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Jack of Hearts

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If you thought Dr Who was as gay as a Christmas tree, wait until you watch the BBC's new adult spin-off, Torchwood. With bisexual characters and same-sex liaisons added to the mix, it looks like sci-fi might have finally stepped out of the closet. GT meets its star, the dishy John Barrowman, and creator Russell T Davies

If there's one thing that sums up the difference between Doctor Who and its new adult spin-off series, Torchwood, it's John Barrowman's bottom. Last year, BBC bosses asked for a shot of his backside to be removed from the channel's flagship Saturday evening family drama, worried that parents embarrassed about their kids seeing a bit too much of his character, Captain Jack, might switch channels.

John keeps his body in good shape and was disappointed at the cut. But he assures GT readers there'll be no such restrictions for Torchwood, with its post-watershed 10pm time slot "We wills of Captain Jack in Torchwood," he reveals tantalisingly.

The spin-off has been labelled "adult" to differentiate it from the family tone of its parent show, but that doesn't mean it's "sex galore", says John. However, it does allow the writers to cover themes which couldn't be covered at seven o'clock on a Saturday night sex, lust, murder and obsession — all in a grown-up and gritty, urban style.

Its star is Captain Jack, a bisexual time traveller from the 51st century, who was last seen being abandoned by the Doctor following a battle in the far future against the Daleks. In the new series he's managed to find his way back to 2006, where he's working for Torchwood, a secret institute set up to investigate alien technologies and solve extraterrestrial crime. One week he could be up against a group of psychotic fairies; the next week it'll be vampire-like Weevils. "It's an emotional roller coaster and it is fucking scary sometimes," he enthuses.

Captain Jack is accompanied by a team of four young assistants, all of whom enjoy same-sex experiences in the series. It makes Torchwood a sort of sci-fi Queer As Folk with bisexuals. Indeed the show is the brainchild of Queer As Folk creator Russell T Davies, who made the return of Doctor Who a phenomenal success.

John describes his character as an uncontrollable flirt. "Stephen Moffat, who devised the character alongside Russell, devised someone who would bed anyone with a postcode and a hole." But after being left behind by the Doctor, he's bearing a bit of a grudge. "He's a bit darker and he doesn't look at the world in such a happy-go-lucky way any more," explains John.

Jack's main companion is Gwen Cooper (played by Eve Myles), a policewomen who, while investigating a mysterious crime, comes into contact with Jack and Torchwood. Intrigued, she joins the team, which conistss of Naoko Mori as computer expert Toshiko Sato, sarcastic doctor Owen Harper, (played by Bleak House star Burn Gorman), and newcomer Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto Jones. Ianto is the team's fixer, described by John as "Jack's toy boy".

John describes working on the two series as having been something of a dream come true for him — he grew up with Doctor Who and remembers being scared by the Autons, an alien race inhabiting shop window dummies was brought back for the new series. "My mother would have to hide my head under her coat when we walked past big stores," he recalls.

But the shooting schedule is tough: five- or six-day weeks for more hakf a year, including copious night shoots. On top of that, he's having to fit in his other commitments, whether it's being a judge on How Do You Solve A Problem like Maria?, or appearing in panto.

"It's hard on me personally and professionally, but I'm completely happy doing what I'm doing. No matter how hard it gets, I'd never say no. If the work's coming in, I'm not going to turn it down."

He admits it's tougher on his partner, architect Scott Gill. They've bought a place in Cardiff and manage to spend time with each other at weekends in Cardiff or in London, depending on shooting schedules. "When people are living apart, quite a lot of them consider giving up on the relationship, but we've been together for 14 years now and we work through all the thicks and thins.

"What I learned from my parents is that if you really want to be with a person, you'll be able to deal with these sorts of things. But it's hard — sometimes I get home after a long day, and he's feeling my back and I say, 'No, let me sleep!'. That's one thing I don't get enough of: sleep."

Filming might be arduous, but the cast still has fun. And it tends to be John adding a bit of a risqué element to proceedings. "I'm notorious — if I'm doing a close-up shot or being filmed over someone's shoulder, I do the scene with my balls out," he laughs. "I did it once in a scene where we were walking through some woods and I didn't tell anyone for ages. I particularly like to do it when Eve has to talk and she can't speak because she's laughing so much. It's all about having fun and keeping our sanity."

Executive producer Russell T Davies believes the cast is one of the best he's assembled. "What I'm really pleased about is the chance to make John a leading man on TV," he says. "He's been a leading man on the stage, and his looks and physique were perfect for television.

