EastEnders Actor Responds to Gazette Article

By Andrew Lynford

Editor's note: The following article was written in response to an article previously published in the Walford Gazette (issue No.43) regarding how EastEnders portrays gays.

Before we really get into all this, let's get something clear. It was all a long time ago. Eight years to be exact, here in the U.K. Yes, people still approach me in the supermarket or on the train, recounting with either affection or horror how they remembered the character I played in EastEnders kissing another man,not only another man, but his sister's boyfriend to boot! Then usually they say how much they liked Simon and how it would be nice to have him back in Albert Square. I suppose this means they genuinely liked him and his storylines... or perhaps they're just being polite.

Would I like to go back? Well, never say never.

After Den Watts's return from the daffodils, anything in soap land must surely be possible. Oops! Better not give too much away just in case you haven't seen it yet.

But going back would mean getting emotionally involved with the character all over again,like rekindling an old friendship,and defending him and his actions.

At times, as any actor on any soap will probably tell you, you even have to remind yourself that it is only pretend. However, I guess my 'soft spot' for Simon still firmly exists, as here I am defending him (and, in a way, my portrayal of him) to you right now.

It may be sad, it may be perfectly valid.

Whatever your view, I shall endeavour to win your sympathy.

Phil Hansen's article, 'Queer As Walford,' was interesting to read,and, assuming that he is a fan of EastEnders (editor's note: he is), somewhat disheartening. To hear Tony and Simon written off as 'ambitious failures' makes me wonder just what it was about them that was so fantastically abysmal in Mr.

Hansen's eyes?

The two characters were long standing and pivotal in many major storylines during their time in Walford.

That in itself is unusual by any standards for a gay and bisexual character in an ongoing drama. Their continual inclusion in the everyday comings and goings of Albert Square saw them integrated in a way few gay characters have been in any soap.

Also, and I think refreshingly, their storylines were not just focused on their 'orientation' and about 'acceptance.' There were issues that could have been directed at any couple struggling to survive life in a small community within a large city.

It was about 'life' and the best way to live it.

Perhaps then, this was the mistake. When a character such as Simon was representing a minority group, perhaps every opportunity should be used to promote a type of lifestyle and behaviour?

In the U.K., the tabloid press has always used any 'news-worthy' story centred around homosexuality as outrageous and scandalous,and Simon, sorry to say, was often featured in these quality journals.

Not Andrew Lynford, I hasten to add, but Simon Raymond. However, they invariably reported that Simon was dull and boring and not fun and up beat like all gay men (?!). Perhaps the flip side of this was that the writers and myself had managed to show a young gay man as perfectly 'normal',and that in itself is surely interesting dramatically. If the EastEnders policy at the time was to 'entertain and educate,' then maybe Simon in all his mundaneness was saying something very important to the readers of The Sun, wasn't he?

But perhaps there were areas of the gay press at the time (and Mr

Hansen) who wanted some more stereotypical traits in the character? One character, and one actor playing him, could not singlehandedly represent EVERY gay man...

I am pleased that the article acknowledges the excitement surrounding the Tony/Tiffany/Simon love triangle. It was original and compelling I think,pure soap opera, but anchored to reality by strong writing and (I say almost impartially) by well-judged performances. The added dimension of 'who was the father of Tiffany's baby' only heightened the profile of these two already well developed and sympathetic gay characters. Indeed, this storyline has since been 'echoed' (I am hesitant in using the word copied) in Coronation Street and Family Affairs, big soaps in the U.K.

The Blackpool kiss, which sparked the start of the story, was never 45 seconds,it was filmed at about three o'clock in the morning on Blackpool pier in the freezing cold. I think my lips would have frozen to Mark Homer's if we had taken that long over it. It was, however, edited by a second or two, and I personally think it did break the rhythm of the scene slightly.

The producers on the show at the time were disappointed the powers-that-were took the decision to cut the kiss down. At the time we felt it was shying away from the journey the two characters were taking. Looking back, of course, it made little difference and the effect was still astounding!

Government ministers and even the Church of England took to commenting on that episode and its content.

About two years later, the American Showtime series Queer as Folk aired on Channel Four. The show was well crafted as a means to shock and cause outrage by showing elements of the life led by some men in the gay community. The Tony and Simon storyline in EastEnders never set out to do that. At the time, there were champions of Queer as Folk taking the line of 'at last, real gay men on telly! Not like those two boring poofs on EastEnders.' It was amusing to me at some level and saddened me at another.

We were broadcast at 7:30 p.m., aimed at prime time 'family' viewing and Queer as Folk was 10 p.m. on Channel Four, a channel in the U.K. renowned for its controversial programming. We were unable to compete, not that we ever felt we had to or wanted to. It was also around this time that the stories for Simon were becoming more dramatic and, as I have said previously, removed from anything purely tokenistic.

Mr. Hansen makes reference to the cliff top scenes with Courtney as almost homophobic. This is interesting and something I had never considered.

To my mind, the story was addressing mental health and the results of difficulty in coping with bereavement. To that end, it becomes a very strong image about family values from a gay point of view: Simon the homosexual was not destroying the family unit, but literally clinging on to the last fragment of stability within the family he had, having lost his sister, and maintaining no relationships with either his mother or father. All Simon was looking for was a constant and nurturing home life. At that time, his young niece was the only chance he had of developing that, particularly as Tony was still dabbling with girls around that time. And rightly so.

This is, after all, telly drama, and Tony was a bisexual man. Eventually though, Tony and Simon ended up together. As they bade farewell to the Square (a decision reached mutually by myself, Mark Homer and the producers at the time), Mr. Hansen shouted 'Good riddance.'

Apart from anything else, the two characters were integral to some major plot lines and affected the audience,whether they were liked or loathed. The main thing is,they caused a stir. And all this time on, as episodes are aired in the U.S. or repeated on cable channels here in the U.K., people still want to talk about it. We were noticed. People thought about it. Some may even have had a 're-think' about it all. So some good was done... I hope.

I know Mr. Hansen's comments have a degree of irony in them and are light-heartedly reported, and I don't want to sound too earnest about it all (after all, it is only pretend!) It is easy to accept a gay camp character in comedy but so much harder in straight drama (excuse the choice of word!).

Will & Grace, Are You Being Served?, Gimme Gimme Gimme, every Carry On film... they all embrace a camp, overt gay element of comedy, and it becomes acceptable as we are invited to laugh at it. But how then to ask your audience to feel for the character and sympathise when no laughs are intended?

Dr. Fonseca wasn't ever really about long enough to become integrated into East End life,he just happened to be gay. But no big deal was ever made of it. A lot of gay men I know don't want their sexuality to be emblazoned in sequins and feathers,after all, if it is no big deal to them, should it be a big deal to anyone else?

I guess that it was what I always hoped for

Simon: his sexuality was no big deal .... but HE was.

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