You wouldn’t have thought that British TV would be making gay-themed entertainment in 1959, but a recently uncovered drama found in the BFI vaults shows that they were. South, which screened over the weekend at the London Lesbian And Gay Film Festival, is being hailed as TV’s first gay drama.
According to The Guardian, ‘It involves a dashing Polish army lieutenant exiled in the US deep south as civil war approaches and the question of who he really loves: the plantation owner’s angry niece, Miss Regina, or the tall, blond, rugged officer who arrives suddenly – a handsome man called Eric MacClure.’
South, adapted by Gerald Savory from an original play by Julien Green, first screened on ITV on November 24th, 1959. It’s a surprise it was made, as while it was two years after the Wolfenden Report, gay acts weren’t decriminalised until 1967. It’s also two years before Victim, the first film to use the word homosexual and to take a somewhat sympathetic approach to gay people.
It’s amazing South survived, as at the time nearly all TV was performed live and shows weren’t routinely recorded (even the first episodes of Coronation Street were performed live and many have been lost forever). Even what’s held by the BFI isn’t always fully known, and it took a bit of detective work to rediscover South.
Archivists searching through old copies of the Radio Times noticed a reference to the lead character in south not being quite right. They also saw that the character was played by Peter Wyngarde, who they knew at the time was in a long-term relationship with Alan Bates (although this was a closely guarded secret from the public). As a result they looked South out and discovered it was implicitly about being gay.
BFI curator Simon McCallum says, “I think you have to give Wyngarde a massive pat on the back in terms of the bravery in taking this role. There were quite bad reactions from some of the press.”
This included reviews in the Daily Sketch, which read, “I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my living room. This is not prudishness. There are some indecencies in life that are best left covered up.”
Following the LLGFF screenings, South will become available to watch at the BFI’s mediatheques in Glasgow, Newcastle, Wrexham, Cambridge, Derby and London.