Now Reading
‘Homophobic’ TV comedy about builders’ bromance is anything but, says creator

‘Homophobic’ TV comedy about builders’ bromance is anything but, says creator

The cast of Lee and Dean | Photos: Channel 4

‘Go back to the 70s!’ Of all the tweets I read when the very first episode of Lee and Dean was being broadcast on TV in March 2018 (and I read them all – I’m a masochist), that was the one that hurt.

There was a lot of noise on Twitter that night. As you’d expect and hope for when a brand new comedy is airing for the first time.

Overwhelmingly, it was positive, and straight after the show had finished, the first of many incredible reviews in the national press came out, giving our little show a big thumbs up.

But out of the smattering of negative comments (in TV, you’re never going to please everybody or cater to all tastes, and you will sometimes, I’ve learnt, make people furious), that one, and others from that same member of the LGBT community, made me think we’d completely failed.

Lee and Dean is a comedy drama (it’s taken me a while to get comfortable calling it that, but it’s undoubtedly what it is) about two blokey builders from Stevenage.

They’re best mates, have been since school, and are inseparable. They do the things you’d stereotypically expect builders to do. They go to the pub, have constant ‘bantz’ with their mates, dalliances with girls in nightclubs and the occasional posh client. They’re lads. Men’s men.

Except for Dean. The thing that makes Dean a bit different from his peers. And which forms the heart of the show, is that Dean is in love with his BFF Lee. Always has been, ever since Lee first took a shine to him in school.

When we join them, at the beginning of series one, the arrival of Lee’s first proper, serious more-than-one-night girlfriend forces Dean to face his feelings. Which up until now he’s been barely able to put a name to, let alone express.

I play Dean, as well as co-writing and directing the show, alongside co-writers and stars Miles Chapman and Sam Underwood. It’s our baby.

It’s a love story, at its heart. The fate of the characters, plus the integrity of the story we’re telling, is very important to us.

Like any story, it’s not plain-sailing. In the very first episode, Dean rashly pretends to have a girlfriend, mostly to save Lee’s bacon. (It’s complicated). One of the other builders, overhearing, shouts ‘I thought you was a fucking bender!’ at him.

That’s the moment the tweet came in, accusing us and the show of being homophobic. And we got it – it’s a horrible thing to say –  a terrible word, infused with the worst moments of playground brutality, shoves in the corridors of schools and workplaces, kickings in alleys, sneering, jeering taunts on the street, whispers on buses; a word spat, thrown, aimed at the head and the heart.

‘I liked girls and I liked boys – what a freak!’

It’s also real, isn’t it? It may not have the prevalence it had when I was growing up around Lees and Deans in a small town. (Not unlike and not far from Stevenage). But I doubt there’s a person among us who hasn’t heard it, or its thuggish comrades.

I heard it when I was growing up, feeling different for not liking football, not being like the other lads on our estate.

I heard it from my unreconstructed older brother and his already laddish mates as they laughed at me for liking art and music and drama.

I heard it at school after news of my first same-sex encounter with a fellow student became the sixth-form common room joke of the year. (I liked girls and I liked boys – what a freak!).

I heard it when I moved to London and explored my own sexuality, even on the streets outside Soho bars late at night, walking with my first boyfriend, feeling those first bubbles of excited lust and love almost punctured by it.

I’ve been with my wife, with whom I have two children, for almost 15 years now. (After much exploration, a bisexual man in a heterosexual relationship is how I’m happy to identify). But that doesn’t change anything. Thinking and saying those things is an attitude. That attitude is real, and is part of my story.

‘I felt like we’d really achieved something’

It would be unrealistic for it not to have been a part of Dean’s story. The thing that saddened us the most about those tweets and that reaction is that the person who wrote it presumably didn’t stick around to see how Dean’s story has unfolded. To see him realise and acknowledge his feelings, to begin to understand his sexuality. To see him open his heart to the possibility of happiness with a man. To actually explore and get close to men he finds attractive and appealing. To invite someone back to his hotel room. To have his first gay kiss. To accept and become who he truly is.

With the last couple of episodes of series two airing this month, I’m happy to say that we regularly get messages from people in the LGBT community who love the show, and are pleased that this story is being told.

They tell us how they weren’t expecting it in this place, with these people, and that it’s important to them. I’m also delighted to report that three weeks after the first episode aired, we received a barrage of tweets accusing the show of ‘pushing a homosexual agenda’. Reading that, in the light and context of those original misgivings, I felt like we’d really achieved something.

Words by Mark O’Sullivan

Lee and Dean airs on Channel 4, Thursdays at 10pm. The entire two series are available as a boxset on All4, Channel 4’s on-demand service

See also

Friends creator said LGBTI jokes would have been changed if made today

Fleabag’s Andrew Scott shocked over his new ‘hot priest’ status