Stitching together almost a century’s worth of footage to illustrate the lives of gay and lesbian people in Britain throughout recent history is no easy task, but documentarian Daisy Asquith has proved herself to be more than up to the job. With help from her editors Kenny McCracken and Alan Mackay, she has dived deep into the BFI archives, and managed to come back to the surface with a final product that effectively tells the story of the British gay experience over the past 100 years.
To achieve this feat, footage from both documentaries and fiction films have been compiled into one singular piece, juxtaposing the reality of gay life through the ages, with how that was represented in pop culture. During the years prior to decriminalisation, and in the immediate years following, there’s a noted similarity in the heightened hysteria of news reports and in the exaggerated screen depictions- even at their most empathetic. Naturally, this part of 20th century history is the one the documentary covers more extensively; even as we see archive interviews with gay men and lesbians that offer a heartfelt window into their lives, TV presenters of eras gone by still don’t hold back at describing their lifestyle as repulsive.
The earliest portrayals of gay life in Britain come via amateur film reels, with many of the references to LGBT people in cinema’s earliest decades coming via subtextual references in domestic dramas. As the film continues, we see films unashamed of portraying gay sex onscreen, breaking boundaries in cinema even as successive governments (namely Margaret Thatcher’s “family values” policies) aim to restrict the visibility of the LGBT community in society. TV and film may have finally been offering marginalised people the chance to have a voice without being belittled, but the society these movies and shows were released to didn’t have a similar lack of judgement- and weren’t afraid to hold their prejudices close to their chest.
Daisy Asquith soundtracks the film constantly with various song choices from the back catalogue of singer songwriter John Grant (as well as briefly utilising contributions from Hercules & Love Affair and Goldfrapp). It helps make the film feel like a lovingly assembled mixtape, giving it an intimate feel even if it is attempting to accomplish the monumental task of condensing 100 years of history into 71 minutes.
Queerama offers an efficient overview of recent British history, as well as offering glimpses at so many British movies with gay themes, it’s highly likely you’ll be compiling an extensive movie watch list after viewing. No film could ever fully encapsulate a century in British culture – but Asquith still manages to capture the spirit of a nation’s shifting attitudes over time, like it was a walk in the park.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of British Film Institute