MAN for MAN
‘Stylish, civilised gay entertanment’
MAN for MAN was the first exclusively LGBTQ video production company in the United Kingdom. Based in Wardour Street, Soho, in the heart of the British film industry, throughout the 1990s M4M produced a wide range of original drama and documentaries for a gay male audience, produced, written, directed, performed and marketed by an LGBTQ company and crew. Shooting took place mainly on location in London and Brighton. The company was a revolution at the time and still is, in many ways. How did it happen?
Having run his own film, theatre and television publicity company in London for five years, Gordon Urquhart launched his career as a film maker in 1984, founding two companies in the internatonal airline industry and London’s West End which opened new ways of producing and financing film and video programmes . From 1989 to 1992, as a freelance director, he was making original monthly one hour inflight arts and entertainment programmes for British Airways’ long-haul inbound flights, winning several international awards. The programmes were edited at the Wardour Street headquarters of editor David Holloway. Holloway had already branched into film distribution with the Feature Film Company, and was keen to move into production. He and Urquhart were already working on feature film script ideas, when Holloway, fascinated by talk of the ‘pink pound’, asked Urquhart if he had any ideas for building from scratch direct gay media outlets which had not been done before in the UK.
Thus, in 1992, Man for Man was born. The project was to be a commercial one, producing ‘sell- through’ videos as TV at the time was only interested in victim-oriented programming and still viewed the LGBTQ lifestyle as problematic, certainly not suitable for mainstream programming. Man for Man product would be sold mainly through high street stores such as HMV and Virgin and distributed world-wide either through distribution companies or contracts we had secured ourselves – such as with Waterbearer in the US.
We therefore had to tread a careful path through the twin demands of commercial success and pushing the envelope for LGBTQ media. In writing Man for Man’s scripts (for which he wrote all but Buckingham Place), Gordon Urquhart’s mentors were the great LGBTQ masterpieces of the past such as Plato’s Symposium, E.M. Forster’s Maurice and the writings of Mary Renault, particularly The Charioteer – all very positive takes on gay life and love. ‘Rule 1’: our characters could face problems but the ending must be a happy one. This was not the equivalent of MM romances today, but defiance towards supposed homosexual narrative up to that time which always ended in disaster and death – even in the works of gay writers such as James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room: one of the leading gay characters is executed) and Gore Vidal (The City and the Pillar: one leading gay character kills the other). The second ‘rule’ was that the production standards should be high – the equivalent of watching an evening’s TV on a gay channel – which at that time didn’t exist. First and foremost, the programmes had to be entertaining. So each edition of Man for Man would include a ‘soap’, and from No.2, a detective series, as well as fashion, news, items on gay venues etc. Each programme would be presented from a major gay resort – the first from Ibiza – introducing a gay travel strand (see below under Gay Voyager series). Later programmes were shot in Amsterdam, Sitges/Barcelona and Berlin. We wanted to go against films and TV of the time and show LGBTQ life as normal. Subjects dealt with in our dramas included married men coming out as gay, bisexuality, LGBTQ marriage (long before it existed), PR marriages in the entertainment world, everyday problems in gay relationships – as well as coming out to parents which sadly seems to still be the staple subject of many LGBTQ films being made around the world – sad, because it’s still relevant but also because there’s so much more to the LGBTQ lifestyle.
The first member of the ‘public’ to see Man for Man No.1, our first major production, was certainly not part of our target audience – it was Paul Knight, the renowned TV producer of London’s Burning, a close friend of Man for Man producer, David Holloway (both straight, but unusually open-minded for the time) .
The sound edit barely completed and Man for Man No.1 ready for duplication and distribution, much to the annoyance of director Gordon Urquhart, Holloway shoved Paul Knight into a screening room and watched the whole programme with him, while Urquhart paced the corridor outside. Fortunately Knight emerged from the screening room highly impressed, shook Urquhart’s hand and congratulated him on the production values of Man for Man’s flagship programme and said that the opening titles of Buckingham Place were exactly what he had wanted for a detective series he had made set in Brighton, but had not managed to achieve.
In fact our actors on Buckingham Place were pretty good. All unknowns, they rapidly went on to better things and Jason Merrells (above) at his most gorgeous, played the leading role of Jez in the first three episodes of the series.
By episode 4, he was already in the cast of BBC’s Casualty and went on to appear in such major TV series as Cutting It and Emmerdale – and, significantly, 7 years after Buckingham Place, he played a featured role (again as a gay character) in the Channel Four series Queer as Folk.
Jason Merrells’ amoral but irresistible character Jez in Buckingham Place is sexually involved with all the other leads – men and women – provoking much of the drama. Here he is seen with actor Mat Grey who was playing a married man – on the turn.
Mat and Jason were actually two of the very few actors in Man for Man who weren’t gay. Another of our few ‘rules’ was that all LGBTQ characters should be played by LGBTQ actors and by Man for Man No.2 this was the case (apart from actors like Jason and Mat who had already been cast – and did a sterling job). When asked what it felt like to kiss a man on screen, Jason replied that it was weird to kiss any virtual stranger while performing, so kissing a man was no different. Thirty years ago we were already convinced that only gay actors could be authentic as gay characters – a fact proven by the totally unconvincing attempts of such actors as Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas as a gay couple in Philadelphia. At least Tom Hanks has recently admitted the archaic quality of this approach. Today, it is almost normal for LGBTQ actors to play LGBTQ characters, despite recent anomalies such as the film Call Me by Your Name, although in that case perhaps it’s appropriate to cast straight actors as LGBTQ characters dreamed up by a straight man.
