James Laurenson, circa 2018 | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Over the weekend, it was announced that actor James Laurenson had passed away in April at the age of 84. Rest in peace.

Born in New Zealand in 1940, Laurenson moved to the U.K. in the ’60s where he began acting professionally, working on both stage and screen. Over the decades, his notable credits include The Crown, Coronation Street, Australian detective series Boney, and, in his final film role, Matilda: The Musical.

And though he wasn’t gay himself, Laurenson is fondly remembered as being part of a very important moment in LGBTQ+ pop culture history: He was one half of the first-ever gay kiss on British television!

And the other half? None other than Sir Ian McKellen.

Image Credit: Getty Images

Back in 1970, the actors starred in a production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic Renaissance play Edward II at the Picadilly Theatre in London. McKellen played the titular character in one of his first breakthrough roles, with Laurenson as Piers Gaveston, the king’s “favorite,” a.k.a. a polite, old world way of saying the two were lovers.

(Needless to say, the play has long been a controversial one thanks to its homo-romantic themes.)

The production was such a sensation, breaking theatrical box office records for the Picadilly, that the BBC eventually decided to record and broadcast the play on air, which meant a rather passionate—and historic!—kiss between McKellen and Laurenson was beamed into homes across the U.K.

Nope, this wasn’t some chaste peck on the lips, or a fake smooch while the actors had their backs turned to the camera—it was an honest-to-goodness kiss, a fiery, emotion-filled one that goes on for a number of seconds unbroken.

For the curious, the full broadcast of Edward II is currently on YouTube, with the big moment occurring right around the 17:20 mark.

Again, not only was this a first for the BBC, but it’s considered by some to be the first man-on-man kiss to air on television ever. That’s all the more impactful when you consider that homosexuality was decriminalized in the U.K. just three years earlier, in 1967.

But it’s not like anyone was necessarily setting out to make history with the kiss. A few years back, McKellen was featured in an interview special with BBC Two’s Amol Rajan, reflecting that the network “wasn’t out to shock people or educate people, it was just doing a play that had a big success at the Edinburgh Festival and two seasons in London.”

McKellen, who was still closeted at the time Edward II aired, added: “I didn’t do that play because I was on a mission to tell people about homosexuality and certainly not my own.”

Of course, the actor did eventually come out publicly—in a 1988 radio interview for (where else?) The BBC—and years later is able to appreciate the impact the kiss has had on audiences.

“I’ve heard from people I shall never meet saying I’m so grateful to you for that kiss which I was watching in Indiana with my parents and we had a good conversation about it afterwards and I’m now a happily married gay man… So it was wonderful,” he shared.

As for Laurenson, McKellen said he’s “always grateful” for the kiss they shared. Or kisses rather. Edward II ran for nearly a year prior to its BBC broadcast, which meant the pair had to lock lips night after night after night.

“I still recall the first softness of James Laurenson’s lips,” McKellen once wrote, “which was a bonus throughout the run.”

The late Laurenson’s legacy—and lips—live on through his impressive body of work, and we’ll be forever grateful to both actors for moving the needle forward for LGBTQ+ representation in media.

Don't forget to share:

Help make sure LGBTQ+ stories are being told...

We can't rely on mainstream media to tell our stories. That's why we don't lock Queerty articles behind a paywall. Will you support our mission with a contribution today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated