Greg Sanderson and Sophie Bernberg reflect on their experiences and we talk Love Island, quotas and intersectionality
Below is a transcription for the hard of hearing of this week’s Broadcast Newswrap podcast, featuring Zinc Media’s London director of television Greg Sanderson and writer-director Sophie Bernberg to talk LGBTQ+ representation in TV.
Max [00:00:03] Hello and welcome to the Broadcast Newswrap, tackling the biggest debates in the world of television this week. We welcome Zinc’s London director of television Greg Sanderson and freelance writer/director Sophie Bernberg to talk being LGBTQ+ in TV, Sophie and Greg reflect on progress made on and off screen areas for improvement. And we broach the Love Island sexuality debate. All that, plus the ever popular what we’ve been watching on this week’s Broadcast Newswrap.
Max [00:00:48] So today, we welcome Sophie Bernberg and Greg Sanderson to discuss LGBTQ+ representation in TV. It’s a pleasure to have the two of you on. Thanks so much. So just by way of introduction, Greg Sanderson is the director of Zinc Media’s London TV labels. He oversees Blakeway, Films of Record and Brook Lapping. Greg is a former exec producer on the Storyville strand and has overseen numerous factual shows over the years. And Greg also wrote a comment piece for us back in November entitled Don’t Forget TV’s LGBTQ+ Community. Sophie Bernberg is a freelance writer director who has written, directed and produced a number of short films and is also the director of Queering Public Space, which is available on YouTube. She’s currently writing a queer TV comedy drama and most recently penned a comment piece for Broadcast entitled It’s Time to Truly Welcome the LGBTQ+ Community, which laid out some of the issues that we’re going to speak about today. And both of those comment pieces are really well worth a read if listeners haven’t got around to reading them already. So welcome to the two of you. I first just wanted just wanted to ask you how you’ve got to where you’ve got to, really. So Sophie maybe if you want to go first.
Sophie [00:02:06] So I basically always really wanted to direct films when I younger, I was into drama and directed plays at school and things like that. And then before I went to university, I was kind of like thinking, you know, do I go to film school or do I do an English Lit degree? Because I’m also like a writer/screenwriter as well. And I decided to do English Lit. And then I thought, you know, I could always do film school afterwards. And so then after graduating, I basically got work experience at a production company in Soho and was just doing that, like picking up stuff, really enjoying it, kind of like, you know, just took my camera along to stuff and made like content films or whatever. That’s really how I just got into directing, just just doing it myself. And I did do short film courses as well. But yeah, that’s how I got into it.
Max [00:02:58] Great. And how about yourself, Greg?
Greg [00:03:00] Mine a lot less purposeful than Sophie’s, in that, weirdly I was a professional singer before I got into telly, and I was getting tired of my life and trying to work out what I wanted to do and met a fabulous producer, Kate Solomon at my sister’s house party, and she started talking about what she did, and I thought, that sounds cool. And her boss was Malcolm Brinkworth at Touch Productions at that point. And she said you should meet Malcolm, and he offered me a traineeship. So I fell into TV completely accidentally, have no qualifications in it whatsoever. So I worked at Touch for a couple of years later, stayed in the West Country went and worked at Flashback TV with Sam Morgan and then went in-house with the BBC. And then somehow, and I’m never quite sure how this happened, ended up stepping over to Storyville as commissioner and then had ten years of commissioning. So they moved into commissioning arts, music, commissioning, and then five years ago I thought time for change and shifted into the Indie sector. And that’s how I ended up at Zinc, initially running Brook Lapping and now, as you say, sitting across the London labels also including Supercollider, by the way, recently launched -don’t forget.
Max [00:04:02] Ah I missed off Supercollider. I can’t believe it. Thanks so much. That’s really good introductions. So Sophie, I wanted to start with you actually, to talk a little bit about your comment piece for us. And one of the things it discussed was the need for TV to better portray queer spaces. Can you elaborate a bit on what you meant?
