After the episode aired, I only realized it was the first lesbian kiss – a groundbreaking moment that forever changed TV – according to the trailblazers involved.
For nearly 100 years, V has been a part of our lives. In the early 1920s, Scottish engineer John Logie Baird amazed the public with his “Televisor” invention, and since then, there have been constant advancements in the world of television, making it the dominant form of entertainment that we recognize today.
From drama’s first transgender character to Britain’s first Black presenter; from the first childbirth to the first Westeros death, there has been milestone after milestone. We tracked down 10 TV trailblazers to hear their stories. These are the pioneers who did it first on-screen. If they’re not already a pub quiz question or proud owner of a blue plaque, they deserve to be.
I had the honor of being a part of British TV’s pioneering lesbian kiss.
In 1974, at the age of 77, actress Alison Steadman shared a kiss with her female co-star in the BBC drama Girl, which was a one-time production.
Girl is a straightforward romantic tale centered around a secret relationship between two women in the military. The entire film was captured in one continuous shot. Due to my background in theater, I was accustomed to this style of filming. However, I was particularly anxious about the kissing scene. My co-star Myra Frances shared the same nerves, and we bonded over our shared hesitation. Director Peter Gill handled the situation cleverly by not making a big deal out of it. Being gay himself, he was not bothered by the intimate scene. During rehearsals, he would simply say “Quick kiss, that’s it, now continue”, which alleviated any pressure.
On our initial encounter, we didn’t share a proper kiss, just a gentle touch of our lips. As we became better acquainted and grew more comfortable, our physical intimacy evolved. The producer David Rose attended rehearsals to ensure that things didn’t go too far, especially during our bed scene. He was concerned there might be naked groping, but we were simply conversing and smoking. He left satisfied.
The worst thing was imagining how my parents would cope. They were quiet people in suburban Liverpool. They were thrilled I was doing well, not so thrilled about seeing me snog another girl on TV. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that anyone made a fuss. No one gives a damn now. Men kissing, women kissing, it’s all fine, thank goodness. I only realised it was the first lesbian kiss after it aired. The next one wasn’t until Brookside 20 years later. Everyone said Anna Friel’s was the first. I was stomping around, a bit annoyed, going: ‘No, it isn’t! Me and Myra Frances were first!’
I was the initial casualty on the show Game of Thrones.
In 2011, Rob Ostlere, who is currently 39 years old, portrayed Waymar Royce, a ranger of the Night’s Watch, in the first episode of Game of Thrones.
After leaving Rada, I noticed that many people were auditioning for a highly anticipated new show. I also tried out for a few roles, including Theon Greyjoy and Viserys Targaryen, but ultimately landed the role of Waymar Royce. My character only appears for six minutes, but it’s a chilling and satisfying scene. Just make sure not to step away for a cup of tea or you might miss me.
I was instructed in horseback riding, but the majority of the scenes were done by stunt doubles. Despite my inability to grow a beard, the production team wanted my character, Waymar, to have a distinguished facial hair, so I resorted to using a cheap beard mascara. Our filming location was Tollymore Forest Park, where artificial snow was spread and fake body parts were scattered on the ground. The director, Tim Van Patten, constantly reminded me to exude more arrogance in my performance, which I found enjoyable.
I am attacked and killed by a White Walker from behind. The crew attempted to create a pit for the actor using a hydraulic lift, but it failed to function properly. I had to act scared and turn around, but every time I did, the actor’s head would only be at knee level, which was absurd. Eventually, they gave up on the hydraulics and the actor simply crouched and rose up. It was low-tech for a show with such a high budget. My parents watched my scene with pride, but the following scene involved menstruation and sexual acts, which shocked them.
Individuals continue to request autographed photos and submit fan-made artwork. It is beneficial to include these items on one’s resume. Approximately 175,000 characters meet their demise in total, and I established the tone for the rest of the story. I was the initial death, while Queen Daenerys was the final one, which seems fitting. In terms of my career, it may have been more advantageous if our roles were reversed!
I was the original host of Top Gear.
Angela Rippon, who is now 79 years old, hosted the initial two seasons of Top Gear starting in 1977.
