Know your past live your future

Beth Jordache by Stephanie Matthews

Beth Jordache by Stephanie Matthews

Illustration by Nova Dando

Stephanie Matthews is Campaign Manager for Virgin and President of the women’s network Bloom UK. She’s spent much of her career in TV, working in advertising research at Channel 4 and ITV. She’s passionate about spearheading equality for all in the communications industry and beyond.

As a teenager growing up on the outskirts of Watford, I didn’t really have any one to talk to about fancying girls. It wasn’t a topic that came up with my family. We were a conservative 2.4 children set up, typically British Guyanese with stifled emotions. I couldn’t really talk about it with mates – if anything, being a lezza was a playground cus, along with slag, slapper and slut. I didn’t know any lesbians either, except that one girl at school George, but she’d been ostracised so talking to her was out of the question. I hadn’t read about it in my favourite magazines at the time, Just Seventeen or More, and I couldn’t see any on the TV either. Lesbians were for all intents and purposes invisible.

That was until 1994 when Brookside’s Beth Jordache made British TV history, with the first pre watershed lesbian kiss. It was an iconic moment for me and the UK TV viewing population when Beth, played by Anna Friel, kissed the family nanny Margaret Clemence, played by Nicola Stephenson. Until their seminal kiss, British telly had never featured lesbians – certainly not before the 9pm watershed. A simple and tender kiss paved the way for my coming out, the start of better on screen LGBT+ representation and the gradual acceptance of lesbians in mainstream society.

At that time, Brookside was in its heyday, a prime time soap on three days a week, on Channel 4. It was genuine appointment to view telly, with people planning their evenings around it, and a guaranteed ratings banker for the channel. The lesbian kiss episode reached over 9 million viewers – its highest ever in its whole 21-year run.

It was a bold and controversial storyline for the soap, and it caused a sensation when it aired because of the negative sentiment around the LGBT+ community at the time. In 1993 a year before the kiss was televised only 1 in 5 of the UK population approved of the LGBT+ lifestyle, believing that ‘sexual relations between two adults of the same sex was not wrong at all’.* Fast forward 23 years to 2016, and that’s more than tripled to 2 in 3 adults.* (*Source: National Centre of Social Research / British Social Attitudes Report 2016 )

The UK in 1994 simply wasn’t as open and liberal as it is today. It was only two years since the World Health Organisation had declassified same sex attraction as a mental illness, section 28 was still alive and kicking, ensuring that young people had no LGBT+ sex education at school and very few people in the public eye had come out. There wasn’t a role model in sight. Being gay wasn’t something you spoke about because of the shame and stigma attached to it. Real life lesbians were too taboo to mention, let alone televise. Even as a fictional character, many viewers complained about Brookside’s scheduling pre watershed as it was deemed explicit content in their eyes.

However for me, there was nothing explicit about it.  Beth’s kiss confirmed a niggling feeling in me that I hadn’t quite known how to articulate. And here it was loud and proud on prime time telly, and the front page of all the tabloid newspapers. Beth introduced me and the wider British public to the normality of fancying a girl.

There’s a really powerful message here about the impact genuine representation on telly and mainstream media can have.  If I hadn’t had seen Beth kiss Margaret on Brookside, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to express those feelings I had for women. You can’t be what you can’t see.

Brookside kick-started a change in attitude towards the LGBT+ community, and a wave of British TV soaps copied their lead, incorporating them into storylines. Perhaps you could argue the producers used it as a mechanism to secure ratings, as sensationalism always wins. However even if this was the initial primary driver, there’s no underestimating its strength in simultaneously raising awareness of the LGBT+ lifestyle and representing the real world around us.

Fast forward a decade, and I’m going through a painful coming out to my religious, Guyanese mum. Hands down, I know my mum only really started to accept me when Sally Webster’s daughter Sophie came out on ITV’s Coronation Street. My mum was a loyal viewer, and in her eyes, if it was on telly, and on her favourite show, it must be ok. Everyone she knew watched Corrie so it would be easier to explain to her family and friends in her community about her daughter’s life now. Seeing it on screen validated it for her.

We can’t underestimate the power of TV in shaping societal views. It’s mass reach can normalise the world we live in, and TV soaps in particular can provide a safe, fictional environment to introduce taboo topics, for a large swath of the UK population. TV and mainstream media in general must take responsibility for this power. The next step is using their platforms to show real life lesbians living like everyone else, not fetishised for male pleasure. For instance, domestic bliss largely consists of terse conversations about who’s going to take the bins out and why the cat hasn’t been fed, the western world over, irrespective of sexuality.

Beth – thank you for kick starting an on and off screen lesbian revolution. Your kiss beaming into 9 million homes that night started to chip away at the societal shame and my own personal shame of being gay. You were a role model for me and countless others in the LGBTQ+ community, showing us what was possible. Showing us what was normal.

Nova Dando is an award winning commercial and music video director based in London. She has been listed in Grazia Magazine’s Cool List, the NME’s most 50 influential people in music videos and featured in Dazed, i-D, Elle, Vogue, Vice, Pop Magazine, Paper Magazine, NyLon and The Guardian. Her film for BA’s Level Airline won a prestigious D&AD Pencil in 2018.

Having graduated from Central St Martins, Nova’s worked as fashion director for La Roux, The Gossip, Hercules & Love Affair, Klaxons & The Horrors. It was here she nurtured her craft and evolved her role into a music video director, securing a Vimeo Staff Pick for her first music video for Bloc Party. Nova’s commercial representation is Ridley Scott Associates - Rsa Films.

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