When the BBC announced its upcoming sapphic plotline in period
drama Upstairs Downstairs last month, lesbian viewers were
justifiably suspicious. Was this love affair between Emilia Fox's
Lady Alresford and Alex Kingston's Blanche Mottershead to be a
sensitive and considered portrayal of queer love, or a
bodice-ripping ratings booster?
The last five years of UK TV programming may have seen a rise in
lesbian visibility, but for some critics, its gaze veers towards
the exploitative, focusing narrowly on our sex lives. Terrestrial
UK TV's relationship with lesbians is an inconsistent one, and with
Upstairs Downstairs facing stiff competition from ITV's wildly
successful Downton Abbey, it's easy to see why a lesbian storyline
might tempt and titillate viewers.
When asked what motivated the sapphic storyline, Upstairs
Downstairs writer and creator Heidi Thomas told us she was
"inspired by my own reading and through conversations with female
friends" and insisted she had "treated this love story as I would
any other", but felt UK tabloids rather than the series itself had
"sensationalized" the relationship.
Representation of lesbians may have improved over recent years,
but as Lee Beattie (of AfterEllen's Great LezBritain bloggers Sarah
and Lee) points out, we've reached something of a TV impasse. "The
problem is that perhaps even with the best intentions, TV companies
don't seem to know what to do with lesbians after the initial
coming out story or one-off period drama." This may explain why
lesbian plots often feel so disposable, and sex-centric.
The BBC have certainly embraced lesbian culture, with
Glasgow-based drama Lip Service and a slew of lesbian literary
adaptions, including Sarah Waters' novels and The Secret Diaries of
Miss Anne Lister. Lesbian characters on ITV's Emmerdale and
Coronation Street, Channel 4's Sugar Rush and Skins, and Channel
5's reality series Candy Bar Girls also deserve mentions, but the
consensus amongst lesbian audiences and insider TV professionals is
that a more comprehensive style of coverage is happening far too
slowly. Beattie believes irregular visibility is to blame. "There
has been no real impetus or consistent portrayal [of lesbian life],
it's all in dribs and drabs".
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PHOTO: BBC and Nick Wall