Sophie [00:04:21] It’s really important to have those spaces because then people who aren’t queer are able to kind of, you know, see how queer people live.
Greg [00:04:31] The point of TV is to is to open up new worlds, right. And I think I agree with Sophie that the benefit of showing more queer spaces on TV is that you’re stopping otherising. It makes people realise that just because of how we fancy or who we have sex with we’re not necessarily different and can sort of demythologise, I guess, is what you can do. And that’s what TV does its best in all areas. I don’t know if you agree with that Sophie.
Sophie [00:04:56] Yeah, I completely agree. And by saying, you know, it’s like saying people live as they are and showing them like authentically. I think that’s also really good because, you know, you’re not demonising people.
Hannah [00:05:08] No big broad question here. But what would either one of you say is the kind of current state of play with on screen LGBTQ representation in the UK specifically, I’d say?
Greg [00:05:19] I know it’s really hard to generalise, right. And since I wrote that piece, It’s a Sin came out and was massive, and did a massive job of on-screen representation. But I just have a slight feeling, and I think that came across in my piece, that it feels a bit sort of tokenistic. And I think that’s a danger of all representation, actually. I think once you feel you have to represent something, you know, I know the commissioning mindset is, “God, we must get something that does that,” is not yet ingrained in the culture, I don’t think, of TV that, you know, actually - the best way to do it is not think about sexuality particularly, but just cast a diverse range of people and sexuality will come into it. But I think, at the moment, and I wrote this in the piece, it’s absolutely no offence to Sue Perkins or Clare Balding or whoever, they’re all fantastic at what they do, but it sort of tends to be, “Right. OK, excellent, we’ve got Sue on-screen, that’s our lesbian quotient covered,” and then they sort of don’t think about it anymore. And I think that, you know, that’s probably a bit unfair in some cases, but that can be how it feels. And I think that’s what comes across when you watch.
Max [00:06:19] Hmm, do you think, because it’s been six months since you wrote that piece for us and, there is, of course, we’ve discussed on this podcast many times this enormous diversity push that is taking place at the moment and has been taking place for like the past year. So have you - bar It’s a Sin, which I think we’ll talk about a bit later, have you seen other signs of improvement in this way?
Greg [00:06:41] Not particularly, but obviously TV is a slow process, so I wouldn’t expect to. What I can say is I quite a lot of reaching out from various people across the industry after that piece saying, “Thanks. That sort of reminded us.” And some defensively saying, “Of course we’ve thought about it, we just haven’t said it so much,” but that’s what you’d expect. But, yes, I mean, I’m optimistic, but I think it’s a you know, it’s a tricky circle to square, or square to circle. I don’t think it’s one easy solution. I think what I was trying to do is just remind people that LGBTQ+ was not really part of any of the diversity dialogue that I saw over the whole diversity push, and I think it was really important that it should be.
Max [00:07:18] Mm hmm. Yeah. And I was going to bring up because one of the things that you mentioned, Greg, was about, we’d been writing quite a bit about the BBC’s inclusion policy at the time. And now the BBC has these targets. So 20 percent people behind the camera have to either be BAME or from a working class background, or be disabled. But you kind of highlighted the fact that LGBTQ+ wasn’t included in this policy. I don’t know if you could elaborate on that a little bit. Do you think that is something that should be included? Or is it a little bit more nuanced, a little bit more complicated than that?
Greg [00:07:53] I think that’s a tricky one. I mean, personally, I don’t massively believe in quotas anyway, I think they’re are really blunt instrument. So I’m not sure I would go there with that, but I don’t understand the rationale for some protected categories being included and some not, and I feel like if you’re including protected categories then all of them should be included and if you’re doing it on a sort of percentage of population basis, which that claims to be, then I don’t see why it shouldn’t be.
Sophie [00:08:17] Yeah, no, I think it shouldn’t have been left off. And I think if that was an oversight, you know, maybe it just reflects the fact that maybe like, you know, behind the scenes, there aren’t as many queer people, you know, because if you had queer people there who were like making those, then they would say, oh, you know, LGBTQIA+ people too.
