Sunday, September 6, 2015

'Boy Meets Girl'. The most revolutionary comedy in decades. And how we got there.

So, it's finally got on to television. 'Boy Meets Girl', the first comedy ever to appear on British tv seeking to say something affirmative rather than insulting about transgender people - and featuring in its central role a trans actor - began last Thursday.

The reviews have been broadly positive. There's been a bit of grumbling about overwritten characters or cliched plotline from some critics, and the story in some ways seems fairly traditional.

But any romantic comedy that starts with the main female character saying to her date, "I was born with a penis", can hardly be called traditional. And any reviewer who moves on from that moment in his or her haste to measure the show only on more familiar 'comedic' grounds needs to be careful that they're not in the midst of what Behavioural Scientists call 'Recency Bias'.  With Caitlyn Jenner on the front of Vanity Fair, Kellie Maloney on the sofa of breakfast tv, Paris Lees guesting on Question Time, and journalists keen to demonstrate that they are on board with the new era of trans 'acceptance' (by much of the media at least), it's important they don't miss what just happened here.

The road traveled to the air date of September 3rd 2015 has been a revolutionary one. No doubt about that. I hope I'm well placed to comment, because I was there at the start of 'Boy Meets Girl'.  I was there before that too - when the trans community first started to truly stand up against media bullying and ridicule and when battle was joined. 

And it was comedy that started it all. 

In 2009, ITV broadcast the second series of an otherwise forgettable situation comedy called 'Moving Wallpaper', about the trials of a hapless production company and it's monstrous boss - played by Ben Miller. One episode featured a 'transgender script writer' - Georgina.

The episode amounted to what many saw as the most concentrated piece of hate-comedy ever directed at transgender people on British TV, as 'Georgina' (brought into the episode simply to take the role as butt of a tirade of demeaning jokes - her being trans playing no purpose other than as a comedy device to make the gags work) was ridiculed and then driven out of the job for which, within the storyline, she'd been hired.

Naturally, the television industry circled the wagons, with disingenuous denials of intention to upset. Ben Miller's  defense rehearsed a soon to be endlessly repeated, disingenuous refrain - that people's right to be offended should somehow be protected - and this justified the programme's decision to package together half an hour of unrestrained abuse. What neither he, nor ITV, nor Kudos who made it, could see was that the vocabulary that they were parading on television was playing loud to an audience who were saying these things to transgender people for real every day across Britain.

Workmates, classmates, shop assistants, employers, family members, even random strangers felt able to humiliate trans people up and down Britain, sometimes at will. And one of the reasons they were doing it was because every time they turned on their television and saw reference to trans people  they saw only the 'victim' or the 'freak'. Comedy was playing a central role in validating their prejudice.

So much for 'protecting' the trans person's 'right to be offended'. Protecting our right to be spat on, to be beaten up, to be fired, to be driven to suicide, more like?

The correspondence which developed between the rapidly assembled campaign group and Ofcom about 'Moving Wallpaper' led to a predictable attempt by them to ignore the concerns. But after the first set of complaints was rejected, Dru Marland and I complained again - with 30 signatories,  and took it to appeal. We lost that appeal - there was some risible language in Ofcom's response about how 'well' trans people were treated on television (the only example cited being the 1998 depiction of Jackie McAuliffe, a sex worker (at that time) featured in the series 'Paddington Green'). But we wouldn't stop, and I led attempts to get the issue into a further appeal process.

Eventually, we won a meeting with Ofcom - they'd meet us if we would just stop complaining, they said. So I led the team from the recently formed Trans Media Watch into Ofcom's South Bank offices. We made a presentation to them called 'Insult with Impunity' - a broad scale review of the British media. We looked at the hate headlines, with their punning 'jokes' which destroyed innocent people's lives, written without permission or atop stories gained through blackmail by tabloid journalists. We looked at the suicide rates, the family destruction, the isolation.

But much of our time was spent looking at and discussing television - we used a 13 minute edit created by media monitoring group Transgenderzone bringing together over 30 clips of abusive comedy. This was the era of Little Britain's 'Laydee', of violence-for-laughs against trans people (The IT Crowd), of a rich seam of ridicule on panel and game shows (from Mock the Week to Russell Howard). That abuse was being repeated all over the country, and with research we had conducted, we could demonstrate that the vocabulary of hate being paraded for laughs on the tv, was being repeated in the pubs and streets of Britain for...hate.

Ofcom, who had been unable to support our complaints because the Broadcasting Code didn't provide the foundation to do so, was ultimately aghast. They watched in horror as we demonstrated to them what was really going on, under their noses. At the end of it, they said "You have to talk to Channel 4. We'll help you connect with them".

