‘There used to be no happy stories about queer people’: Comedian Tom Allen on changing the narrative with his show Big Gay Wedding

 (BBC/Minnow Films/Adam Hobbs)
(BBC/Minnow Films/Adam Hobbs)

Comedian Tom Allen has reflected on the erasure he faced as a young gay man ahead of the release of his BBC documentary Tom Allen’s Big Gay Wedding, which celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the same-sex marriage act in England and Wales.

In the documentary, the comedian transforms into a wedding planner, with just 10 weeks to organise nuptials for a gay couple from Brighton called Adam and Dan.

Allen, 40, enlists the expertise of contacts from his star-studded phonebook, including Strictly Come Dancing and Bake Off star John Whaite for help with the cake, Oti Mabuse for the choreography on the big day and “Murder On the Dancefloor” singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor for the entertainment.

But between the menu planning, cake tasting and suit fittings, Allen traces the history of same-sex marriage legislation in England and Wales to mark the anniversary of the Same-Sex Couples Act, which was passed on 17 July 2013, with the first marriages of same-sex couples taking place on 29 March 2014.

The comedian speaks to LGBT+ activist Peter Tatchell, comedian and activist Sandi Toksvig, and campaigners Lynn Sutcliffe and Sarah Hews, who made headlines in 1992 for presenting themselves at Westminster Registry Office to be married.

Allen looks back on the plight of same-sex couples, and reflects on his own disbelief that same-sex marriage would ever become legalised, after growing up as a young man in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

In an interview with The Independent, Allen, who was born in 1983, said that growing up in the era of the former PM’s Section 28 legislation influenced how he felt represented in society. (The 1998 Local Government Act banned local authorities and schools from “promoting homosexuality”.)

“It was very painful... [Section 28] sort of eradicated us and erased us,” he said. “We weren’t seen, we weren’t talked about in schools and we weren’t talked about on the television either.”

Allen said that he felt “riddled with shame and pain, and real anguish” growing up as gay and lived with a “real fear” of how he would be treated when he came out.

Allen said there were ‘no happy stories about queer people’ when he grew up (BBC/Minnow Films/Adam Hobbs)
Allen said there were ‘no happy stories about queer people’ when he grew up (BBC/Minnow Films/Adam Hobbs)

“I wasn’t sure if I would be brave enough to do that. I couldn’t imagine a world where I would... It was wrought with unhappiness.”

In the documentary, as Allen meets queer activists behind the campaign for same-sex marriage in England and Wales, clips are shown of politicians standing up in parliament and arguing against that prospective legislation. In one particular clip that is used several times in the documentary, an MP declares that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

Allen said he found it difficult to look back at the footage.

“I found that very emotional,” he said. “The fact that even 10 years ago, politicians were standing up, and pronouncing on what they thought of this legislation; what they thought of the idea of [same-sex marriage] – it’s very, very upsetting.

“That attitude in society was quite insidious. It was very painful for a lot of people – all queer people felt the sense of difficulty. So it was very difficult to feel, never mind pride, but a sense of feeling OK. That’s how deep that exclusion was.”

Allen said his younger self never imagined that same-sex marriage would become legalised in his lifetime.

The comedian faced homophobic bullying and abuse in school, even before he had come out.

“My school was homophobic and I was beaten up at school,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t out, but someone just accused me of looking at them and it was really scary.”

Dan and Adam, the couple featured on ‘Tom Allen’s Big Gay Wedding’ (BBC/Minnow Films)
Dan and Adam, the couple featured on ‘Tom Allen’s Big Gay Wedding’ (BBC/Minnow Films)

“The idea of [same-sex marriage] was unimaginable and that sounds like I’m being grand, but really, it was because of feeling so excluded from society in our representation, in positive conversations. In my experience, there were no happy stories about queer people, really.”

Tom Allen’s Big Gay Wedding, however, is a dopamine hit of joy and silliness, led by Allen’s wry humour and chihuahua jokes.

On Adam and Dan’s wedding day, they had a 10-tiered cake and a special chair for their pug. And for their reception, they changed into bedazzled glitter jumpsuits.

“I was very keen that this wouldn’t be a po-faced, sort of earnest, documentary,” said Allen. “For me, I don’t like watching things like homework. We can talk about interesting and important things but we can do it with humour and joy. I don’t think a bit of laughter ever hurt anyone.”

Sophie Ellis-Bextor with the happy couple Dan and Adam (BBC/Minnow Films/@sideyclarkphoto / Sidey Clark Photography)
Sophie Ellis-Bextor with the happy couple Dan and Adam (BBC/Minnow Films/@sideyclarkphoto / Sidey Clark Photography)

Allen said that he hopes the documentary will celebrate the anniversary of the same-sex marriage milestone while also acknowledging that the campaign was never linear or straightforward.

“[I wanted] to show the complexity of this story and also to celebrate how it was about hope and what can be achieved if people worked together.”

“It was about activists who protested and fought for it for a long time. It was about politicians from all sides of the divide coming together to do something good. And I thought that was a very uplifting message – particularly [in] these polarised times when politics can feel cynical, tawdry, tired and exhausting.”

Big Gay Wedding with Tom Allen will air on BBC One and iPlayer at 9pm on Wednesday 27 March.