Greg [00:08:40] Yeah. I think it reflected something that a brilliant head of diversity once said to me, and she’s a fantastic person. And I was like, “Oh, you’ve got a diversity fund can I apply for that?” And she’s like, “Not really… If it doesn’t show, it doesn’t count.” To which I responded “Well should I wear a ‘Gay’ badge?” It sort of reflects that kind of, and I think we’ll come on to this, but reflects that sense of “You’re fine now, you can get married, you’re out in the open, we don’t have to worry about you,” which is really, basically an ignorant way of understanding what life is like in the community.
Sophie [00:09:09] Yeah. And also showing that, you know, that people think that that there’s one particular way to be gay or be queer that’s very stereotypical, I think.
Hannah [00:09:19] Kind of off the back of that, it’s often kind of perceived, I think in TV, that it has this kind of like liberal pass, say, that it kind of gets away with without having to do too much more because there’s on-screen representation and there’s gay people behind the camera. But would you agree that, like, it’s kind of made people not try as hard in this one area?
Greg [00:09:41] Yeah, I mean, one of the things I get most often is “Everyone in TV’s gay… what’s the problem?” Actually not remotely true, in fact it’s still a tiny proportion. There absolutely is that perception that kind of like, you know, it’s a very liberal, probably higher proportion of gay/queer people in it than some industries, therefore it’s fine. So I think people do absolutely give themselves a liberal pass. And actually, as I say, it comes from not really understanding, you know, there’s still plenty of people that are persecuted for their sexuality in this country. And people are still beaten up every day. And I think because that’s frankly, the mainstream media doesn’t report that that much. I think there’s a kind of complacency. So, kind of like, “well I guess the makeup of our staff is kind of fine, we’re probably doing it.” I think there is a slight bit of laziness around that, thought, and I think it does exist, yeah.
Max [00:10:25] I wonder if the two of you, do you feel like you’ve experienced quite a lot of prejudice over the years? I don’t know whether there have been some specific examples, or maybe more generalised like microaggressions, like is that something that you felt on a day to day basis?
Sophie [00:10:39] So I haven’t actually. But, you know, I kind of like known people who have so it as a thing. Sometimes on set it’s quite an intense environment. And, you know, if that kind of thing happens, then like who do you report it to? There’s often not anyone to report it to as well.
Greg [00:10:56] I think I have, although I think most of it’s been inadvertent rather than deliberate. I can’t think of many deliberate cases where it’s been weaponized. But I mean, there was one famous channel controller meeting and I won’t name any names, obviously, which happened between BBC radio and BBC TV. And it was unusual that they should be working in concert, frankly. And at the end, the channel controller said, “Oh, let’s all hold hands and sing kumbaya, oh, no, that would be gay.” I actually just said, “And what would be the problem with that?” But things like that where you sometimes see the inbuilt prejudice, and maybe that’s just a schoolyard use of a term, but I don’t think it’s one that should be used in the corridors of the BBC. And so many just moments, you know, I went for dinner with some really good friends of the BBC once, and they sort of just started they got fascinated by the practicalities of gay sex and I was basically quizzed for about an hour on it. Um, I don’t object to that because it’s friends, but that kind of thing is absolutely otherising or whatever, that I think should probably be avoided. I mean, in that case, I didn’t mind, as I say because they were friends, but it that sort of thing does happen quite a lot.
Hannah [00:11:58] Do you feel like safe and supported by the industry or like by the broadcasters or when you’re working on set? You were talking before, obviously, about how much violence and kind of hate crimes are directed. Do you feel like there’s those people around you that could maybe step in if anything came up or do you feel like you’re kind of alone in that?
