Should the LGBTQ community assimilate or rebel? Should we band together or pursue our individual goals? These arguments were explored in a television drama titled Coming Out. It aired On April 10, 1979 as part of the BBC’s Play for Today series. A closeted author writes a bitter article on the state of London’s gay community. It’s published under the pseudonym “Zippy Grimes.” Soon “Zippy” begins receiving bushels of letters. His readers want to debate his politics, share their stories or ask his advice. He fears that if he responds he’ll risk exposing his identity. The self-loathing protagonist doesn’t make the best company. But the daring subject matter remains relevant today.
Let’s take a look in this spoiler filled recap
Act One: Fan Mail
Scene One: London Apartment
CREEPY LETTER: Dear Zippy, ten years ago I slept with a man. Then I murdered him and buried him in a quarry. You’re the first person I’ve told.
LEWIS (a grumpy author): Jesus Christ. This is the worst one yet.
RICHIE (a flirty music teacher): Darling stop reading your fan mail and come to bed.
Scene Two: Gentleman’s Club
DRUNKEN EDITOR: Petal, “Zippy Grimes” is a hit! You need to interview your fans!
LEWIS: I write romance novels and children’s books. If my “fans” out me, my readers would abandon me.
DRUNKEN EDITOR: Petal dear, you’re a gutless coward. Now I must go. My wife is waiting for me.
Scene Three: Artist Studio
ARTIST: I’ve finished your portrait.
RICHIE: Let’s celebrate. (Strips off his shirt.)
ARTIST: I have a partner.
RICHIE: So do I. (Richie and the Artist have sex.)
Act Two: Interviews
Scene Four: Hotel Room
RENT BOY: You wrote that sex workers are a menace. But my last client stuck a knife in me.
LEWIS: Did you call a policeman?
RENT BOY: He was a policeman.
Scene Five: Lewis’s Office.
LEWIS: What would you do if people said Sean Connery was gay?
LOVELORN SECRETARY: I’d still watch his movies. Your readers won’t care that you’re gay. They’ll care that you’re sexist.
LEWIS: Hush you silly woman.
Scene Six: Mansion
SOCIETY LADY: My son says he’s gay. I worry he’ll be lonely.
LEWIS: He’ll be fine as long as he ignores the church.
SOCIETY LADY: He’s a priest.
Act Three: Confessions
Scene Seven: Awful Dinner Party
GERALD: (The Artist’s nasty partner): Zippy Grimes? Of course, you’re too cowardly to use your real name. Gays need to come out and demand respect.
LEWIS: Gays need to stop whining about how bad they have it. If you’re going to cruise strangers in the toilets you deserve to get bashed.
GERALD: Did you write that before or after Richie screwed my boyfriend?
LEWIS: “You really are the ultimate laxative, Gerald.”
RICHIE: Lewis, I’m…
LEWIS: We’re done. (Leaves)
Scene Eight: London Apartment
RICHIE’S BRATTY MUSIC STUDENT: Pay me. Or I’ll tell me daddy that you’re a poofter.
LEWIS: Daddy, I’m a poofter. Now piss off.
MACHO DAD: Bloody hell!
(Later, Lewis sits at his typewriter.)
LEWIS: Coming Out. By Zippy Grimes. No. By Lewis Duncan.
Who’s Afraid of Zippy Grimes?
Nigel Havers, who was one of the stars, his father was the Attorney General at the time and was really upset that his son was appearing in this TV play which garnished all these headlines in the papers like “Gay Sex Shocker” and things like that. It was very tame by today’s standards but it was just the first time the BBC had done something like this. I loved it, it was wonderful. The publicity was terrific!James Andrew Hall, Screenwriter
Will coming out improve Lewis’s lonely life? Will the backlash push him deeper into isolation? Will he embrace his new career as a grumpy columnist? Hard to say. His type is rarely happy, no matter what they do.
The film received mixed reviews. Several are quoted in the excellent 2019 book Playing Gay in the Golden Age of British Television. Many gay critics felt the squabbling characters provided the wrong kind of representation. They remind me of the discussions about HBO’s Looking in 2014. John Russell Taylor defended Coming Out in Gay News. He wrote: “The play was not all that bad. In fact, it struck me as serious, worthy and unsensational, suffering mainly from its own good intentions in trying to stuff a quart of information about male homosexuals into a pint pot of playing time.”
In 1971 the activist Rosa Von Praunheim made the film It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives. Rosa argued that Germany’s gay community needed to stop assimilating and focus on activism. Rosa and Lewis would have quite the debate if they could stand to be in the same room. Their films make an interesting pairing.
You can watch Coming Out on Britbox. An article on the BBC’s history of LGBTQ+ rep is here. You can find more of my reviews on The Avocado, Letterboxd and Serializd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.