Nowt so queer as folk

This expression, common in the north of England, gave rise to the title of Russell T Davies’s TV series, where the adjective is used in its sexual, or rather homosexual, sense.

Russell T Davies (left) has the power of his convictions

Now Mr Davies, himself a lover of male beauty, has come out against casting straight actors as homosexuals. His reasons, he explains, are professional, not woke.

“It’s about authenticity,” he says. “You wouldn’t cast someone able-bodied and put them [sic] in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t black someone up.”

Far be it from me to argue with a professional about his area of expertise. If Mr Davies says that a straight man can’t capture every nuance of homosexual demeanour, I have to accept he knows what he’s talking about.

But then Cate Blanchett is a professional too, and, though straight, she happily played a lesbian in the film Carol. Miss Blanchett disagrees with Mr Davies: “I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience,” she says.

This rings true: an actor’s craft is all about creating characters detached from himself. Few would expect a thespian playing Richard III to be a hunchback in real life, one performing Macbeth to be a serial murderer or one playing Lear to have his eyes gouged out.

On the subject close to Mr Davies’s heart, many straight actors have excelled playing homosexuals: Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal. And Sean Penn got an Oscar for such a role in Milk.

Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor played homosexuals in I Love You Philip Morris, which gave Ricky Gervais an opening when he presented the Golden Globe Awards.  “Two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay,” said the comedian in his deadpan voice. “So the complete opposite of some famous scientologists then.”

A collective gasp from the audience greeted that transparent reference to John Travolta. “My lawyers helped me with the wording of that joke,” reassured Gervais. Then, after a perfectly timed pause, he added: “They’re not here.”

Jokes aside, I’ll let professionals sort out the issue of authenticity, although, getting back to Mr Davies’s statement, I can’t for the life of me see why an able-bodied actor couldn’t be believable in a wheelchair. And, as both Hanks and Penn showed, conveying homosexuality isn’t beyond the capacity of an accomplished straight actor either.

Alas, when Mr Davies says “you wouldn’t black someone up”, he belies his claim of not being woke. Blackface used to be a standard practice in productions of Othello. Actors like Lawrence Olivier were indeed blacked up without in any way lowering the dramatic tension of the role.

That practice has now been abandoned. Any production featuring a blacked-up actor as Othello would be picketed faster than you could say ‘racism’ and ‘cultural appropriation’. By the same token, you won’t see many men playing female roles, and when they do it’s usually for a valid reason.

Such transsexualism was de rigueur in Elizabethan times, when women weren’t allowed on stage for fear of offending public morality. But since actresses, even those who insist on calling themselves actors, are now in ample supply, it would be churlish to cast, say, Jason Statham as Ophelia.

So far so good – I am agreeing with Mr Davies and his likeminded friends, if only for the sake of argument. But they betray themselves by showing a lamentable lack of consistency.

If, as they maintain, a white actor can’t be convincing as a black character, nor a male performer as a woman, then logic demands that the reverse apply as well: blacks shouldn’t play whites and women shouldn’t play men.

However, when ideology talks, logic falls silent. Thus the same people who protest against ‘whitewashing’, welcome ‘blackwashing’, the casting of blacks in white roles (and, for that matter, actresses as men).

Examples are numerous. Off the top, in the TV series Bridgerton, black actress Golda Rosheuvel plays Queen Charlotte, and in Anne Boleyn the title role is played by equally black Jodie Turner-Smith – with no cultural appropriation mooted within my earshot.

In fact, there have been rumours about Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry, although no consensus among historians exists. But that’s neither here nor there: even if there was a drop of black blood in the Queen, this doesn’t explain the profusion of other black actors in Bridgerton: the court of George III wasn’t exactly known for its commitment to multiculturalism.  

Such casting is strictly ideological. The audience is expected to pretend it’s not distracted by the spectacle of, say, Anne Boleyn as a black woman. Yet any intelligent viewer is bound to look for some hidden meaning in such casting, and most would be frustrated at their inability to find any.

These days it goes without saying that Cleopatra must always be played by a black actress on the British stage. Now the queen of Egypt was a member of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, whose members could be suntanned, but never black. Portraying her as a black African makes no sense historically or artistically, but to modern directors it makes every sense ideologically.

The production I saw at the National featured not only transracialism but also transsexualism. Many male roles, including that of the warrior Agrippa, were played by women. Utterly confused, I walked out after the first act, a feat of escapism I’ve since repeated many times whenever I couldn’t figure out whether a woman actually was a man, or merely pretended to be one.

One such expensive exit (two theatre tickets will set you back some £150 in London) was from the play Raven, about the chess match between Fischer and Spassky. Many of the historical male characters were played by women, who would then revert to their own sex in subsequent scenes; blacks played whites; I headed for the exit, confused to the point of distraction.

It’s too much to hope that our directors stop using stage and screen as ideological battlegrounds. These chap are among those who inhale reality and exhale zeitgeist. Even if they have artistic sensibilities, they willingly trade them for woke rectitude, and no one can stop such transactions.

However, I do suggest Mr Davies attend a spiritualist séance and try to communicate with the spirit of Stanislavsky. I bet Konstantin Sergeyevich will see nothing but madness in Davies’s method.

7 thoughts on “Nowt so queer as folk”

  1. Brokeback Mountain is a brilliant example of a film that depicts the plight of homosexuals within a certain milieu without berating the viewer.

    Russell T Davies has form as a propagandist, one remembers the bizarre anti-theism shoehorned into Dr Who during his tenure.

    What ‘diversity’ really means is as few straight-white-males as can be involved without triggering a backlash, thus devaluing the product. Ah well, at least Bridgerton is entertaining, and of course there is a near infinite backlog of film and tv produced prior to the current craze (not that good stuff isn’t still being made) although I have heard that some streaming services have begun to censor the more ‘problematic’ aspects of earlier films, so physical media is preferable.

  2. I recall functionally-legged Raymond Burr playing the wheelchair-using detective ‘Ironsides’ years ago. He seemed pretty authentic in the role as I recall.

  3. Death to all who are not PC correct! For example Doctor Who has been running, on and off, since 1963, therefore it’s probably the longest running BBC (or maybe world-wide series). I haven’t seen every episode, but I can’t recall ever seeing a long passionate kiss scene until we had our recent gay men (British astronaut and husband) environmental (rid the world of plastic) episode.
    The BBC has certainly been PC correct with Doctor Who over the last decade; it had an intergalactic lesbian traveller, always has black people casted nowadays and even the Doctor is now female.

  4. The occupation of an actor is to “play” a role, is it not? Gays overly represented in the acting profession anyhow, is that not right too. So what is the problem?

  5. “the chess match between Fischer and Spassky. ”

    Only a serious chess player can play the role of a competitive chess player. Right?

  6. In the context of black actors playing historical figures, Alexander Boot’s remark that the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra was a member of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty ruling Egypt reminded me that I read very recently she was the first and last member of that dynasty who spoke Egyptian.

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