Greg [00:12:23] Well, in that particular case of the channel controller meeting, actually, my boss at the time stepped in and made a formal complaint. So I definitely felt supported then, although also, you know, caused quite a lot hassle and I’d have preferred that not to have happened. I don’t know, that’s a tricky conundrum because you also don’t want to feel patronised or like you can’t look after yourself. So it’s not something you sort of seek out. But, yeah, I’ve always found Team GB once or within an organisation or company to be really supportive. I’m lucky I’ve avoided most of the horrible politics and everything else. So, yeah, I generally have done.
Sophie [00:12:57] I’d say as a freelancer, actually, I think it’s a lot harder because as a freelancer, you’re relying on people getting you jobs and being friendly to them and then they’ll get you another job. So it’s like if you were to say something about a producer or a member of crew, you know, like the consequences to your career can be quite bad. And, you know, like Greg was saying before, like, you know, I think there is a bit of a liberal pass with with people thinking that it’s all okay. Like, you know, we’ve got rights in this country, so therefore we’re all okay. And maybe, you know, like I think maybe people don’t think that they can really step forward and say something if something was going to happen.
Greg [00:13:39] Yeah. And another thing I think I should say, you know, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been relatively senior in the industry for quite a while. So, I’m less likely to experience prejudice and less likely to be hit with it. Whereas certainly I think, lower in the industry, and particular in freelancing, as Sophie, you said, where you’re utterly dependent on the people above you for your job: really hard to speak out. And so, you know, this is a structural problem, right, with how the industry works. But, um, yeah, I mean, it’d be impossible, I think, if you were uncomfortable with the tone of voice of an exec when you were a researcher, then it’d be really, really bloody hard to say anything about it.
Max [00:14:11] Mhm. And there’s so much talk about this at the moment isn’t there, especially with regards freelancers, is that something that you feel like is improving Sophie or has it sort of like plateaued out?
Sophie [00:14:23] It’s improving in the sense that I think that like when I started in the industry, it was quite hard as a young woman. I don’t know. I think, you know, like being taken seriously was, you know, it’s quite difficult. Um, but I think that it is getting better because people are talking about the fact that it’s not OK to talk to a person like this or, you know, whatever, like because it’s being talked about more, people in the back of their heads, you know, friends of mine are thinking, oh, like, you know, I actually can’t say this or I can’t act like this, because if I do, there’ll be consequences. Whereas, you know, kind of like however many years ago there weren’t those consequences.
Greg [00:15:02] I mean, I think there are improvements. I mean, at Zinc, you know, I’ve worked really hard and it’s helpful because they’ve got me as MD and Emma Hindley as creative director, you know, two fairly prominent queer people in the industry. And that when researchers have felt uncomfortable with other members of the team and how they speak, and it’s normally speaking out of ignorance, right, about not knowing the correct terminology and not knowing that’s offensive because, I mean, it’s hard enough for us to keep up with the terminology and be correct. Um, people have felt that they can say it, actually, and they don’t, they either say it to the exec’s faces or they say to me and I said back to them. And actually we’ve realised there aren’t ramifications, and actually everyone’s normally mortified and go, “God, sorry, I’ve messed that up.” So I think those feedback loops, and I’m sure that’s true in other companies as well, are getting better. I think probably harder on specific productions. Again, as Sophie was saying, as freelancer I think it’s much, much harder to do that than when you’re staff or senior development team, it’s a bit easier.
Hannah [00:15:59] Sophie, in your piece you talked, which I found interesting, you talked about kind of other departments being included in this decision, or to have training, say, and an awareness in order to improve representation, but also avoid stereotypes. So you mentioned kind of production design and location. And I thought that was quite interesting. I wondered if you could elaborate on that just a little bit more.
Sophie [00:16:24] I think, like with when you’re making a programme like about queer people, it’s important to either have queer people, you know, behind the scenes who actually have that lived experience or it’s, you know, ideally, you know, like if that was like some training or something, because those worlds that we kind of like portray…
Greg [00:16:50] Well, they’re kind of hidden aren’t they, as you were saying earlier on about the lack of gay experiences, say if you have a straight production designer trying to design a gay club, you’re more likely to result stereotypes.
Sophie [00:16:57] Exactly.