I checked all the required boxes. During my time as a journalist at Westward Television, I completed numerous reports on automobiles. I also regularly commuted from Devon to Birmingham or London in my Ford Capri. My driving experience led to the AA offering me a monthly column. In addition to the Capri, I have also owned a 1960 Mini Cooper, an MGB GT, a Saab 900 Turbo, and a Mazda convertible. I have a deep passion for cars.
The female host of a car show caused quite a stir. Despite prevalent sexism, Top Gear maintained its journalistic integrity. I frequently interviewed the transportation minister and covered topics like accident prevention, driving regulations, and vehicle design. My role wasn’t limited to women drivers; I represented all drivers. These were the good old days before social media, and the feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive.
I have participated in various stunts on Top Gear, but the show is primarily known for its stunts. Some of my notable experiences include driving on ice in Sweden and operating a truck on an unopened section of the M62 highway. A segment on skid pans proved to be invaluable as I encountered a dangerous situation one winter’s night when I hit a patch of black ice and spun out on the motorway. Despite an oncoming lorry, I remained calm and applied the techniques I had learned, successfully reaching the hard shoulder. Although it was a frightening experience, being on Top Gear taught me valuable skills.
Subsequent versions were completely dissimilar – emphasizing masculinity and entertainment instead of journalism. It evolved into being perceived as “playthings for males”. It is regrettable that there have not been a greater number of female hosts. Women comprise half of the driving population and the show continues to have a significant female audience.
I danced first on Strictly.
In 2004, at the age of 51, Natasha Kaplinsky, a newsreader, was the first to host the premiere episode of Strictly Come Dancing.
I was hesitant to participate and had to be convinced to do so. I had struggled to earn respect as a journalist and had no desire to dance on live television. However, they eventually persuaded me despite my attempts to avoid it, including feigning injury. During my initial session with professional dance partner Brendan Cole, I made it clear that he was invading my personal space. I was practicing social distancing long before it became necessary due to Covid.
We were informed that we would be the first to perform the day before the show. I was extremely scared. The memory of standing at the top of the stairs in a pink beaded dress, and hearing our names announced as ‘Couple No 1!’ will stay with me forever. I felt like I was going to throw up.
During the middle of my routine, a piece of my clothing came off. I later realized with great relief that it was just my necklace. I believe the judges were lenient because they knew I could fall at any moment. However, Craig Revel Horwood was not so forgiving, stating “Boring, boring, boring!” The competition has become much tougher now. I doubt I would have lasted long. In the BBC newsroom, I kept my head down, hoping no one noticed, but I received many heartwarming cards from viewers. The downside was that it brought me into the realm of tabloids. My phone was hacked, which was a difficult experience.
As the show went on, I constantly pleaded: “Please do not choose me.” Some assumed it was a tactic, but I truly meant it. Against all odds, we emerged as the winners, which was truly surprising. I still possess the trophy, though it is not in the best condition. I have reached out to The Repair Shop to see if they can restore it.
“I was the initial Black individual to present on British television.”
Barbara Blake Hannah, a prominent anti-racism advocate and writer, made history in 1968 when she became the first Black news presenter on British television at the age of 82.
During my arrival in the UK during the 1960s, there were increasing opportunities available. After working as a writer for various newspapers and magazines, I applied to be a reporter for the evening news program on Thames TV. This made me the first Black journalist to be seen on television in Britain. A colleague from Jamaica, Eric Anthony Abrahams, had been hired by the BBC a few years prior, but his skin was lighter and television was only broadcast in black and white at the time. It is often believed that Trevor McDonald and Moira Stuart were the first, but I am not bothered by this misconception. They deserve recognition for their achievements as well.
While I was out capturing footage, my race was not a concern to anyone. The focus was solely on the potential of appearing on television. My work involved covering crime-related news, the Beatles, as well as conducting interviews with figures like Michael Caine and Harold Wilson. However, after nine months, I was let go from my position. The official reason given was that I did not fit in with the program, but a producer revealed to me that there were complaints demanding to remove the “n****r” from the screen. This was deeply painful, especially because the government had recently passed the Race Relations Act. Although Thames TV (which is no longer in existence as of 2003) could have informed the racists that firing me would be unlawful, they chose to support their discriminatory views.
