Yesterday morning I woke up to a Twitter storm. Since December 2018, that’s been par for the course—someone associated with Holby City makes an ill-judged comment and the fandom rises up. This time, however, it was different. DIVA, the British magazine dedicated to LBT culture, seemed to be somehow involved in it. Someone I’d met on the Berena Deserved Better (BDB) campaign had left me a Twitter private message, saying: “That DIVA article has me seriously fucking depressed/possibly dissociative and I realised you might feel that way too, so wanted to send a virtual hug.”
The word on the metaphoric gossip alleys of social media, as I discovered after some amateur-sleuthing, was that Simon Harper had been interviewed by DIVA about the Berena break-up, and he had blamed Jemma Redgrave for the ending of Berena.
My first reaction was: How does a man who has refused to engage with any of the fallout from Berena (to the extent of arranging to have a representative with a protest letter signed by 280 people from around the world turned away from the gates) get a platform on one of the most acclaimed magazines for WLW? It’s a question that I still haven’t found an answer to.
But, I told myself, at least they hadn’t killed any lesbians.
Like gossip mills of any kind, the one on the web can be somewhat over-dramatic as well. In this case, “interview of Simon Harper” translated to: he had been quoted in a longer piece on the history of lesbian TV. “Blaming Jemma Redgrave”: well, let’s put it this way, a Holby executive was quoted saying everything except her name. Neither of which is to say there wasn’t fire to all the smoke.
In a three-page feature called “It started with a kiss…”, Jacquie Lawrence takes the reader through the history of lesbian TV, “from Brookside to Berena”. And when the timeline alights on Casualty and Holby City, Simon Harper is quoted expansively. Harper is the executive producer for both these shows based in the fictional, drama-prone city of Holby.
Harper claims that, since this is 2019, they “approach LGBTQI characters in exactly the same way as the straight ones—as complex. Which is to say, flawed, sometimes heroic, sometimes not, sometimes bravely doing the right thing and saving the day, sometimes screwing up in both their jobs and their relationships.” He adds that Holby City has always been a “sparky, sexy show”, its characters not above a tryst in the linen cupboard, “so to speak”. The freedom of a same-sex couple to be “just as free in this respect as a straight couple has a powerful significance”, he says.
“I’ve never killed a lesbian,” says Casualty event writer Barbara Machin a bit later, “they’re too rare”. Fizz Milton, a former BBC Drama executive, is the one who specifically addresses the Berena backlash. “The machinations of drama production are complex and complicated. So much is being decided and negotiated behind the scenes. If an actress wants to leave the series, then relationships have to end otherwise the storyline will dwindle into a long-distance relationship with an invisible and silent partner… This can often create a space in the storyline for another lesbian character to inhabit.”
The space left by Bernie Wolfe, mathematically speaking, is large enough to accommodate not one but TWO whole other lesbians who, Harper promises, will “make some major waves”. The story ends with Machin declaring that while “being lesbian in society is seen as no big deal”, showing a WLW couple on television is—but that this is the right time for a push on having more les/bi stories
Well, they didn’t kill any lesbians. That’s good, right?
Let us pause here for a deep breath.
Deep breath done. Let’s get that magnifying glass out.
First of all, the timing, tone and author of the article make it difficult to pass the whole thing off as coincidence. Considered all together, it seems like an advertorial for the BBC, trying desperately to look like an authentic feature. (There is no mention of the death of a certain South Asian Muslim lesbian in a certain other soap.) Turns out, not only did DIVA give them the space to “defend the indefensible” (yes, I did that on purpose), but they let Holby get away with apologist nonsense, such as saying they treat their queer couples “just like the straight ones”. More or less the same words with which the BBC tried to fob off initial complaints. In fact, some of Simon Harper’s lines sound like they were straight out of the BBC Complaints Team’s pro-forma replies.
Second, if this was indeed a band-aid applied to the Berena backlash—and if this was what the BBC’s CEO Tim Davie meant when he said that our open letter was being taken seriously—then it is quite clear that they either didn’t read it, or if they did, they didn’t understand the first thing about what we are upset about. So…
ALL TOGETHER NOW, one last time for Simon Harper in the back, loud, and in bold, red letters: It’s not the break-up that we’re upset about (of course, we aren’t dancing in the street about it). it’s the sexualisation of wlw and the promiscuity stereotypes you used, the careless storyline to break Berena up (a two-minute afterthought well after Bernie had offered to commit to Serena), the viewing of Serena as only being worthy of romantic stories now that she has been identified as a “lesbian”.
Yes, yes, at least you didn’t kill any lesbians, we know.
It would be hilarious if it weren’t so heartbreakingly unjust that DIVA actually pedalled the “at least they didn’t kill them” line. Just one step away from “Wait!” and that it was “grown-up”. That they excused Holby for the tawdry second-thoughts crumbs they threw at us. That Serena’s infidelity with a woman young enough to be a daughter and then receiving lingerie from her was something that increased her lesbian-street-cred.
In fact, the entire Berena section of Lawrence’s feature has a distinctly patronising tone to it. It reeks of talking down to the viewers, and reads as if the harm caused or the baiting and lying by Holby City never happened. Harper’s “sparky, sexy” and linen cupboard references in terms of lesbian representation speaks directly of the sexualisation of WLW, at least in his head.
Machin’s statement about the exit of Bernie “leaving space for two more lesbians” is really a dead giveaway of how they regard the whole issue in the first place. It shows that, for them, it was just a matter of ticking boxes on a diversity checklist. Now that Bernie is gone, they can fill the gap by another lesbian. Oh wait, she was a powerhouse of a character, so make that two lesbians. Therefore, it is safe to put the question of whether they purposely crafted Berena to be a worldwide phenomenon to bed: they did not; it was an accident.
Perhaps the lowest point of the article is Machin’s remark about how being a lesbian “is no big deal in real life”. How does any publication aware of inclusivity get away with allowing something so shortsighted to be published without comment? How terribly classist of them all to deny the complex factors, including where you live and work, how much you earn, and the people you move with, that go into creating the lived realities of each of us.
This hurts because this is DIVA. This is our magazine, our platform, our champions. It is us. Or at least, it’s supposed to be. But here is DIVA telling us WE got it wrong. This is DIVA telling us that we are overreacting, that this is just a story and we should get over it. This is DIVA letting us know that they are not on our side. This is DIVA making a sweeping statement that the battle for respect and representation has been won on the terms of the likes of Simon Harper.
The author of the piece, Jacquie Lawrence, is a TV producer herself, and is on the board of the DIVA Media Group that was formed in February 2019. Fizz Milton, the ex-BBC exec also quoted in the story, is a fellow-board member. This topic presents a clear conflict of interest for both women, and what we see is that the programme makers’ network wins. Not lesbians, not bi women, not the people that DIVA claims to be for.
That at the end of the day, only money and contacts matter.
Oh, and that no lesbians were killed.