Greg [00:16:59] Which I think, coming back to It’s a Sin, is why that was so brilliant, because the crew were all, I think, entirely or largely LGBTQ+ as well. And that really shone through because the authenticity of that, I think, is what grabs people. And it just was noticeably different from a show that didn’t or wouldn’t have had that.
Sophie [00:17:20] Completely, because it’s almost like, you know, in It’s a Sin, for example, their apartment was a character in itself, you know, throughout the show that, you know, evolved. And I think you can tell that it’s you know, that it’s authentic and it has been made like that.
Greg [00:17:34] And weirdly, the only character I think you didn’t quite work as well as the others was the straight woman.
Max [00:17:43] There’s also been, moving from kind of drama to reality, a big debate that’s really raging at the moment within our industry is that of reality shows, and whether they should have same sex couples or couples from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. So this comes from some comments made by an ITV commissioner a couple of weeks ago about Love Island, which were picked up sort of across the board by the national newspapers where she described logistical difficulties in having non-heterosexual couples on Love Island or non-heterosexual contestants. And Hannah wrote a piece earlier this week about a new Channel 4 show, Five Dates a Week, which is opening up, so sort of doing the reverse, opening up that show to people of various sexual orientations. So I wondered what you guys thought about this, really? Maybe you, Greg, first, should LGBTQ+ couples be allowed to appear on Long Island? Or is ITV’s approach kind of fair to this?
Greg [00:18:44] I mean, I totally see how it could make the format more complicated… Thinking, “God, how would you do that with Love Island?” And then I think, it’s a creative industry and people should be able to find ways round it. And really I guess the question of this is what was the intent behind that comment? Was it sheerly a practical or logistical one, or was it actually “It’s not going to work so well for the ITV2 audience, so we don’t want to do it.” And it’s very hard to discern that, frankly. It shouldn’t be impossible. I don’t think should be done, sometimes, for the sake of it. So I found the Strictly debate really complicated, because I’m like, “Well, ballroom dancing is generally between a man and a woman. So why would we co-opt that for the sake of LGBTQ+ representation?” But then actually, when they did it with Nicola Adams, it was fabulous, so I was probably wrong on that. And I think, you know, in some formats it fits perfectly: First Dates, I was delighted when that started having gay couples on it. Because you’re like “Yeah, of course. Why not?” That’s exactly what Sophie was talking about at the beginning, which is, when you see couples going on dates, queer people date pretty similarly to straight people most of the time and it worked perfectly well on the format.
Max [00:19:46] Completely right. I think First Dates is a really good example of a show that does this really well as discussed. What about you, Sophie? What did you think of the Love Island debate?
Sophie [00:19:57] I agree with Greg that, you know, if you think about it from a production point of view, yes, like, you know, that would be some changes that you would need to make. But I think the fact that saying it in a public forum, that it would present like logistical difficulties, I think that that, as a queer person, that just would make you feel kind of like “Am I difficult?” You know, I don’t think that was the right thing to say. I think, you know, should, like, resolve that problem, you know, before you say anything, like, you know, maybe think like, “OK, so am I going to do this or am I not?” Or are you going to make another show? You know, just with queer people?
Greg [00:20:34] It’s pretty tone deaf, although I have some sympathy having sat on those panels in the past and said stuff, and then you guys are lurking out in the background trying to get a headline out of it, it is quite a nerve wracking process. Yeah, it’s easy, easy to make mistakes. The other thing I’d say on this is I do think it’s really important that gay couples to be integrated into mainstream programmes. I think there’s a real danger that you fill your gay quota by doing niche programmes that only the community watch. And that, going back to my initial point, that’s not the point of TV is about broadening horizons, not that catering to little side groups, I think.
Hannah [00:21:03] I wanted to talk actually on lesbian representation quite quickly. And it’s one thing that I have always really noticed is an audience member that there’s a lot less representation. And like you were saying, Greg, in ordinary TV. So I was thinking of like shows that Come Dine with Me or I think even sometimes First Dates falls to that often, that there’s definitely, that balance isn’t quite addressed, and I wondered if maybe either of you could speak to that.
