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Queer as Canuck Limey Yanks

BROAD CASTING. US Queer As Folk's writer/producers Daniel Lipman and Ron Cowen (inset) say that they had a really tough time finding an actor to play an amoral gay man; Gale Harold (middle) turned up in the nick of time. Credit: Xtra files

The US version of Queer As Folk comes trailing clouds of sexual hype – most of it justified.

Within the first few episodes of the new show, its hero, the sexually voracious Brian, does a 17-year-old in bed, a male nurse in a hospital ward, a married client in a corporate washroom and a hunky stranger in the steam room of his gym.

There’s a lot of casual nudity and most of the actors have riders attached to their contracts detailing just much they’ll be asked to reveal. But it’s not a porn movie, says executive producer Daniel Lipman, who created the show with his partner in life and work, Ron Cowen. “We do not have a crotch cam always on the ready.”

Besides, the sex is actually less interesting than the context in which it occurs.

“What’s amazing about this show,” says Lipman, “is that all the characters are gay.” Lots of shows have gay characters and that helps “people get used to the fact that this is part of the tapestry of the world. But when you see a show like this in which all the characters are gay – there are very few straight characters, and they all live in a gay world… that’s very important.”

For Canadians raised on a steady diet of British shows like This Life, Inside The Line and of course the original Queer As Folk, the idea of a show with sexualized gay leads is old hat. This Life’s Warren was cruising the parks for strangers long before Ellen even came out.

But there’s no doubt that the US Queer As Folk is breaking new ground in the States, where cutting edge is the cute but chaste Will And Grace.

Ten years ago, a show with even one gay leading character would have been unheard of – an ensemble show like Queer As Folk with its multiple gay characters absolutely unthinkable.

When Lipman and Cowen created their hit family drama, Sisters, in the early 1990s, they tried to make the youngest sister gay. The network said, nice idea, find yourself another network.

Cowen and Lipman, who also wrote the award-winning AIDS drama An Early Frost, eventually introduced other queer characters, including a recurring lesbian played by Nora Dunn, but they were all secondary characters.

For the Queer As Folk commissioned by US cable network, Showtime, they’ve gone much further, creating six queer characters: the aforementioned Brian (Gale Harold), his easy going best friend Michael (Hal Sparks), a 17-year-old ingenue (Randy Harrison), an insecure, porn-loving accountant (Scott Lowell), a sensible queen (Peter Paige) and a child-rearing lesbian couple (Thea Gill and Michelle Clunie).

The characters bear more than a trace of their British origins, as do the first few episodes worth of plot, which follow Brian’s sexcapades, Michael’s new romance and young Justin’s attempts to deal with gay life. But the tone is quite different – funnier, more joyful and less gritty, says Lipman. Plus a touch more psychologically explicit, in deference to the US taste for therapeutic intervention.

He and Cowen watched each episode of the original 10 or 12 times, tried to absorb the essentials, then went their own way.

“The thing you have to do when you adapt something,” says Lipman, “you have to totally digest it and then absolutely throw it away.” Maybe 10 lines of the original survive.

Generally, he’s wary of adapting edgy British shows like AbFab and Fawlty Towers. They don’t translate well. But he and Cowen thought Queer As Folk was very much in their voice and they could do it.

For Canadian fans, the big question is probably: Why bother? Why not just run the British original?

But as Lipman points out, “There really is a different sensibility in the States than there is in Canada.” Gay audiences might be able to penetrate the British accents and other cultural barriers, but a larger US audience probably wouldn’t.

Showtime bought the new Queer As Folk in the hope of attracting the sort of large, crossover audience that has flocked to shows like the Sopranos and Sex And The City on the rival HBO network. “I don’t think the original would have gotten that [audience],” says Lipman. “I think people would have been frustrated by it.”

So few people in the US have seen the original that for them it’s almost a fresh show. Originally, there was even talk of changing the name. (The old Yorkshire proverb, “There’s nowt so queer as folk,” doesn’t have much currency in the US.) But Showtime decided the name had marquee value and featured it prominently in its promotions.

For Canadians, there’s the dubious and deeply ironic thrill of watching identities mingle. This is a British drama recast as a US soap that’s shot entirely in Toronto with much help from local talent.

All the writers, including the well-known trio of Richard Kramer (Thirtysomething), Jason Schafer (Trick) and Jonathan Tolins (The Twilight Of The Golds) are based in LA. But Canadians Thea Gill and Chris Potter act (she plays a lesbian mother; he, Michael’s new love interest) and Canadians John Greyson, David Wellington and Jeremy Podeswa direct a number of the episodes.

Most of the dance club scenes have been shot at either Fly or Guvernment, with Woody’s supplying some exteriors and Church St doubling as Pittsburgh’s Liberty St. Look for a lot of familiar faces as secondary characters and extras.

Lipman says he’s learned a lot about Canadian attitudes during his stay, but hasn’t seen that much difference between Canadian and US gays.

“What’s really strange here is you walk by a travel agency and there’s a big sign for a vacation in Cuba, which is something you would never see in the US.” Otherwise, Toronto isn’t so different from LA. Church St reminds him of West Hollywood and the Santa Monica strip.

As with all series dramas, the production schedule is gruelling. Shooting on the 22-episode series started last July and continues into March. But one of the biggest headaches, casting, is over. It was “extremely difficult,” says Lipman.

Most actors are willing to do almost anything once, but a starring role in a long-running series carries its own dangers. It can make you a star or stamp you indelibly as the wrong kind of character. And apparently nobody wanted to be known as a selfish, amoral, gay man.

Sparks, Lowell and Paige appeared almost immediately. But finding a Brian was difficult. Agents varied in how they couched their rejections, says Lipman. “Some said it’s a very fine show but we don’t have anyone available and others said there’s no way in hell so-and-so is going to do this part.” But the message was the same and it held up the start of shooting.

The week before they were supposed to test their lead on network execs, they still didn’t have a Brian. Finally, at 5pm on the Friday before their Monday meeting, they found Gale Harold.

Good thing, too, because the self-centred character of Brian is central to the show’s theme which, like the show’s psychology, is much more explicit than in the British original. It’s about the difficulty of becoming a man, says Lipman.

“It is harder for a gay boy to become a man because when you’re growing up you’re not able to express yourself emotionally, sexually and romantically, and your adolescence is delayed.”

Some men get caught up in drugs or sex and die a kind of spiritual death. The question in Queer As Folk, says Lipman, is which of the characters will survive the transition.

Whether it’s Michael, Brian or someone else, they’re all going to have lots of chances to indulge their hedonistic impulses before they’re forced to “grow up.” There’s a foam party in episode seven (“Studs And Suds”) and a leather ball in episode 15.

But that’s all just window dressing, says Lipman. He feels what’s really liberating about this show is not the toys nor the sex, but being able to show characters who are something other than the usual network-approved heroes and villains. Michael, for instance, is a nice guy who happens to go to discos and take recreational drugs. Some people don’t like that kind of contradictory complexity, but Lipman does.

“The music, clothes, looks, clubs can change, but the important thing is making sure the characters are true to who they are.”