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Graydon Gould and Peter Wyngarde in the ITV drama SouthThe British Film Institute has unearthed what it believes may be the oldest known gay television drama. BFI curator Simon McCallum calls South, a television play that aired on November 24, 1959, a “milestone” in gay cultural history.

According to The Guardian:

It involves a dashing Polish army lieutenant exiled in the US deep south as civil war approaches and the question of who he really loves: the plantation owner’s angry niece, Miss Regina, or the tall, blond, rugged officer who arrives suddenly – a handsome man called Eric MacClure.

Based on a play by Julien Green and adapted for television by Gerald Savory, South starred Peter Wyngarde as the enamored exile. Wyngarde’s own homosexuality was an open secret in the acting world — where he was nicknamed Petunia Winegum — but he remained in the closet to the general public.

Therefore, McCallum calls the actor’s decision to take on the role “incredibly brave,” especially considering some of the “bad reactions” from the press. One critic from the Daily Sketch was particularly offended:

“I do NOT see anything attractive in the agonies and ecstasies of a pervert, especially in close-up in my living room. This is not prudishness. There are some indecencies in life that are best left covered up.”

South predates Victim, a 1961 film starring Dirk Bogarde (also a known gay) as a successful barrister battling blackmailers, which was the first English language film to use the word “homosexual.” That film was initially banned in the U.S., though today it is viewed as helping to change attitudes towards homosexuality, as well as Britain’s anti-buggery laws. Parliament decriminalized homosexual acts in 1967.

Though much of the U.K.’s television output from the 50s and 60s has not survived — live shows, like South, were rarely recorded — McCallum says that they are “incredibly lucky” that this one has.  South was seen for the first time in over 50 years at the BFI’s 27th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival over the weekend.

“For many years it just wasn’t known that this film existed other than to a few specialist researchers,” said McCallum. “We’re so glad to be able to show it at the festival because it’s part of all our heritage, really.”

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