What 40 years of celebrity interviews taught me about attitudes towards gay men
Tim Walker is a journalist, broadcaster and award-winning author. Star Turns, his anthology of interviews, is published this month (SunRise Publishing).
Walker has worked for The Observer, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror, The European and The New European. He stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Lib Dems in Canterbury in the 2019 general election, before controversially standing down and falling behind his Labour opponent.
Star Turns brings together more than 70 celebrity interviews originally published in The New European over several years. With subjects ranging from Roger Moore to Peter Ustinov, Charlton Heston and Diana Rigg, Walker’s unique style throws new light on familiar faces from stage, screen and life. He regularly uncovers facts and facets not previously revealed.
It used to be “Don’t talk about my private life!” to avoid a tabloid onslaught. Thankfully there’s more acceptance today.
Michael Grandage’s film My Policeman, which has just finished filming in Brighton, tells the story of a married couple in a loving and enduring menage a trois. The third party is the husband’s male lover.
The adaptation of Bethan Roberts’ novel covers a period in recent English history – stretching from the 1950s to the 90s – when attitudes to homosexuality underwent significant change. What was once illegal, and supposedly scorned by right-thinking members of society, became accepted to the extent that, in 2014, same-sex marriage was recognised in law.
That Rupert Everett should play the titular policeman’s lover in later life is poignant as the actor, now 62, had to live through the tail end of the often painful journey towards greater enlightenment.
In the 1980s, after the film Another Country made him a star, Everett had to contend with sly digs about his sexuality in Nigel Dempster’s Daily Mail diary. It wasn’t until 1995 that the actor finally felt able to confirm what had become an open secret, in an interview with the Daily Express.
Young gay men may now wonder why it took him so long but, while homosexuality may have been decriminalised in 1967, attitudes didn’t change overnight. Everett himself made the point that few, if any, of his contemporaries felt able to be honest about their sexuality until they had first established themselves. He feels, looking back, that his openness about his sexuality had an impact on his career: he blames not filmgoers, largely oblivious to actors’ private lives, but risk-averse studio executives who could never, for instance, have countenanced him in a role as overtly heterosexual as James Bond.
Looking back at the celebrity interviews that Tim Walker has conducted over almost 40 years, it makes him wonder if the public were ever quite as obsessive – and puritanical – about the sex lives of stars as some newspapers. It’s depressing how actors such as Richard Chamberlain and Antony Sher asked their PRs to tell me on no account to inquire about their private lives. Both have since come out and found contentment, but Chamberlain would, in his Dr Kildare days, get himself photographed with women; and Sher went so far as to get married to one. Making such a fuss about not talking about his private life was, as Sher now wryly accepts, like “putting a gigantic neon sign over my head saying ‘This guy is gay’”.
It’s hard to blame either actor for being defensive, as the Aids epidemic had, in the 1980s, not engendered sympathy towards gay men from the tabloids, only more hostility. Liberace and Rock Hudson were afforded neither privacy nor dignity in their final days as they were dying. Piers Morgan, then an ambitious young reporter on the Sun, wrote an article calling for East Enders to be banned after it dared to show “yuppie poofs” kissing. He has since apologised.
There were others, of course, who got through those times by living their supposedly scandalous lives in plain sight. John Schlesinger, who made Sunday Bloody Sunday in 1971, never bothered going through with a conventional marriage, as his fellow director Tony Richardson had. I met him in 1991 when, midway through the interview, he got up and gave a male house guest who was leaving a kiss.
Psychologists talk airily of how shame always requires punishment – almost as if it’s a process some gay men have to work through – and LGBT rights campaigners may today say that not being open about sexuality amounts to cowardice, which holds back the cause of equality. It’s too easy, however, to judge with hindsight.
What’s not in question is that the tabloids and some politicians had made these relatively recent years a distinctly hostile environment for gay people.
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Secret codes and blacked out windows – What Manchester’s Gay Village was like before the 1990s
It’s safe to say that walking down Canal Street in the seventies and eighties was a totally different experience to today.
While rainbow flags can often be seen draped across the walls and outside the bars today where drag queens, the LGBT+ community and allies proudly enjoy themselves, the few gay-friendly pubs in the area during the 70s were very discreet.
Most had blacked out windows so you couldn’t see what was going on inside – and for good reason as well.
Since homosexuality had been partially decriminalised in 1967, Canal Street was slowly starting to grow an identity of its own.
But just because the law had changed to allow two gay men to have sex together – as long as it was in private and both were over the age of 21 – it didn’t mean that public attitudes had yet changed.
Police raids were still a regular occurrence in the Gay Village.
Places like The New Union and the Rembrandt Hotel were often visited by police in an attempt to try and catch gay men engaging in sexual activity in public.
To get the lowdown on gay events and news happening in the area, people would have to visit one of the bars and discreetly ask the bartender for a copy of the “Football Pink”.
Under the clever guise of the Manchester Evening News football edition of the same name at the time, they were actually asking for a locally-distributed gay newspaper called The Mancunian Gay Magazine.
Started in 1978, the newspaper gave a voice to Manchester’s growing LGBT+ community and, for 20p a copy, contained articles such as “This Thing Called S & M” and “Gays – The New Untouchables?”.
But as Manchester’s gay scene was trying to emerge from the shadows, the police were gaining new tactics to catch up on what was happening in Canal Street.
The Mancunian Gay Magazine reported an incident in November 1984 where 23 plain-clothed police officers raided the Napoleon’s pub.
Police felt the manager was “permitting licentious dancing” – a local byelaw dating back to 1882 which prohibited dancing deemed to be a “breach of the peace”.
The pub’s membership list was seized and police obtained the names of addresses of everyone that frequented the venue.
Gay people, many not out to their friends, family, or colleagues, were at risk of being outed and potentially shunned by their local community.
The incident led to The Gay Activists Alliance calling an emergency meeting, where it was agreed that a police monitoring group would be set up with the support of Manchester council.
But, just as the emergent community was finding its feet, it was thrust back into the closet in the 1980s – thanks to the association of homosexuality with the AIDS epidemic.
James Anderton, Greater Manchester’s Chief Constable at the time, even went as far as saying in December 1986 that homosexuals and others with HIV/AIDS were “swirling in a human cesspool of their own making”.
Two years later, Margaret Thatcher enacted Section 28, a British law prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities.
This led to huge protests in the city with over twenty thousand people waving banners in defiance.
But, somehow, the LGBT+ community has always tried to find a way to rise above the discrimination.
The launch of Mantos bar in 1990 was heralded as the commercial start of Manchester’s Gay Village, solidified by the success of Queer As Folk in 1999.
The commercialisation of Manchester Pride over the years has also highlighted the area as a beacon for many LGBT+ people – although, of course, there are others who feel it is drifting from its roots.
It’s evident that the Gay Village holds many memories – both good and bad – of historic importance.