You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Leviticus 18:22)
A classic line from Leviticus’ Greatest Hits there, and one that still gets spun two millennia after its authoring by the more fundamentalist Christians in our society. Quite why B-sides such as ‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material’ (19:19) or “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” (19:27) don’t get as much airplay remains a mystery, but then those God-fearing members of society always have had a penchant to cherry-pick.
Though we should share a degree of pride at how far British society has come in the last few decades in ensuring that sexuality bears no significance in regard to civil liberties, the reverence with which a percentage of the population hold towards a work of fiction that was written two thousand years ago will forever act as a barrier to acceptance.
In recent years this seems to have reared its archaic head in the form of couples wishing to stay the night in a variety of hotels or bed and breakfast establishments. The most high-profile case came in 2008, when civil partners Steven Preddy and Martyn Hall attempted to check-in to a double room at Chymorvah House in Cornwall, but were turned away by the overtly Christian owners, Peter and Hazelmary Bull. Thankfully, Preddy and Hall were later awarded damages as a Judge ruled that the guesthouse owners had acted unlawfully, but there’s an intriguing curiousness that wonders what kind of greeting they would receive if they went back.
Such a scenario is one that forms the backdrop to B&B, the new film by Joe Ahearne, although he’s keen to stress that the inspiration for the film came from first-hand experience. “Me and my husband stayed in a B&B a few years ago” recalls the director, “Nothing mad or homophobic happened, but neither of us felt completely comfortable. We just didn’t feel entirely welcome. So, we started talking about it, and it wasn’t hard to exaggerate our unease into the idea of a thriller. Of course, I was fully aware of the many gay people who had been denied services around the world – whether in B&B’s, hotels, wedding receptions, cakes, photos etc. You name it, some people don’t want us to have it. So that was a kind of backdrop, though not the initial inspiration. People who aren’t gay can’t always imagine what it’s like to have your love questioned and attacked in that way.”
In the film, Marc (Tom Bateman) and Fred (Sean Teale) arrive back at the remote Bristol-set B&B that they successfully took to court for denying their right to a double room. It’s a wonderfully simple opening that squeezes all the necessary exposition into only two shots; one that lingers on the purposefully placed newspaper with the droll headline ‘Homosexuals sue Christian for double bed’, while the second glances a collection tin labelled ‘legal donations’. Marc is determined to gloat about their victory, and he can barely hide the smug satisfaction on his face as Josh (Paul McGann) arrives to check them both in.
Far from being the mouldy old reprobate that his views portray, Josh initially comes across as frustratingly likeable, and someone who you almost sympathise with given the venomous nature of Marc’s retorts. However, with his sixteen year-old son Paul (Callum Woodhouse) entering the fray with a surprise revelation, coupled with the arrival of a very mysterious Russian (James Tratas) who doesn’t speak a word of English, all the pawns are in place for a thrilling – and darkly comedic – game of chess.
Bateman and Teale are mesmeric as Marc and Fred, filled with the nuances and foibles that are so often absent from on-screen relationships, and it’s clear that Ahearne has drawn upon his own personal life during the scripting process. “Yeah, their relationship does borrow a little from my own, where the power jumps around depending on the situation and the mood. Each one gets to be unreasonable at different times! Fred can be seen as ‘nicer’ than Marc, but he can also be much tougher. There’s a scene just after they check-in, where despite all that’s happened they’ve been given two beds instead of a double. Marc insists on going down to rectify it, while Fred is happy just to push the two single beds together. Marc may seem difficult to people who may perhaps prefer an easier life, but it’s because of uncompromising characters like him that I’ve got the right to marry my husband.”
The casting process for the film was led by Colin Jones, and he certainly hit pay dirt with the two leads, although Ahearne’s career had crossed paths with Bateman’s previously. “I was familiar with Tom’s work, because I’d written an episode of Da Vinci’s Demons which he acted in, and I’d also seen Jekyll where he was amazing. Meanwhile, Sean was terrific in Reign and also Skins, so I really was thrilled when they both came on board. The film is nothing without them, and they’re both currently seeing some greatly deserved success in both TV and film. Paul McGann I knew a little socially and through my Doctor Who connections, while this was only Callum’s second role! James Tratas was one of the hardest to find though – a Russian-speaking object of fear and desire. A man of mystery on whom so much of the plot turns!”
The most stunning aspect of B&B though is its ability to deftly weave jet black comedy through the darkness of homophobia, not to mention the integration of themes like identity, coming out and the perilous pastime of cruising in public spaces. Ahearne insists though that he was keen for his movie not to become a lecture on the Equality Act, by leaving some room to breathe in what could have become caricatures of characters. “I wanted to complicate matters by making Josh more than a fundamentalist villain, thus making the audience uneasy with Paul McGann playing him with such sympathy. Similarly with Marc, I wanted the people watching the movie to be challenged by his uncompromising behaviour. I think for an interesting drama, both the heroes and the villains have to be flawed, but then I was careful for them not to learn things from each other in a sentimental way and become better people.”
“Actually, one of the bitter conclusions of the piece is that perhaps we don’t have that much to learn from one another. Josh may demonstrate great love for his son, but he’s still homophobic. Marc and Fred have done nothing to change his mind. I don’t want to sound so despairing, because society IS moving in the right direction – this film would have been unimaginable ten or fifteen years ago – but religious homophobia isn’t going anywhere fast. Right wing religious people are still fighting for the right to discriminate against us.”
A bleak observation, but an accurate one nonetheless, which is why so much credit must go to Ahearne for bringing this tale of two gay heroes to the screen – something which is all too rare in genre filmmaking. More importantly, his picture really does transcend the boundaries of LGBT cinema into mainstream territory, which is underlined by the DVDs plentiful showing in retailers across the land.
“I hadn’t seen a thriller where the leads are gay couple. I mean usually we’re just there to up the body count” laughs Ahearne. “When I was growing up in the seventies, a couple like Marc and Fred were inconceivable in films, and even today I still think it’s impossible to do it without it being a big deal.”
For a filmmaker whose past credits include writing Danny Boyle’s Trance (2013), and creating the terrifying BBC TV mini-series Apparitions (2008), Ahearne is all too familiar with making the leap into box office territory; but for us as an all-encompassing society, it’s our duty to ensure films like this succeed. Not as a token gesture, but because they demand our attention. With B&B, the underlining of the characters’ sexuality is a necessity for the narrative, but in respect to the film industry in general, the sexual preference of lead characters in films needs to become irrelevant. “Right now that’s difficult to see” admits Ahearne, “But not too long ago it was unimaginable! Once you can imagine it, you can do it.”
B&B is now available at all good retailers in the UK courtesy of Peccadillo Pictures
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