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‘I’ve never seen anything like it’: how a Scottish lesbian lifeguard drama is changing TV
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‘I’ve never seen anything like it’: how a Scottish lesbian lifeguard drama is changing TV

The lingering shot of a used plaster floating across an empty swimming pool may not instantly signal entry into the pantheon of landmark lesbian TV drama. Nor is a council leisure centre that has seen better days the most obvious setting for a tender coming-out and coming-of-age romance. But there’s a winning refusal to conform in Float, a devastatingly charming drama that offers a rare glimpse of queer life and love beyond the big city.

Filmed on location in Helensburgh, a seaside town on the west coast of Scotland, series two will launch later this week from BBC Scotland and chronicles the fragile bond between two misfit lifeguards patrolling its heavily chlorinated environs. It follows Jade, a jaggy university drop-out, and her fellow lifeguard, the apparently straight Collette. Float is only the second production to come out of BBC Scotland with a gay female-led storyline, notes Hannah Jarrett-Scott, who plays Jade, the last one being Lip Service which was first broadcast on BBC Three in 2010.

“I did feel a huge sense of responsibility,” says Jarrett-Scott, who – along with her co-star Jessica Hardwick – is one of Scotland’s most exciting new theatre talents. Hardwick has just played the lead in David Greig’s new play Two Sisters at Edinburgh’s Lyceum, while Jarrett-Scott will next month appear at London’s Royal Court in the Edinburgh fringe transfer, Gunter.

“Queer characters are so often given tragic narratives but here they are a force of positivity,” says Jarrett-Scott, who suggests that “more joyous queer representation” would have helped her own coming out as a teenager.

What can be lost in the capsule description of Float is how funny it is – exploring the frustrations and comforts of small-town life with nuance and respect. Even the set pieces of high drama are anchored in the reality of sticky pub tables and smelly changing rooms. Elsewhere, Scotland’s glorious coastline takes a starring role, with the sea offering an unapologetic metaphor for escape and freedom before Jade and Collette are able to express their impulses more directly.

“These are just humans who happen to be queer, rather than their queerness somehow making them exceptional,” says Stef Smith, a garlanded playwright best known for her reimagining of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for whom Float was the first foray into TV scriptwriting.

‘Queer characters are so often given tragic narratives but here they are a force of positivity’ … Jessica Hardwick and Hannah Jarrett-Scott in Float.View image in fullscreen

Following the success of The L Word, which ran from 2004 to 2009 on Showtime in the US and followed the lives of a group of lesbian and bisexual women in California, lots of projects “tried to echo that slightly artificial American glossiness,” says Smith. “And something we all felt about the world of Float is it had to be really rooted in Scotland,” she adds, to nods of agreement from the two leads and director Arabella Page Croft, all gathered to discuss the second season after a screening at the Glasgow film festival.

“The world is hungry for more queer content,” says Page Croft, who directed the show, “not even necessarily with a happy ending, but an ordinary ending.” It’s a measure of how the limits of representation have expanded, she says.

Both seasons take the form of six 10-minute episodes, intended for younger audiences who are more likely to view content on handhelds rather than on the living room sofa.

Indeed, Float emerged from a BBC Writersroom initiative to commission 10-minute pilots aimed at a younger demographic and launch them on iPlayer as part of a drive to “do drama in new ways”, as Smith describes it.

Shot with a small crew, the format affords a particular intimacy of camera work – the viewer is sulking with Jade beneath her hoodie as she attends a court-ordered anger management course for a mysterious infraction yet to be explained, or hunched over the dining room table with Collette, trying to concentrate on a nursing textbook as her mother tidies up neurotically around her.

The brevity is such that whole storylines must be captured in a single shot – in series one, a cutaway to Collette standing on her tiptoes in plimsolls to kiss her boyfriend tells the viewer all they need to know about that relationship.

“A lot of that is down to my obsessiveness,” Page Croft says, “getting the characterful moments then playing with them in the edit. But it also takes a lot of development. It’s not quick and easy just because it’s short-form.”

Micro-drama also demands precise storytelling. “It’s incredible what you’ve done,” Jarrett-Scott says to Smith after the screening, “getting all this plot then all the layers of the characters within 10-minute episodes. I’ve never seen anything like that, where you meet a character and immediately know who they are – you can imagine them from your own childhood.”

The first series of Float was filmed during lockdown, and there is a strong sense that the second one has provided both writer and cast with the chance to exhale and expand.

Eighteen months on from the first season, the storytelling has broadened beyond the swimming pool to take in an engaging ensemble cast. This was both a deliberate attempt to flesh out the young women’s hinterland and also a necessity – in the intervening period, the leisure centre where the first series had been filmed was demolished by the local council.

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Smith has widened the LGBTQ+ palette to include a non-binary character Theo, played by newcomer Isla Campbell. And essential to the layering of character that Jarrett-Scott describes is the addition of the leads’ families in this series and intergenerational conversations this prompts between mothers and daughters.

“I really loved writing the mum characters,” says Smith. “It was really interesting thinking about the women these women came from and the journey they have been on in regards to accepting who their daughters are.”

‘I really loved writing the mum characters’ … Gail Watson who plays Collette’s mum, Kelly.View image in fullscreen

Without revealing too much of the plot, Smith adds that she wanted to use these older female characters to explore different responses to their children’s sexuality, arguing that sometimes homophobia can relate less to hate and more to fear that their offspring will lead harder lives by identifying as queer.

“We live in a very binary world at the moment that doesn’t have much space for nuance or for two truths to coexist. With the mum characters, I wanted to show that it is possible to change your mind,” she says.

Float also explores the ambivalence of growing up in rural Scotland. In the first series, another lifeguard, Liam, grumbles about the three buses he has to take to get into Glasgow, the nearest city, but in series two, there is a theme of return.

Hardwick, who grew up in the Borders, observes how few rural stories she saw on screen when she was growing up: “It was always Glasgow and the glamorisation of the city. What’s so lovely about Float is that it’s just people living their lives, rather than running away to the city.”

Smith, who grew up in Aberfoyle, a village in Perthshire, stresses how important it is “to show that people stay in rural settings, given that the majority do and go on to live contented and fulfilled lives there.”

Source: theguardian.com