Sophie [00:21:38] I would say that’s a good point, actually, because I think it is maybe in our kind of, you know, like on TV that maybe gay men are more representated than gay women and that maybe there needs to be just a little bit more of a push there. I think that there are some great programmes that you have already, for example, there’s Feel Good with May Martin, which recently came out, which is brilliant. You know, she’s a comedian. And then she did the show. And that’s all about, you know, like like two women fall in love versus show. So, you know, I think we just need more shows like that. And I think it’s about, you know, commissioners being being open to to those stories, which I think increasingly they are.
Greg [00:22:23] Yeah, I mean, I totally agree with that, and you do struggle to think of examples, I think, whereas, I can never remember the name of the programme with Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi that’s a pure gay men show, a great show. I can’t think of a lesbian equivalent of that anywhere. And it’s not like Mira Mildley’s a national treasure, why does she not have a sitcom with someone doing a lesbian couple? Just never really happens. And I think that’s partly because whilst there aren’t as many gay commissioners in TV, gay men commissioners in TV, there are even fewer gay women in TV. In fact I’m really struggling of any, and obviously I don’t know them all, but yeah. And I think ultimately that kind of representation on-screen comes from awareness behind the screen, in particular at the commissioning level. And I think that’s what ultimately that’s how things change. Right. You have to have the commissioners commissioning the stuff. I can imagine after this, someone listens and goes down going, “Shit, we need to get a lesbian sitcom,” which could probably be commissioned by a straight woman or a straight man or a gay man.
Max [00:23:25] Well, hopefully this can be the start of something fantastic new sitcom. Leading on from that, intersectionality is is such a big topic at the moment, and we talk about it across all diversity strands. I wonder if if you feel like TV commissioners have have got to grips with the intersectional nature of the LGBTQ+ community?
Sophie [00:23:50] So I think we’re making a lot of progress, you know, in in general culture in terms of intersectionality. And it’s often for kind of like, you know, bigger institutions and things that they you know, they often need to catch up. Maybe not yet, but I think it’s getting there, you know, and I think the cause because it is like, as you were saying, that has been such a big push in the last six months for that and intersectionality and television that really, you know, the fact that people are actually really talking about it and really want this to happen is a great thing. And it can only really get better than that.
Greg [00:24:26] Yeah, I think it’s kind of like slow progress. But, you know, even the very fact we’re recording this podcast shows that there is some kind of progress, right. This is an industry-wide magazine. TV is a really slow moving industry. I think, as you can see with BAME representation, you know, we’ve been talking about that for the last 15 years. And so not much has happened.
Hannah [00:24:49] I thought, why we have you both, I thought it might be nice, I mean, you’ve mentioned a few good examples, Feel Good and It’s a Sin. But I thought if there were any other shows that you guys been watching lately that you think has really nailed it,
Sophie [00:25:02] For me, it would be Pose. It’s one of my favourite shows of all time. It’s brilliant in the fact that it’s got such a diverse cast and most of them are you know, most of the costs are LGBTQ+ playing queer characters. It’s just brilliantly written. And it shows, you know, it’s it’s certainly like 80s and 90s also shows that kind of time. And what like a massive change that was in terms of like, you know, kind of attitudes towards queer people and that time. So that would be a really like I think that’s done. It just incredibly it’s brilliant.
Max [00:25:41] I mean, that’s a fantastic show. And I’m so pleased, I’m really glad that the UK got to see that show because it’s well, maybe it’s on Netflix now, but it was on the BBC iPlayer for a while. It feels like it’s really important for the UK to have that window into US culture almost.
Greg [00:25:55] So I think Transparent is one that really nailed it, you know, managed to combine great drama, you know, just the fact that the main character was trans was just part of the set up and it was completely integrated and I thought that was fantastic. And it sounds really obvious, but the reboot of Queer Eye was done so brilliantly.