Move Over “Downton,” 1950s UK Period Piece “South” May Have Been The First Gay Drama On TV

Graydon Gould and Peter Wyngarde in the ITV drama SouthThe British Film Institute has unearthed what it believes may be the oldest known gay television drama. BFI curator Simon McCallum calls South, a television play that aired on November 24, 1959, a “milestone” in gay cultural history.

According to The Guardian:

It involves a dashing Polish army lieutenant exiled in the U.S.’s deep South as the Civil War approaches and the question of who he really loves: the plantation owner’s angry niece, Miss Regina, or the tall, blond, rugged officer who arrives suddenly – a handsome man called Eric MacClure.

Based on a play by Julien Green and adapted for television by Gerald Savory, South starred Peter Wyngarde as the enamored exile. Wyngarde’s own homosexuality was an open secret in the British acting world—where he was nicknamed Petunia Winegum—but he remained in the closet to the general public.

McCallum calls the actor’s decision to take on the role “incredibly brave,” especially considering some of the bad reactions from the press. One critic from the Daily Sketch was particularly offended:

“I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my living room. This is not prudishness. There are some indecencies in life that are best left covered up.”

South predates Victim, a 1961 film starring Dirk Bogarde  as a successful gay barrister battling blackmailers and the first English-language film to use the word “homosexual.” Victim was initially banned in the U.S., though its believed to have helped lead to the repeal of Britain’s anti-buggery laws in 1967.

Though most British television from the 1950s and ’60s has not survived (live shows, like South, were rarely taped for posterity) McCallum says that they are “incredibly lucky” that this one is still in existence, and was screened at the BFI’s 27th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival over the weekend.

“For many years it just wasn’t known that this film existed other than to a few specialist researchers,” said McCallum. “We’re so glad to be able to show it at the festival because it’s part of all our heritage, really.”