The gay revolution will be televised

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In the process of researching Brendan Behan, I came across the cast for the 1960 Broadway production of his play “The Hostage”. I ran my finger down the list of names, none of which meant much to me until I came across Glynn Edwards. It rang a bell. I wasn’t sure why so, as we all do, I googled it and once an image of the face popped up I smiled. Edwards was the round-faced actor who played Dave, the barman and owner of the Winchester Club, the small-time villains’ hang-out in the beloved 1980s television show “Minder”. Even seeing the name brought me back to my childhood.

For those of us of a certain age, “Minder” was a staple of our cultural lives. In an era before hundreds of channels became available and quality became seriously diluted, the adventures of Arthur Daley and Terry McCann, watched over by the stoic Dave, were appointment television on Thursday nights. Decades later, I can still recall sitting on the couch with my father and brother, waiting to see who Terry would have to inevitably fight to save Arthur’s bacon. Of course, the mere memory of it prompted me to go looking for the show and a trip into the past. In minutes, I was downloading an episode called “Whose wife is it anyway?”

Forty minutes later, I turned off the computer, a bit sad yet also a lot provoked. The show hasn’t aged well – something those of you who catch it on one of the various retro channels available in Cork – may already have known. But there was more to it than that. In this particular story, Arthur and Terry have to protect a London antiques store for a pal who is in hospital. To do this they must work with a man who is his partner in the shop and in life. Just in case we didn’t realise this, immediately upon meeting him, Terry tells Arthur the guy is, and I quote, “a poofter”.

The language wasn’t the only thing dated and shocking. Part of the storyline and the humour centred on how Terry and Arthur were both afraid to be in the same room as the gay man in case he’d foist himself upon them. Yes, that old shibboleth. Every time he came too near them, they got nervous and queasy. Watching the whole thing, suddenly I came upon an awful realisation. If this was the type of stuff we saw on regular television every week, is it any wonder there was so much homophobia and suspicion of gays in the Ireland in which we grew up?

Television is one of the most powerful media when it comes to influencing people, especially the youth. We thought terms like “poofter” and “iron” (curious London slang for gay – the full term is iron hoof because it rhymes with poof) were perfectly acceptable because we heard them bandied about by beloved characters on our screens. So, aside from shattering one of my most cherished television memories from my childhood, watching “Minder” also made me thankful that the cultural landscape has changed so much in recent years.

Every week, my 13 year old son watches the sitcom “Modern Family”. One of the most popular shows in America over the past few years, among the families featured is a couple of gay men and their adopted Chinese daughter. It all seemed such a normal part of modern life in this country that I never thought of it as that important. Until now. The prehistoric attitude towards gays evinced on one episode of “Minder” made me thankful that my children will grow up in a world where on weekly television, gay men are called “Dad” rather than “poofter.” This represents progress.

 

 
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