"They are both first-rate dramas,"
said PBS programmer Melinda Ward.
"I always look at drama as something that helps people
walk in other people's shoes."

Two summer dramas tell stories of gay lives

Actresses playing Sackville-West and friend

Portrait of a Marriage portrays the affair between author Vita Sackville-West and a longtime female friend.

One underwriter pulls out, but denies homosexual content was the reason

Originally published in Current, April 13, 1992

By Karen Everhart Bedford

PBS recently alerted stations to two dramas in the summer [1992] schedule--one that portrays a married man's mid-life reassessment of his true identity and another that chronicles the marriage of a woman author and her statesman husband in early 20th-Century Britain.

These programs have three things in common. Both are dramatic adaptations of highly acclaimed novels that will debut on major PBS series. Both are produced by the BBC in association with big U.S. stations and underwritten by oil companies. And--this was the reason for the PBS alert--the characters in both programs explore and, in one case, accept their homosexuality.

The Lost Language of Cranes, set to air in June on Great Performances, and Portrait of a Marriage, a Masterpiece Theatre mini-series to begin in July, may return public TV to the center of a debate over the appropriateness of treating gay lives and concerns as worthy subjects on their own terms. Conservatives raised the same question last year about two point-of-view documentaries with gay topics.

Already, Texaco and WNET, New York, are denying gay activists' charges that Texaco withdrew its sponsorship of Great Performances to disassociate itself from Cranes, which will air anyway.

But Mobil and WGBH, Boston, while acknowledging Portrait's potential to provoke strong reactions from some Masterpiece Theatre viewers, expressed confidence in their decision to bring the mini-series to public television.

Edited versions

"We'll get negative letters; I can't think of a show where we didn't," said Peter Spina, v.p. corporate public affairs for Mobil. "In its production values and the way the story unfolds, it's very much in keeping with the tradition of Masterpiece Theatre."

To ease concerns among wary affiliates, however, PBS is offering two versions of Portrait, according to a March 17 DACS message to stations. Great Performance's Cranes already has been edited for the American audience, losing frontal nudity.

Cranes, based on a novel of the same title by American author David Leavitt, will air on Great Performances on June 24. "It's a serious and challenging work," said Ruth Caleb, who produced the film adaptation for the BBC. "It deals with a man trying to come to terms with his sexuality in a society that's repressed."

The 90-minute program centers on a married, middle-aged father, Owen, whose life-long secret is that on Sundays he frequents gay porno theaters. When Owen's son Philip reveals that he is gay, Owen confronts his own homosexuality.

Caleb said the BBC's broadcast was "very well received" when it premiered in Britain this February. "Before it went out, I was asked if I anticipated controversy, and I said I didn't know. It was well reviewed. One or two [critics] felt alien to the content."

The film includes love scenes between various male characters, but in the American version, the actors are semi-clothed. A scene in the porno theater also was edited for U.S. broadcast, Caleb said.

Portrait of a Marriage, a three-part Masterpiece Theatre series set to air July 19 through Aug. 2 [1992], also dramatically portrays a homosexual relationship--this one between women. The film is an adaptation of the book by Nigel Nicholson, based on the marriage of his parents, aristocratic author Vita Sackville-West and statesman Sir Harold Nicholson.

"These are people of historical and literary importance [who lived] in a time ... of interest to our viewers," said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for Masterpiece Theatre. An adaptation of Sackville-West's novel All Passion Spent was featured on Masterpiece Theatre several years ago.

Set in England early in this century, the real-life drama focuses on a period in the couple's 50-year marriage. When Harold informs Vita that he is gay, she plunges into a passionate lesbian affair with a childhood friend. Harold refuses to let their marriage end conveniently, and Vita struggles with her conflicting desires for adventure and security.

WGBH has shortened the four-hour British version to eliminate 30 minutes, "quickening the pace" but also "leaving the controversial love scenes" intact, said Eaton in a program description.

"A problem" in some markets

"[B]ecause of nudity and extensive love scenes," however, PBS is offering stations two versions of Portrait, according to the March DACS. The hard feed version includes "nudity and lovemaking scenes that have been eliminated or shortened in the edited version," advised chief PBS programmer Jennifer Lawson. The network already has fed Cranes and both versions of Portrait for stations to preview, but at press time, program managers contacted by Current had not yet watched them.

"They are both first-rate dramas," said Melinda Ward, director of drama, culture and performance programming for PBS. "I always look at drama as something that helps people walk in other people's shoes."

In terms of the programs' potential to create controversy, according to PTV audience analyst David LeRoy, the "least worrisome" of the two is Portrait of a Marriage. He predicted that Cranes "in some markets could be a problem."

Referring to Great Performances' Friday night time slot, he added: "The problem will be little old ladies coming out of Washington Week in Review, who aren't tired enough. ... I don't think it will create the fortress mentality created over Tongues Untied and Stop the Church.

Texaco's plans not to renew underwriting for a third year of Great Performances already have raised some controversy over Cranes. The oil company's decision became public on April 1 after Out in Film, an association of gays and lesbians in the entertainment industry, said Texaco's decision amounted to "corporate gay-bashing."

Texaco chose to end its support for Great Performances after the June 10 broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's "Golden Girl of the West." Cranes is the next Great Performances program in the summer schedule.

"The timing of Texaco's withdrawal from Great Performances is clearly driven by its desire not to be associated with Lost Language of Cranes," said Spence Halpern, a spokesperson for Out in Film. "This is blatant homophobia." Halpern is an independent producer whose project "Spike & Co.: Do It A Cappella" recently aired as part of Great Performances.

Why did Texaco quit?

"It's so unfortunate that they feel that way; that's just not the case," said Anita Larsen, a spokeswoman for Texaco. She added that as of June 10, Texaco will have fulfilled its funding commitment to Great Performances. "Our obligation was to sponsor 26 programs in the series. We actually sponsored 27."

"The foundation decision is not based on one performance," she emphasized. "It's the general trend of the series moving away from classical and traditional performances." Texaco will continue to sponsor Metropolitan Opera telecasts.

Bill Baker, president of WNET, also denied that Texaco's decision was a response to Cranes, and said the station had been partly responsible for the timing of Texaco's announcement. Since Great Performances is approaching its 20th year, he said, "we were pressing them for an earlier decision" on continued underwriting. "The 20th anniversary is such a mega-year ..., if they were not interested in continuing funding this would be the time to pin down another funder."

Baker said that Texaco gave two reasons for ending its sponsorship: "One was economic. The word from all corporations is 'things are tight.'" Texaco also wanted to focus on its niche in sponsoring classical and traditional performance programs, he said.

Halpern said he had spoken with "impeccable sources inside WNET," who said that Texaco informed the producing station that they would not allow their corporation's name to be on the program after its executives screened Cranes.

However, Halpern could not produce his sources or get them to speak with Current.

"We have admiration [for WNET] for airing Lost Language of Cranes despite Texaco," Halpern said. "Our only argument ... is they also are not being truthful about Texaco's decision."

As evidence that Texaco's funding agreement originally included underwriting for Lost Language of Cranes, Halpern pointed to a publicity brochure for Great Performances' 19th season. Cranes is described among the 26 programs (seven of which are repeats). Many of the shows reflect the series' move toward more contemporary music, dance and drama.


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Later news: In 1994, public TV stirs controversy with Tales of the City.



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