After six months, I was employed by ATV in Birmingham. However, I faced difficulties finding accommodation at local hotels. As a result, I had to travel from London until I was able to secure a room at the YWCA. One day, I was assigned to film outside in freezing weather, only to learn that Enoch Powell had agreed to a studio interview on the condition that I, a Black woman, was not present. I regret not being present to challenge him with difficult questions.
My perception of England as ‘the Mother Country’ was completely altered, as I realized the widespread presence of racism. Upon my return home in 1972, I chose to identify as Jamaican rather than a Black British individual. However, I am proud of my accomplishments, as I proved myself to be capable of excelling in the field of journalism. My brown skin allowed me to make a significant impact. Today, it brings me joy to see Black presenters on television. If I played a role in paving the way for their representation, I am even more delighted.
Barbara Blake Hannah has shared her television encounters in her book Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride in the Swinging Sixties, available for £10.99 from Penguin.
“I received the first Hollywood handshake on the show, Bake Off.”
In 2012, Ryan Chong, who is currently 49 years old, participated in the third series of The Great British Bake Off.
I did not consider myself a professional baker, but rather more of a cook. However, I managed to succeed and had to learn as I went. I dedicated a lot of time to practicing. Unfortunately, my wife was not pleased because the kitchen was always in disarray.
In the seventh episode, the contestants were tasked with making sweet dough treats. One of the challenges was to make lardy cakes, a dessert that was unfamiliar to me. The judges did not give out any Hollywood handshakes in this round, so it didn’t seem like a big accomplishment. However, Sue Perkins did comment that Paul was surprisingly quiet, jokingly calling him a “silent silverback.”
I don’t recall much about the handshake itself, expect that it was quite firm. He’s a bread man and lardy cakes are a bread product. I got the impression mine reminded him of his youth and touched him on some level.
I felt overwhelming relief when Paul expressed his satisfaction, thinking I would make it through another week. However, the irony was that I did not. In a moment of panic, I hastily altered my showstopper, resulting in an undercooked dish and ultimately getting eliminated. I was devastated.
I portrayed the first transgender character on TV.
Linda Gray, who is currently 83 years old, portrayed the role of Linda Murkland, a transgender fashion model, in the 1977 American miniseries All That Glitters.
I have experience in modeling and advertising, but when I auditioned, no one recognized me. Producer Norman Lear, who is still active in the industry at 101 years old, was ahead of his time. He deemed me suitable for the role and when I asked why he chose me to play a transgender woman, he responded, “Because you exude femininity.” I am unsure if that was meant as a compliment. I was committed to portraying the character with dignity, so I requested to meet with a real transgender woman for research. Norman arranged for this woman to fly from San Francisco to spend a day with me.
I had a notebook filled with inquiries. Initially, she was careful, but we conversed for several hours. She shared with me all about her transition – the counseling, drugs, and procedures she had undergone. We covered a wide range of topics, from restrooms to electrolysis. She shared an amusing anecdote about taking her car to the mechanic as a man and then as a woman, and noticing a difference in treatment. I deeply understood her frustration with not being able to fit in, feeling like she was born in the wrong body, and the challenges she faced.
I never thought my character was out of the ordinary. A lot of people struggle to discover their true identity. In contrast, Linda had a strong sense of direction. She was certain about the person she wanted to become. In the final episode, she ended up marrying her male partner. The audience adored her and I received numerous fan letters.
The lady from San Francisco complimented my performance, which was kind. Portraying Linda broadened my perspective. I got the job in Dallas immediately after. In contrast, playing Sue Ellen was effortless.
“I was the pioneer Scandinavian television detective.”
Krister Henriksson, who is currently 76 years old, portrayed the character of Kurt Wallander in the Swedish series from 2005 to 2013.
