[16 November 2010]
Gird your loins once more, ladies and gents – after a glut of vampires and werewolves, for something to really get the blood pumping as the winter nights draw in. Or not.
Instead, we’ve a soapy drama with an empty, meaningless title using a well-known idiom - the BBC drama department convention which refuses to die. Lately, Lip Service, which follows a group of gay Glaswegians, the city depicted as a stylish neon metropolis, rather than the usual grimy urban hell. Despite the vaguely sexy word-association, Lip Service is that surprisingly ubiquitous creature; a series obsessed with sex that is hopelessly devoid of the erotic.
Much of the drama revolves around exes Frankie and Cat and the ensuing sticky mess when photographer Frankie (Ruta Gedmintas, Personal Affairs, The Tudors) returns from a long stay in New York, throwing the ordered life of ambitious architect Cat into disarray.
The thoroughly poisonous Frankie exerts an unlikely hold over sweet but anxious Cat as played by the luminous Laura Fraser (He Knew He Was Right, Nina’s Heavenly Delights) a woman otherwise sane and well-adjusted, or else on the verge of a Ripper-style rampage through the streets of Glasgow. If her immaculate, perfectly co-ordinated living space and TV-land lore on serial killers is to be believed, cleanliness is next to godliness, or a complete break from reality. On reflection, the latter might have made a more interesting series.
Still, Cat is not to be blamed for occasional lapses into psychosis. Let’s look at the evidence: Frankie’s a chain smoking serial bed-hopper with an expensively scruffy haircut. She has an arty job, a raffish swagger, and wont for taking photos of pretty girls in their knickers. She’s the ultimate poster child for lesbianism as hipster lifestyle choice, covering a secret vulnerability, and calculated to piss off the parents.
Add to this her uncanny ability to nudge strangers into bed, without bothering with the inconvenience of an actual personality and the mystery of Frankie’s family strife fizzles. Not least because the writers seem much more interested in how many noisy, bare-breasted sex scenes they can cram in, whether such scenes progress the story forward or not. The constant interruptions negate the tiny sliver of intrigue created by the sudden death of Frankie’s aunt and later adoptive mother.
Though Cat and Frankie dominate, there is the obligatory coming out plotline, tackled from a tangent; the lovelorn Tess (Fiona Button), Cat’s roommate. A plucky would-be actress who falls into an affair with a closeted daytime TV bimbo (Roxanne McKee, Hollyoaks), Tess consistently fails to see the obvious – that her new girlfriend is less likely to come out than retreat into the arms of her slippery co-presenter, and that her best friend Alistair caries a torch visible from space. Tess’s relationship with him is an unforgivable cliché, but one with potential that Lip Service never makes good on – what happens when young Alistair realises there might be more or less to their friendship than his doomed hopes?
Instead, their mutual blindness is played largely for comedy value, as is the broad-brush satire on Tess’s career brief in TV, which makes the unedifying point that daytime television is shallow and corrosive.
Cat’s new romance with a no nonsense policewoman (Heather Peace, giving an understated performance) provides the grown-up voice amid all the adolescent angst, until we get to the daft office sex scene, conducted within earshot of her leering subordinates, almost in the same breath as a lecture on how tough it is being a woman in charge, what with all the institutionalised sexism and homophobia. That’s just one example of the hectoring, or plain silly dialogue that litters Lip Service. How often can a script shoehorn the phrase ‘I’m a lesbian’ and variations therein per any given episode? Many more times than you might think, and always in a manner which brings any hope of an engaging story to a screaming halt.
Lip Service also falls into several irritating traps when it comes to gay women on TV: it is positively terrified of any variation on Lesbian besides the youngish, pretty, femme model, excepting of course, the odd tasteful tattoo, when surely, there are as many types of gay women as there are straight. There’s a telling little line about ‘diesel dykes’ and the aforementioned tattoos that both rankles and reassures; Lip Service succeeds in making its characters rounded in only one respect – giving them ample prejudices of their own. The straight characters fare little better; all prim, smug breeders, who serve to give the protagonists bigotry to rail against.
Gedmintas and Button make the most eye-catching and charismatic leads, but flat characterisation stunt valiant performances. Lip Service brings the sexuality of its protagonists to the fore without developing other aspects to generate interest, beyond that of the casual voyeur. Still, I noted with relief that Lip Service does not include the old stand-by of saintly, nesting lesbians making IVF babies with the aid of a flaky pal as sperm donor to demonstrate how enlightened and modern it is on the subject of family. A worthy premise recycled by many a medical drama, revisited to acclaim in The Kids Are All Right, and always difficult to make fresh.
Though laudable for depicting a largely invisible facet to women’s lives in a popular series, Lip Service fails to function as a proper drama; rather it’s a tarted-up issue piece, which is much less unconventional than it likes to think.