"But because of his American accent it's hard to get him those parts in Britain. I was aware of him when we were casting for Queer As Folk, but he never came up in any of our discussions. When it comes to Doctor Who, it's different: if you've got aliens and Daleks about the place, an American accent isn't that strange. So it really works."

And it's not only John he's happy with. "Usually in a cast there are one or two who are duff, but these are all brilliant. It's such a lovely team, and that's important because you have to believe that this is a gang of friends and sometimes lovers."

And there'll be quite a lot of loving going on, by all accounts. Five main characters indulging in same-sex action; how sci-fi is that?

"This is the next stage of my plan to make everyone on TV gay," Davies laughs. It's a joke, but there have been dark mutterings in some corners of cyberspace that Russell has a dangerous "big gay agenda" with his stewardship of Doctor Who and now Torchwood. But what Russell wants to do is to stop us thinking of TV characters as being only "gay" or "straight".

"Without making it political and dull, this is going to be a very bisexual programme," he explains. "I want to knock down the barriers so we can't define which of the characters is gay. We need to start mixing things up, rather than saying, 'This is a gay character and he'll only ever go off with men'.

"There's a line in one of the episodes, and someone asked me whether it meant one male character was sleeping with another, and I said, 'I'm not going to tell you'. Some things are left vague. On the other hand, sometimes it's overt - there's a very big scene in episode eight with two females together that's very in-your-face."

And Captain lack will be in the thick of the action. "We'll probably get letters of complaint from you gays, because Jack does a fair bit of hunting of women," says Russell. "A lot of people think 'bisexual' on TV is just a euphemism for 'gay', but it's not. Jack will swim in both directions.

"He doesn't need to talk about cock or always be chasing men; he's saving the universe. It's a gay story because he's in it, so it doesn't need to cover gay issues all the time. There isn't a homophobic line in the whole show, because the people he meets just aren't like that."

John says the character has made him think of bisexuals in a different way. "I used to think that bisexuality was a cop-out for someone who doesn't want to admit they're gay. Since then, I've learned more about myself: I'm not saying I'm going to go around snogging women, but I can find a woman incredibly sexy even though I don't want to bed her.

"I can't explain bisexuality because I'm not bisexual, but I'm sure it does happen - and of course there are people like Captain Jack who just love sex. As he tells someone in the series, 'You guys with your little categories'. He just sees sex in terms of passion fora pent'

Russell has done a lot to position gay people centre stage on TV, and he says he'll continue to do so - but not at the price of good drama. In fact, in the latest series of Doctor Who, one of the recurring characters was originally meant to be gay. CBBC presenter Andrew Hayden-Smith, who's gay, was cast as Jake Simmonds, a freedom fighter on a parallel Earth who was in love with his world's version of the Doctor's companion Mickey Smith. But following rewrites, the gay element was taken out. "I hate all these shows which have rubbish gay relationships, and I took another look at the script and realised it was cheap, soapy nonsense," says Russell. "I won't have cheap gay references."

But when he has covered sexuality on Doctor Who, it hasn't been controversial. "Do you know how many complaints we received about Captain Jack being bisexual in Doctor Who? Zero. It was carefully written and I reckon there'll be people watching it now who are eight who will watch it again when they are 18 and say: 'Yes I get it noe'. And there'll be others who'll just say: 'Yeah, yeah: get over it, mun'. They won't blink. Times have moved on."

John agrees, and tells his own heart-warming tale, "I was signing autographs, and this boy came up with his dad and asked mefam autograph. I asked him what his favourite part of Doctor Who was, he said, 'I know Captain lack likes boys, but I don't care-he'smted That made me so happy. I said to him, 'You are one cool kid'."

He adds: "It's amazing what power the gay community has in TV at the moment. Doctor Who and Torchwood are run mostly by gay people, and we're producing the shows which the public is accepting us with open arms."

And all this means that both Russell and John are extremely busy. Russell says he wants to stay in charge of Doctor Who for at least two more seasons, meaning plans for a new primetime BBC One gay drama series - first revealed to GT last year - have had to be put back. John has had to turn down top roles in West End musicals, such as Spamalot. If Torchwood is recommissioned, he says he'd like to squeeze something in between a second and thid series. "Theatre is my first love, and I love singing."

John hopes Torchwood is as popular with gay people as its predecessor. "I hope the boys support it, because you're going to see some sexy shit on this. If we can show the poewr that be what we can do, that would be great."

Torchwood debuts on BBC Three late October, date and time to be confirmed as GT went to press. John reviews his favourite cardiff restraurant on page 103.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Martin, Daniel (October 2006). Jack of Hearts. Gay Times p. 40.
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