Which is why a few weeks later when we heard of an event being run by tv industry lobby group, the Creative Diversity Network, at Channel 4, I volunteered to go to representing TMW (growing at this stage to form the core group of Jennie Kermode, Helen Belcher, myself, Sarah Lennox and Paris Lees).

The CDN event, chiefly aimed at the worthwhile objective of increasing the presence of Black and Asian faces behind and in front of the camera, took the form of a panel discussion followed by questions from the floor. I got hold of the microphone and challenged the panel to explain what they were doing to support the transgender community. I talked of how the trans community was on the end of regular abuse and physical violence in part because of the way the media was modelling behaviour and language towards us.

The panel members shifted uncomfortably hoping someone else would field this awkward and  unexpected intervention. Stuart Cosgrove of Channel 4 then responded and with a certain amount of courage in front of large audience said that the industry was clearly getting it wrong, things needed to change and that he'd like to talk to me.  Afterwards, Amanda Rice of the BBC came over and said the same.

Thus began a relationship with Channel 4 that saw them commissioning the first piece of original research in the world into the issue, workshops with their commissioning teams, and the creation of a climate in which 'My Transsexual Summer' could later be made. Elsewhere, at TMW we were talking to the BBC, to the Press Complaints Commission, to the press itself, to advertising regulators, and working with members of the trans community who were on the end of media abuse and intrusion. Eventually we were to put together a detailed and widely admired submission to the Leveson Inquiry that received specific attention in Lord Justice Leveson's final report.

In 2010, TMW was approached by Nathalie McDermott of On Road Media. Nathalie had accidentally witnessed the tragic death, on a tube platform, of noted Human Rights Lawyer and trans woman Sonia Burgess and had been appalled by the media's demeaning and intrusive coverage of the story. She wanted to help. Thus was born the Trans Media Action project, from which grew the hugely successful media-interaction initiative, All About Trans

It was Nathalie and her small team who in 2012 put together an event called 'Trans Camp'. Activists, social entrepreneurs and tv people gathered at Channel 4 for a day to work on the development of a range of initiatives to support the community and especially its portrayal in the media.

I was at Trans Camp and part of the team looking at what was felt to be one of the most intractable of issues - continuing abuse that remained endemic in tv comedy. Our team - Claire Parker, Shelley Bridgman (two stand up comics who also happen to be trans), Elisabeth Anderson, Milanka Brooks, the BBC's Head of Creative Resources, Ian Critchley and I - didn't take long to reach a conclusion. In order to really start to change how British comedy treated transgender people...we needed to stop being the victims of it (endlessly attempting to influence recalcitrant writers and comics, or berate them for their hurtful routines)...and create our own.

The road to 'Boy Meets Girl' started in that room.  Initially it seemed like an insurmountable mountain to climb. How? Who would fund it? Who would write it?

After about 6 months of scoping, talking and charting a course, pressure from my day job meant that I had to step back from managing the project. I knew we could do this, somehow, and that it was too important to let die. I put it into Claire's and Shelley's capable hands. They nursed it forward - keeping the flame alive with Ian and Milanka's commitment, as others became involved.

Step by step, the process came together. First via the involvement of the BBC Writer's Room (a 'nursery' space for aspirant authors), then in the creation of the Trans Comedy Award which invited writers to develop something genuinely funny - and trans-affirmative, rather than insulting. Jon Plowman, the BBC's Head of Comedy, seemed initially skeptical but in a key workshop involving Paris and Sarah, plus the On Road team, started to come round to the idea.  Later the process traveled through the stages of assembling a full judging panel (including someone from Production company Tiger Aspect), long and shortlisting the submissions, then getting the budget to make a pilot, finding the cast (including trans actor, Rebecca Root) and getting it made.

And then - in the face of competition from several other contenders - getting the whole series commissioned.

Which brings us back to where we started. On Thursday, the fruit of all that work appeared in front of millions.

On prime time British television, Rebecca's character Judy -  a beautiful woman in her forties - looks Harry Hepple's Leo in the eye and tells her 'secret'. 

Yes it's a moment of Comedy Gold, but for reasons that are revolutionary.

Leo doesn't run screaming from the room.

And he doesn't laugh.

And he doesn't vomit.

And he doesn't beat her up.

He falls in love with her.

Some might think that the opening lines of this comedy, spoken by Judy, are what make it revolutionary. But, sadly, painfully, I think we've heard those lines in comedy, or something very similar, before. Not least, said for entirely different reasons, in another sitcom of 2009.

It's what happens immediately after they are spoken that makes 'Boy Meets Girl' truly revolutionary.

It took us six years to reply to 'Moving Wallpaper', but we did it.