Issue 9 . Winter 2000
The Important Thing is LoveFlick through the TV listings this week, and chances are that lesbians will feature somewhere. If it isn't Rhona on BBC 2, it's Bad Girls on ITV, or a lesbian wedding on Heart of the Matter. In the 1960s, it was very different, as women recalled at a Brighton Ourstory Project event recently, a rare screening of one of the earliest British TV documentaries on lesbians: The Important Thing is Love. The film showing was introduced by Maureen, who was interviewed in the original one-hour programme. She was joined by Pat, who recalled how her life was transformed when she saw The Important Thing is Love on ITV late one night in 1971:
"I knew that I was gay when I was 14, but there was nobody that I could talk to. I wrote to a women's magazine and had a reply that said it was just a phase. I was extremely lonely, I didn't know what to do. Eventually I got involved with a guy. And I had a daughter. It didn't work out so I left him, and I had nowhere to go with her but back to mum's. That night, I was reading the paper, and I saw that this programme was advertised, and I thought, "Oh please mum, go to bed!"
Fortunately for Pat, her mother left her alone, and she watched the programme, "riveted". These lesbians did not fit the mannish stereotype she was expecting. Suits and ties were out: diversity was in, from eyeshadow and skirts to donkey jackets and tank tops.
"They just looked so ordinary and that was fabulous. It was an incredible relief, because I heard people talking about the way I felt, and suddenly I wasn't an alien, suddenly there were people like me."
This, only the third documentary broadcast about lesbians on British television, was the first where all the contributors faced the camera. They included an actress (still to be spotted on TV commercials today); a woman thrown out of the forces; a mother; the psychiatrist, Dr Charlotte Woolff; and Esme Langley, founder of Arena 3, Britain's earliest lesbian magazine. This was a remarkable change since the first ITV documentary on gay women in 1965, in which all but two lesbians were filmed in shadow. Brigid Segrave, producer of The Important Thing is Love, was determined to do things differently, as Maureen explains:
"Brigid was in the Gateways Club, three nights running, trying to find a selection of different types of women. My girlfriend was a model, and I was a trendy Kings Road dolly-girl with a beehive hairdo. Brigid said, would we mind taking part in the programme?"
At first Maureen, then a secretary in her early twenties, refused; but she changed her mind. "It was anger that did it. I didn't see why we should be hounded, bothered and harassed like we were." Her family had put continual pressure on her to get married and once had her confined to a mental hospital where she was given aversion therapy to put her off women. Ironically, this failed spectacularly as this was where Maureen met her first female lover, who was being subjected to similar treatment. Her parents' opposition to this relationship, which continued once the couple had left hospital, drove Maureen to run away to London. "I thought there must be thousands of girls out there who came from little towns like me and who perhaps hadn't got the daring nature that I had. How did you ever meet anyone? There was no Gay Switchboard, no Gay News, no Pink Paper, no nothing."
In The Important Thing is Love, eight gay women filled this gap, saying freely how natural it was for them to love women, and that the problems they faced came from society and not from their choice of partner. To show what they were up against, a group of male taxi drivers was invited to hold forth on lesbians: but there was also a party scene of smoochy dancing and kissing, with 'Where would I be without my woman?' blaring from the record player. Maureen boldly told the world how good women were in bed together, and was scathing about the notion that all lesbians strode around in tweeds and brogues like Sister George. She and her girlfriend, perched together on an armchair, with their panda-rimmed Dusty eyes and groovy gear, made the point eloquently.
When the programme went out, retribution followed. Maureen remembers "I was sacked from my job the next day. I had a letter from my landlord telling me that he didn't want people like me living there. I'd got married to a gay boy, to keep our parents happy, and his mother saw the programme and she was down that motorway like a bat out of hell." But women on the gay scene were all over her. 'I got lots of dates. They'd slip me their phone numbers, and tread on my feet to get attention. All of us on the programme became mini-celebrities."
The response from isolated women was phenomenal. "I alone had 33,000 letters, and that was after they'd taken out the ones from taxi drivers telling me what I needed. There were some very sad letters, from girls who were suicidal because they were in situations that they couldn't cope with: a lot were married. But the letters were generally from girls who looked quite ordinary, who were just so relieved to think there were other girls around that looked like them."
Many other women took the advice broadcast just after the programme, and phoned the Albany Trust. Among them was Pat. Through an interview there with a counsellor, she got a letter of introduction to the Gateways, the main lesbian club in London. "I was absolutely terrified, because I had to walk down the stairs and everyone was looking up at me." Several visits later, she recognised Maureen. "I said that I'd seen her on the TV and how amused I was." One thing led to another, and Maureen and Pat found romance together for a time. They are still firm friends today. Maureen went on to appear on other TV programmes and also helped set up Gay Switchboard. She now runs a hotel. Pat's life was transformed by discovering the Gateways, where she served behind the bar in the evenings, working as a PA during the day. In a complete change of career direction, she is now a counsellor.
Maureen's message, that lesbians should do whatever they can to make life easier for younger women coming on the scene after them, did not fall on deaf ears in Brighton. Her enthusiastic audience included Barbara Bell, featured in BBC 2's It's not unusual, whose autobiography Just Take Your Frock Off was published by Ourstory Books last year; and Millie and Ginette, who will be appearing in a BBC docu-soap on gay life in Brighton, to be broadcast this spring (Brighton Out The Closet. While being a lesbian in 21st century Britain is still far from easy, it's thanks to Maureen and to women like her that lesbians today are able to be more open than anyone would have thought possible when The Important Thing is Love was broadcast thirty years ago. For anyone who missed the film showing, there will be another chance to catch it at the National Film Theatre in July, when Maureen will be speaking at a showing organised by Stephen Bourne in the Out of the Archives season.
A version of this article originally appeared in Diva magazine.
Jill Gardiner's book From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club 1945-85 will be published by Pandora in 2002.