Transgender drama Boy Meets Girl is a sitcom about a couple in love first, and a challenge to society second, writer Elliot Kerrigan tells Jay Richardson
“Leo, I was born with a penis” blurts the woman. And with that striking introduction, Boy Meets Girl is set to dramatically alter the depiction of trans people on television forever. Leo and Judy meet, share drinks and arrange to see each other again. Leo’s mother bemoans her 26-year-old son dating a woman approaching 40. But he’s absolutely smitten.
The twist, disclosed at the start of BBC2’s progressive, but warmly funny and unquestionably mainstream sitcom, is that Judy is transgender and played by transgender actor Rebecca Root. Currently appearing in the acclaimed Trans Scripts monologues at the Pleasance in Edinburgh, Root maintains that Boy Meets Girl is “groundbreaking” because it’s the first comedy “to normalise the trans identity”.
Trans characters in comedy tend to be played by cisgender (non-transgender), often male actors, and deployed as punchlines rather than romantic leads, invariably with a stock, Crying Game-style pullback and genital reveal. Even David Tennant’s sympathetic portrayal of the barmaid Davina in Rab C Nesbitt finished with her humiliating Mary Doll’s lecherous boss by luring him into a dark cupboard fumble.
“That’s not the case here” Root assures me during a break from filming at the Space Project studio in Manchester. “[Judy] happens to be trans. You could just as easily say that she happens to be Caucasian, she happens to be six foot, she happens to be 40, she happens to have brown hair.”
With trans celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and boxing promoter Kellie Maloney increasingly visible, awareness of (and prurient interest in) trans people is at an all-time high, with fuller, more nuanced representation inevitable, even in comedy. Advancing beyond her transition, Sarah Franken has one of the most talked about shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, while Cucumber actor and stand-up Bethany Black recently joined the cast of Doctor Who. Two of the most celebrated comedy-dramas in the US are Transparent, featuring cisgender, Arrested Development star Jeffrey Tambor coming out as a transgender woman to her family; and prison saga Orange Is The New Black, which has transformed trans actor Laverne Cox into one of the most recognisable faces in America.
True progress, Root reflects, will arrive when the transgender angle is incidental. Boy Meets Girl exclusively auditioned trans actors for Judy. But the show recalls the popular Gavin and Stacey in the well-meaning, meddling role the central characters’ families play in their relationship. Denise Welch, Nigel Betts and Janine Duvitski are to the fore as the eccentric parents, while Lizzie Roper and Jonny Dixon are by turns supportive and embarrassing as their dysfunctional siblings.
Harry Hepple, who plays Leo, maintains that “if it wasn’t about a transgender relationship, I would have played it exactly the same. If you’re in love with the person, you’re in love with them”. And he likens this series to Modern Family.
“It’s dangerous to compare what you’re doing to a really successful TV show,” he says. “But in the same way Modern Family explores gay marriage and gay parenting, on a different network or in a different producer’s hands, it could as easily be about that, with everyone else a supporting character. But what they do really well is that it just happens to be in it. It’s one big ensemble piece… it’s everyone’s story.”
Indeed, first-time writer Elliot Kerrigan reckons that trans characters are around 30 years or so behind gay characters in their narrative arc. And they need a bit of affirmative action. He originally conceived a romantic love story “with a happy ending” after experiencing a series of missed connections with a man around his native Newcastle, where Boy Meets Girl is set.
He wrote about a young man and older woman “but it didn’t click on the page. I tried it with two men with an age gap, same thing again”. Then he saw the BBC’s Trans Comedy Award, an initiative set up with the Trans Comedy Group to award £5,000 and development to the best comedy scripts depicting “transgender characters and the transgender experience in an affirming manner”.
“That was like the key that unlocked the whole thing and it suddenly made sense” he recalls. “I had that first page – ‘Leo, I was born with a penis’ – I thought ‘actually, someone could read this and be hooked’”.
Of his own family, the gay writer recalls “when we watched [gay guy, straight girl domestic sitcom] Will & Grace, everyone laughed and we were laughing with them, not at them. That’s the kind of thing I love to watch, especially in comedies. There are moments when I can see Rebecca in Judy but I can see myself in her too, all the time.”
Root was on hand to advise Kerrigan and co-writers Simon Carlyle and Andrew Mettam about her experiences – “almost everything she’s given me, I’ve used” – and she requested a minor script tweak, removal of a line where Judy was embarrassed about visiting a psychiatrist.
“The path people like me have to go through, you have to be assessed to make sure you’re not mentally delusional,” she says. “If you want to normalise the transgender experience, you don’t want to portray that as something negative”.
For authenticity’s sake, photos of her in her previous identity, Graham Root, an actor since 1990 with bit parts in Keeping Up Appearances and The Detectives before her 2003 transition and gender reassignment surgery two years later, are positioned subtly around the set of Judy’s mum’s house. And they play a pivotal role when Judy and Leo have sex for the first time, the immature but game young man momentarily caught off-guard by the juxtaposition.
Accidental insensitivity and outright transphobia, “how other people feel about it, how other people view her and him together” becomes more of an issue as the episodes go on, Hepple reveals. But ultimately, “it’s not something [Leo’s] at all fazed by.”
Personally and in television generally, Boy Meets Girl “has been a long time coming” suggests Root, stressing that with trans actors and indeed, trans people generally at various stages of transition, and with some effectively still in the closet about their assigned gender, no-one knows quite how large a part of the population they represent.
Breaking through, ironically only to compete for the under-represented paucity of older female roles, she can nevertheless see “a tide is turning and you’ll see more and more people who are trans playing trans characters and fewer and fewer cisgender people playing these parts. I think I’m ready for that.”
Boy Meets Girl premieres on BBC2 on Thursday, 9:30pm. Trans Scripts is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh until 31 August, edfringe.co.uk