Man for Man No.2 introduced arguably the first-ever screen detective, in the series Angelo, in which the title role was played by Ben Joseph.
Many of our most positive reviews were from Peter Burton, the distinguished journalist and editor of the pioneering Gay Men’s Press publishing company.(https://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/nov/08/peter-burton)
Burton had been the literary editor of the pioneering journal Gay News, bankrupted by a blasphemy case promoted by Mary Whitehouse, perhaps the worst of many ignominous attacks on freedom carried out by that bitterly homophobic campaigner. The editor of Gay News, Denis Lemon, dubbed Peter Burton (who also bore the nickname ‘Dame Peggy’) ‘the Godfather of gay journalism’. The man who had discovered and published many important names in gay literature proved to be a champion of Man for Man. The review below has been published complete as it reveals how Burton compared Man for Man very favourably alongisde other notable productions of the period.
Man for Man 4 was a feature length production, including our most important drama production up to that point – Teleny, based on an anonymously-published Victorian novel written, like a game of consquences, by several authors, one of whom is believed to be Oscar Wilde.
The script was written in the old British Museum reading room, consulting original manuscripts. In terms of sets, costumes and actors, it was Man for Man’s most ambitious project and a first in many senses. The leading character was a pianist and our composer was required to come up with an original ‘classical’ piano piece as Bernard Herrmann did for Hangover Square. The release was timed to mark the centenary of the trials of Oscar Wilde.
While filming the introudctions to Man for Man, from Man for Man No.2 we began to shoot sufficient material in the various gay resorts to launch a separate travel strand, Gay Voyager, with programmes covering Amsterdam, Sitges and Barcelona and Berlin.
The programmes, like Man for Man, were presented by Adam Roberts, who showed an uncanny talent for memorising long sections of script in seconds.
The text below, from the inside of a Gay Voyager cover, was aimed at retailers, and like much ephemera, contains interesting information positioning the product in the context of the times.
Compilations of the complete Buckingham Place and Angelo sagas were released including extra footage and bonus items.
One of the key strands in Man for Man were items based around important gay figures in literature of history, starting from the story of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest written works in human history, to the 20th century Poet Lorca.
Although we had already translated some of Lorca’s poetry for a sequence in Man for Man 3, we could not obtain permission to use it as the executors of Lorca’s works, did not like them to be linked to gay subject matter. Instead we rapidly translated some of the poems of the Spanish Counter-Reformation figure Saint John of the Cross which worked remarkably well. Most of Man for Man’s productions was shot on broadcast grade video (Betacam), but we planned to put together some of these historical sequences together as a feature-length production entitled The Secret Kiss and therefore we shot them on film – the Lorca sequence The Poet’s Dream was one of these. In the end, this did not come to pass and we released them instead as two programmes entitled And God Created Man ( a reference to the famous Bardot/Vadim film of the 50s).
To help fund our flagship projects such as Man for Man, we launched HARD as a purely commercial brand within our production programme. It served its purpose and was a huge success.
We were told by Virgin that HARD2 was its second most-shoplifted item – this was seen as a kind of backhanded compliment, and significant, given that the product was aimed at a niche market. At the time, HARD seemed daring and resolutely commercial – now it has all the requirements to be awarded a grant from the Arts Council as ‘video art’.
A fundamental aspect of the HARD brand, was the stark look of the cover – epitomised by HARD No.1 with its black and white images and bold red title in capitals.
We were surprised and not a little flattered to note the similarity of a poster for a major Broadway musical revived in 1996 which also used black and white images with a bold one-word title in red capitals, which was also used when the production transeferred to the West End.
By 1997, Man for Man was already recognised by entries in Images in the Dark, An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video (1997, Penguin)
Entries from Images in the Dark:
With Man for Man – via its output of over twenty very varied productions – we certainly achieved many of our goals, receiving fascinating fan letters such as one from a man who said ‘Watching Man for Man I feel like the whole world is gay.’ It should be remembered that for the audience of Man for Man, this was something of a miracle as they had grown up feeling the whole world was straight.
As something totally new, Man for Man was a bombshell in the video market. On the weekend it went on sale in Brighton’s HMV branch, entire shelves were stacked with copies of Man for Man that disappeared in seconds to be loaded with more. We were told by the manager of an LGBTQ store in Rome that he had people stopping by every week to check if the new edition of Man for Man had arrived. But behind the elation we often felt while filming our productions, there were struggles and even tragedies. It was the early to mid-nineties. There was still no effective treatment for HIV. A number of our performers were HIV positive. David Conrad who featured in Man for Man 1 (seated figure in Pieta picture, above) died of AIDS some months later. As well as other deaths from AIDS, there were many tragic stories behind the scenes reflecting the difficulties that still weighed on LGBTQ people. Buckingham Place and Angelo preceded Queer as Folk by seven years and Friends, based on the similar premise of a house-share, by two years. When we approached Channel Four in 1993 with Buckingham Place, the concept of a mainstream LGBTQ drama was unthinkable – even a joke. Channel Four’s The Word, one of the most avant garde, youth–oriented programmes of the time featured a clip from Buckingham Place, but the accompanying commentary showed that it was seen as a curiosity – because of the LGBTQ content:
‘Has all the ingredients of other megahits – exotic locations, gorgeous hunks and great acting – but has only one big difference – it’s Britian’s first gay soap.’
Fortunately we believed that old showbiz axiom: All publicity is good publicity.
COMING SOON – CLIPS OF HIGHLIGHTS FROM MAN FOR MAN PRODUCTIONS
KALAMOS has a number of projects currently in pre-production on LGBTQ and intersectional themes and is looking for collaborators