Looking Back At BOB & ROSE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BOB & ROSE

Tony finds a Rose by exactly the same name still feels as sweet.
Bob & Rose, written by Russell T Davies, is one of the oddest love stories to hit TV screens in the first two decades of the 21st century.

The central dilemma is an initially comedic inversion of what happens to some people every day. If people have been going along in cis het relationship after cis het relationship, or even cis het hook-up after cis het hook-up (For those just joining us, cis=cisgender, meaning your body and your mind agree on what sex you are, and het=heterosexual, meaning you’re solely attracted to the sex (and probably gender) most opposite to yours), and then suddenly, for instance, find themselves attracted to someone of the same sex as them, it can be described any number of ways.

These days, depending on the person themselves, they can define themselves as either gay or lesbian, queer, bisexual, pansexual, etc. As society is evolving, we’ll find more and more stops on the spectrum of sexual attraction for people to describe something other than the binary of heterosexual and homosexual.

But what happens if it happens the other way around?

What if you’ve been out with your peer group for years, a gay man on the club scene, part of the healthy, instinctive, not especially thought-heavy merry-go-round of pick-ups, hook-ups, and move-right-alongs?

What if you’re out to your family, and your mother – because she’s both a decent human being and one who loves you – attends every rally for gay rights, writes every letter and email to every MP she can think of, to make sure you live in a country where your sexuality is normalized in the mainstream. What if you’re so gay that your mother even starts her own campaigning group…

And then you fall in love with a woman?

Bob & Rose was a romantic drama that probably, when all is said and done, was 20 years ahead of its time. That’s Russell T Davies for you.
The fact is that Bob Gossage (played by Alan Davies, already well known as a stand-up comedian, and with three series of playing Jonathan Creek under his belt) has more or less always been as gay as gay can be. But he’s disillusioned by the emptiness of the gay club scene and its hook-ups. He’s at a point in his life where he wants to settle down with The One. The single Someone who can light him up and make him feel good on an ongoing basis.

He has literally never imagined that being a woman.

Meanwhile, Rose (Lesley Sharp – a Russell T Davies stalwart) is disenchanted with the pickings available on the heterosexual dating market too. Men, they can both agree, are… well… a bit naff. A bit shallow. Only interested in one thing, when both Bob and Rose, more or less simultaneously, have reached the point where string-free sex has stopped being the fun it used to be, and they want something with more long-term appeal.

But while Bob has never, ever dreamed that that something might be a woman, Rose has never, ever dreamed it might be a woman either. That means when they meet while waiting for a cab after another in a series of disappointing dates and trysts, Bob – who is about as flamboyant as… well, as Alan Davies – is of interest to Rose.

The mayhem that might rip their assumptions all to shred begins when Bob finds that, against all the history of his life, he’s attracted to Rose too!

They go home, and with neither putting a colossal foot wrong, they have sex. Which only blows Bob’s… erm… mind even more, because he’s literally never been physically responsive to women that way. It’s only with Rose. And it’s only after their first encounter that the subject comes up that Bob has been, and probably still is, exclusively gay.

It’s just that he’s now exclusively gay… with a little bubble of exception that is exactly Rose-shaped.

Oh, the fun.
As we say, if Bob and Rose were released today, the central dilemma of the piece would probably be significantly less hard-hitting than it was back in 2001, when social understanding of the sexuality spectrum was much more binary than it is now, and tribalism between the two binaries could be fairly vicious in both directions.

There was at least a section of the gay community that would regard the idea of a gay man sleeping with or falling in love with a woman as either an act of treachery or an act of weakness to social convention, a turning of the back against friends, supporters, and not least those who had been victimised and persecuted by governments like Mrs Thatcher’s, that radically enforced the de-normalization of gay relationships in favour of ‘healthy’ cis ones.

And there’s a degree of that among the emotional wash of discovery that Bob experiences, the further his relationship with Rose goes.

Similarly, from Rose’s side, there are people who are prepared to tell her that she’s fooling herself, that he’s gay and will undoubtedly be led by that back to “truer” gay relationships, because she can never offer him everything he needs.