I had a successful career as a theater actor in Sweden and collaborated extensively with Ingmar Bergman. Bergman suggested to his son-in-law, author Henning Mankell, that he consider me for the role of Wallander. To Mankell’s surprise, I declined the offer. He then gave me the books and urged me to read them. Although I found them uninteresting, I was drawn to the main character who shared similar traits with myself – a divorced workaholic with a drinking problem. Despite my initial refusal, the salary offered continued to increase until I finally agreed to take on the role.
We produced 32 films, but our production came to an end when Henning was diagnosed with cancer. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I proposed that Wallander develop dementia, preventing him from returning as an inspector. I now regret that choice, as it was made during a difficult time when Henning was undergoing chemotherapy and I was feeling exhausted.
I take great pride in our films and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know Henning. When he passed away, a part of me died as well. There was a lot of turmoil off-camera, with divorces, drug use, suicides, and deaths, so the experience of filming Wallander is bittersweet for me. The role had a profound impact on my life and brought in a lot of money. At times, I contemplate making another film, but I am now too old. Perhaps I could serve as a senior advisor for the character of Wallander.
I was the first person to speak on Channel 4.
Paul Coia, now 68 years old, was the inaugural voice on Channel 4 during its debut in 1982.
My relatives believed I was foolish for relocating from Glasgow to take on the role of a Channel 4 continuity announcer. However, as the launch date approached, my superiors approached me and asked, “Would you be willing to open the station?” It was a great privilege. I later learned that the government had requested regional accents when providing funding. My coworkers mostly had a Received Pronunciation accent, while I had a more working-class accent. A critic even remarked that I sounded like a sailor stranded at sea near Leith.
I created my own script and can recall the phrase: “Good evening. It’s an honor to welcome you to Channel 4.” The debut program I hosted was Countdown. Richard Whiteley and I developed a friendship, connecting over the fact that I was the first voice of the channel and he was the first face.
Politicians and media from around the world were present on the day of launch, making it a significant moment in broadcasting history. Since then, I have launched two additional channels, ABC Entertainment and the Travel Channel, but only Channel 4 remains operational. I returned for the 40th anniversary last year and was filled with joy to deliver the same message I did forty years ago: “Now it’s time for Countdown!” Being a part of the initial launch is something I am extremely proud of, and it’s amusing to be the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. Who wouldn’t find that enjoyable?
“I was the first person to give birth live on television.”
Joyce Chopra, a filmmaker who is currently 87 years old, recorded her own childbirth for the PBS documentary Joyce at 34 in 1971.
At the age of 33, while still building my career, I found out I was pregnant. I was afraid that motherhood would consume all of my time and I would never be able to make another film. Despite my concerns, I foolishly agreed to work on a documentary shortly after my due date, thinking it would force me back to work. However, a friend advised me against it, saying I was in a unique position to create a film about the experience of becoming a mother. At first, I dismissed the idea as self-absorbed and absurd. Who would make a film about themselves? But upon reflection, I decided to focus on the topic of marriage, childcare responsibilities, and balancing career and family, as these are ongoing issues that many can relate to.
At this time, I was nine months pregnant and I hired Claudia Weill, a student, to film. There was a slight panic when Claudia was not available on the night I went into labor. Fortunately, a backup crew arrived at the hospital just in time to capture the birth. The pain was intense and I was unaware of the camera’s presence. However, once our baby Sarah was born, the pain disappeared and I was able to view the experience like a director. My intention was not to be groundbreaking, but rather to create a film that was entirely my own.
One million people tuned in to watch the program on PBS, which was surreal. We received glowing reviews from Gloria Steinem and Shirley MacLaine. It received awards, but after one viewing, I overheard someone say, “I thought it was about James Joyce, not some unattractive woman giving birth!” This comment put things into perspective. The film has become a feminist classic and is still featured at festivals. Every time it is shown, I playfully remind my daughter, “You were born again in Baltimore today.” She responds, “I’ve been born all around the world, mom.” Sarah is now 52 years old and a professor at a university. The Museum of Modern Art has acquired a copy of the film. We jest that she is included among all the renowned paintings.
Joyce Chopra’s book, Lady Director: Adventures in Hollywood, Television and Beyond, is now available (published by City Lights for £12.99).