitable that the only real contextual comparison we have is with our old friends in West Hollywood - and we don't mean the Real ones...
Every Lip Servant tells us that they "loved" The L Word. Laura Fraser in particular plans to spend her time off watching the remaining four seasons she has yet to see. However, they also told us that beyond some small comparisons the two shows are very different.
The L Word is something that Harriet Braun would clearly rather not discuss. She professes to be a big fan of the show and her respect for it means that she doesn't want to be drawn into any media- or fan- created competitiveness.
"The L Word was the first real exploration of my life I had ever seen on the screen and I liked it a lot. When I set out to write Lip Service, I really had to put The L Word out of my mind because I didn't want to have to deal with comparisons. I just wanted to do my own thing. I feel like there is room for more than one lesbian drama, and they can be different and enjoyed together in the same way that I enjoyed both Friends and Seinfeld, although they were both comedies about friends living in New York."
Producer Anna Ferguson adds: "Apart from the fact that both shows are about lesbians, there isn't much of resemblance between the two. The fundamental difference is that The L Word was set in LA and was glossy and glamorous whereas Lip Service is set in the UK, it's a bit grittier and the characters are younger and a bit more offbeat."
If there is one comparison to be made between the two shows, it lies with the character of Frankie. Sitting cross-legged in the green room, wearing the yellow Vultures T-shirt made famous by Debbie Harry, actress Ruta Gedmintas oozes the kind of androgynous sex-appeal not seen on screen since, well, Shane. Like Shane, Frankie is also the 'bad girl', a heartbreaker and a commitment-phobe. Unlike Shane, she is the only bi character in the show and she has much, much better hair. When we tell her this she laughs and runs her hand through her messy short crop. "When Harriet saw me in the auditions, I had really, really long blonde hair and she told me that she was relishing the fact it was all going to go. I really like it this way. I see pictures of my hair before and I think, 'What was I doing?'"
She admits she understands the comparison between Frankie and Shane: "There is an archetypal similarity between us in that boyish, cool kind of thing, so we are obviously going to have comparisons drawn between us, but I think Frankie is much darker than Shane is." Later Laura Fraser tells us: "Shane is aware of how fucked up she is, but Frankie is lost in it."
Ruta says she loves Frankie's risky, wild character and that she had no qualms about playing queer. And how did she prepare? "John [McKie, director] gave us all a copy of The Guide to Lesbian Sex and told us to read it from cover to cover. I read it on the flight to Glasgow with a granny on one side of me and a little kid on the other, so I had to avoid them seeing the massive picture of a woman wearing nipple clamps!"
At the moment Ruta Gedmintas is not a particularly well-known actress (readers might remember her from parts in Spooks Code Nine and The Tudors) but we sense this is about to change in a big way. One of the show's script advisors told us that her flatmate is already obsessed with her after seeing pictures from the set. "Every morning as I leave the flat, she shouts, 'Give my love to Ruta!'" When we tell Ruta that Frankie will usurp Shane's crown as number one lesbian heartthrob, she looks slightly coy but not displeased. "I don't know, Harriet's said that to me before but we will see..." She currently has just over 100 followers on Twitter and we predict those numbers will quickly rack up once the series begins.
She tells DIVA that she's 'all over the place' after a morning spent playing with her three-year-old daughter Lila, but when we meet Laura Fraser, a couple of weeks after filming ends, she looks impossibly beautiful - with huge chocolate eyes and a Julia Roberts smile. Playing gay for the fourth time in this role, we ask Laura why casting directors love her lesbian turn. "I don't know," she says thoughtfully, before grinning. "I like it though, and I'd happily play a lesbian for the rest of my life. On our first day of filming Harriet did say, 'We felt like there was a bit of lesbian in all of you'. So maybe that's it."
Fraser knew immediately that she wanted to play Cat because she prefers to watch TV shows and films with predominantly female casts and knew that Lip Service would be right up her street. "I just find watching women more interesting and I loved the script. At first I thought that it was a funny, light show but then as I started filming, I realised Cat's storyline was actually quite emotionally traumatic. Throughout the series she is desperately trying to keep a sense of self while she is tied up in knots over the love triangle that emerges between her, Frankie and Sam." When we meet Heather Peace, the only out gay member of the cast, in a Soho café, we can immediately see the sexy swagger that Braun attributed to her winning the role of Sam.
She finds it funny that she's the butchest character in the show because in reality she is considered the least butch amongst her group of friends. She says that the love triangle between the three has been perfectly pitched. "I think we have created enough tension so that the audience will be split over who they want Cat to be with. Sam is offering Cat more of a steady relationship. Plus, we have made her quite exciting; sexually she's a bit of a goer," she grins. "I had such a brilliant time playing her."
The whole cast are in awe of Fiona Button's comedic skills as Tess and having seen the first episode of the show, DIVA can report that she is indeed adorably hilarious. On the day we meet, her pretty face is marred by a (fake) red rash - a sign of one of the weird and funny situations that Tess gets herself into. "Tess is a brilliant character to play. She's friends with everyone and although she's stuck in the middle, she's very loyal to them all. She's funny and self-deprecating, a little bit wild and full of big ideas. And because she makes her own clothes, I have the best wardrobe of the cast."
It's obvious from their grins that every cast member we meet has genuinely had a first-rate time on set and enjoyed working with each other. Not to mention the nights out with Sambuca and the dinners at Laura's house.
There is also a definite sense that they're all proud to be involved in quite possibly the most groundbreaking programme to be televised this year. What do they hope will happen with the show? The resounding answer is just that people will believe in the characters and enjoy the stories - and that they all get to do it all over again in a second series. (Plus Fraser is proud that people will see how gorgeous her hometown Glasgow is.) Peace adds: "Obviously, all the gay girls will watch Lip Service, which is great, but I also think straight people could watch it and forget about the gender. Like with Brokeback Mountain, you forget you are watching two guys and it just becomes about their love. I'm hoping that Lip Service will cross similar boundaries." We think it will.
This article first appeared in DIVA magazine, October 2010.
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