But besides all these personified concepts, Russell T Davies is clever enough to give us a human point of conflict, in Bob’s friend Holly Vance (played by perpetual script-booster, Jessica Hynes). She’s both his friend and in some respects, his alternate reality – she loves Bob herself, but has had to settle for his friendship because he’s always been gay and never shown her that kind of interest. When Rose appears on the scene, there’s a mostly unacknowledged bitterness and jealousy that leads Holly to attempt to scupper their relationship at a crucial point.

Between her moment of weakness, and a brilliant portrayal of love from Penelope Wilton as Bob’s campaigning mother, combining support for her son and a fulfilling direction for her own life that could potentially be threatened by Bob’s relationship with a woman, there are lots of potential perils hanging over any relationship between Bob and Rose.

But this is where Bob & Rose flutters, and potentially falters. It raises important questions – or at least questions that were important in 2001 – sets its drama in motion, and then remembers at the last moment that it set out with the intention to be a romance.

That means it has to make a pretty Shakespearian choice. If it crashes all the potential consequences into Bob and Rose’s relationship, what you end up with is a sort of Shakespearian tragedy – potential hope for the happiness both of them are seeking is dashed by the ‘inevitability’ that Bob will cheat on Rose with a man because he’s fundamentally gay, and the mood and the message are downbeat and depressing, even though there are people who would say he’s just reverting to his fundamental nature.

Or, it can rescue hope and optimism at the last moment, give everybody at least some cause for happiness, and promote the positive message that love is technically bigger than the binary in which it was largely seen to exist at the time.

Davies, with arguably the right moral and ethical call, given the future, chooses to go with he “love conquers all” optimism, even though he’s careful not to really promise anything beyond the power of two people to commit to each other come what may. Bob and Rose may not work out in the long, long term, he says, but they’re strong enough and in love enough to give it a red hot go.

That means the potential dangers and threats never REALLY develop their potential – again, there’s a Shakespearian element here. If Holly had gone one step further in her attempts to scupper their relationship, it might very well have worked, and she’d have cast herself forever as the villain of the piece. But she doesn’t – she steps back from the precipice of being a dick, and is rewarded with some self-realization and self-resect.

There are sharp and pointed moments along the way, certainly – a scene where Bob and his mother talk frankly about why she does the campaigning work she does lives in the memory after 20 years, and is still as good today as it was back then.

But ultimately, to be a drama of its time, Bob & Rose would have needed to crash everything down on the heads of its two central characters, and then find an unrealistic way back to happiness at the end.

Watched from 20 years on, there’s an increasing disconnect with the rigid binaries that were very much in place back then, so when you watch it now, you tend to want to shake all the people throwing shade on the potential of Bob and Rose’s relationship – because “D’uh! Why shouldn’t they try for happiness if it works for them?” But that’s to misunderstand the nature of society at the turn of the millennium, and quite how far we’ve come since then.

Naturally, Russell T Davies was ahead of his time, and ahead of the curve. Weirdly though, despite some fantastic performances, what that means for Bob & Rose is that it never seemed quite dramatic enough at the time, and watched now, the drama has dissipated by virtue of society’s growing understanding that binaries are limiting, however important they may once have been as absolutes.

That said, it’s still a great six-hour exploration of an inverted coming-out drama, and with the likes of Alan Davies, Lesley Sharp, Penelope Wilton and Siobhan Finneran (both more recently among the stars of Downton Abbey), and Jessica Hynes, you get characters you can believe in and follow along their journey.

If Bob & Rose is Russell T Davies’ version of a Shakespeare comedy – a story that could be a tragedy but for the redeeming features of one or two characters – then there’s plenty to celebrate about that. Our Inner Drama Queen may feel like it would be more inherently SATISFYING to have turned it into a tragedy, but with the choices it makes, it does at least resonate both with hope for human relationships and with the future in which we increasingly find ourselves. That – on top of Davies’ skill and a thrilling cast – has got to make it worth your time.

Watch Bob & Rose today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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