First Gay British Television Series Airs Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Gay Life became the first gay-focused series commissioned for British television. It not only laid the groundwork for the development of other GLBT-themed shows and characters but also introduced gay and lesbian concerns to the general public and helped to politicize the GLBT community in the United Kingdom.

Summary of Event

During the early years of television in the United Kingdom, as in other countries, characters in sitcoms and dramas were portrayed as exclusively heterosexual. With the so-called sexual revolution in the 1960’s came an increase in visibility for lesbians and gays. Slowly, gay characters began appearing on British television, although most were presented as stereotypical quick-with-a-comeback salesclerks or hairstylists with no sense of sexuality. [kw]First Gay British Television Series Airs (1979-1981) [kw]Gay British Television Series Airs, First (1979-1981) [kw]British Television Series Airs, First Gay (1979-1981) [kw]Television Series Airs, First Gay British (1979-1981) Television;first gay series[gay series] Gay Life (television newsmagazine) [c]Cultural and intellectual history;1979-1981: First Gay British Television Series Airs[1310] [c]Arts;1979-1981: First Gay British Television Series Airs[1310] Attwell, Michael

As the 1970’s came to a close, gays and lesbians began looking for media that would inform, inspire, and connect them as a community. Gay News, the United Kingdom’s first gay newspaper, began publishing in 1972, but television still remained closed to characters who were clearly gay or lesbian and to gay subject matter. Michael Attwell, a British producer and actor, sought a remedy.

In 1979, London Weekend Television commissioned the first ever gay series for British television: Gay Life, a newsmagazine format that focused both on stories of triumph and on daily social injustices. For the first time gays and lesbians could see their lives represented on the small screen more accurately; one episode, for example, featured the prejudicial attitude of British security services against lesbians and gays. Following the show’s airing, community groups began to form, looking for social change.

The eleven-part series was broadcast well after the “family hour” in 1980 and 1981, however: 11:30 p.m. on Sundays. Still, Attwell was lauded for his contributions to furthering positive gay imagery on television. The average audience for Gay Life was 350,000, which was a strong enough rating to encourage producers to look at future gay-themed programming.

Although there had been gay characters on television before Attwell’s program, there had not been such an open and honest portrayal of contemporary gay life. Public demand for similar programming grew, and, by 1988, ITV’s Channel 4, a commercial station, began a series by and for gays and lesbians called Out on Tuesday. Throughout the 1980’s, British soap operas, notably BBC’s EastEnders and Channel 4’s Brookside, presented gay couples as part of their regular programming. Though not immediately accepted by the general public, these characters became tolerated as television began to more accurately reflect Britain’s diversity.

Gay characters were rarely allowed to show physical affection on British television, however. Even the most innocuous kiss became the subject of protests outside television studios. Because of this, many of the “groundbreaking” gay characters were nothing more than variations of the sexless eunuchs represented in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Gay characters could be open about their sexual orientation but could not be sexual. Without this complexity, the shows seemed “flat” and remained attached to secondary storylines.

Lesbian characters, on the other hand, seem to have been less scrutinized and less restricted. In 1990, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Portrait of a Marriage drew large audiences, and lesbian couples appeared on both Brookside and EastEnders. In 1993, the soap opera Emmerdale introduced Zoe Tate, a lesbian veterinarian who proved very popular with audiences, and she still appears on the program. In fact, the actor who plays her has won numerous audience awards.

The HIV-AIDS epidemic brought pressure during the 1990’s to depict more honest and complex portrayals of gays and lesbians. In response, the BBC introduced the series Gaytime TV Gaytime TV from Gay Life producer Attwell. Gaytime TV offered a show that was more cutting-edge and flashy than the traditional newsmagazine show Gay Life, and though it received criticism from both the GLBT community and general audiences for sometimes being too superficial, it lasted four seasons because it addressed contemporary concerns and issues.

By the end of the 1990’s, television fully embraced GLBT individuals as part of the social diversity it wished to reflect. GLBT topics were discussed openly on news programs and talk shows; gay characters appeared on numerous sitcoms and soap operas. British television had incorporated gays in almost every facet of programming; however, it still chose to show a fairly antiseptic portrayal of gay life.

Challenging political correctness was Channel 4’s Queer as Folk, Queer as Folk (television series) which first aired in 1999. This unapologetic, in-your-face drama featuring frank and graphic sex stretched the bounds of what had been shown on television previously and became so popular it spawned both a sequel and a successful cable-TV version in the United States. Two years later, the equally LGBT-focused Metrosexuality Metrosexuality (television series) also proved a popular audience favorite. Suddenly, there was little about the gay experience, if anything, that could not be portrayed on television.


While British television had traditionally presented gay characters as oddities and nonsexual beings, the 1990’s saw a sharp shift in focus. GLBT television stations, programs featuring solely gay characters, and a more vocal and discerning GLBT audience forced British producers to show representations that were more varied and nuanced than before.

The 1979 through 1981 airing of Gay Life allowed British audiences to see “real” gays and lesbians. The general public saw a more human side to GLBT lives and introduced TV viewers to the daily stigmatization and discrimination faced by GLBT individuals. Also, the program helped increase the demand for GLBT characters on television and united gays and lesbians from around Great Britain politically, an activism sparked, in part, by the HIV-AIDS epidemic.

Gay Life also used numerous GLBT artists as directors, producers, and members of its production crew, many of whom have gone on to create or develop other GLBT programming. Indeed, Attwell, who introduced a fresh and youth-oriented style to gay programming on BBC2, continues to be one of Britain’s most successful and respected television producers. Having laid the groundwork for regular programming that serves the needs of the GLBT community and informs the viewing public, Gay Life is regarded as one of the most important gay programs ever produced for television. Television;first gay series[gay series] Gay Life (television newsmagazine)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Capsuto, Steven. Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television, 1930’s to the Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gauntlett, David. Media, Gender, and Identity: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howes, Keith. Broadcasting It: An Encyclopaedia of Homosexuality on Film, Radio, and TV in the UK, 1923-1993. London: Cassell, 1993.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keller, James R., and Leslie Stratyner, eds. The New Queer Aesthetic on Television: Essays on Recent Programming. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNair, Brian. Striptease Culture: Sex, Media, and the Democratization of Desire. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanderson, Terry. Mediawatch: The Treatment of Male and Female Homosexuality in the British Media. London: Cassell, 1995.

1930’s-1960’s: Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films

March 7, 1967: CBS Airs CBS Reports: The Homosexuals

October 31, 1969: TIME Magazine Issues “The Homosexual in America”

June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic

1985: GLAAD Begins Monitoring Media Coverage of Gays and Lesbians

1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

1988: Macho Dancer Is Released in the Philippines

1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out

March 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film

September 7, 2001: First Gay and Lesbian Television Network Is Launched in Canada

March 5, 2006: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Transamerica Receive Oscars

Categories: History