Torchwood at TCA: Barrowman Charms


Yesterday’s Torchwood/BBC America panel was only slightly less rambunctious than the Jekyll session when writer-creator Steven Moffat cheerfully slagged NBC over the American version of Coupling. John Barrowman, the Torchwood lead, seemed to relax as the panel progressed.

A spin-off of the enormously popular British Dr. Who series, Torchwood is part sci fi, part crime thriller.  The earth-based series follows the exploits of a Cardiff, Wales crime fighting unit that battles sewer-dwelling aliens. Barrowman plays Captain Jack Harkness, a cheeky character on Who that takes a serious turn on Torchwood.

“In Torchwood, Jack is the leader,” Barrowman pointed out, “Everyone follows him, so it’s played very differently that way. It’s a little darker. He doesn’t want everybody to know — like how much do you really know about your own bosses? Do you know what I mean. It’s that kind of attitude that he has, and he wants to keep things a little aloof with the team.”

Barrowman further explained, “Jack resolves some things with himself and become more like the series one Jack in Doctor Who.”

The question of Jack’s bi or pan-sexuality was barely broached, mostly because it’s probably not an issue with most American critics and/or they haven’t screened enough of the series yet.  (BBC America only distributed the pilot.)  One critic did gently point out the “omni-sexual” nature of the Torchwood team.

Executive producer Julie Gardner and BBC prez Garth Ancier said they had toned down nothing on Torchwood in order to appeal to red-state American audiences. “They are really young, sexy, fun, clever team who every single week risk their lives trying to save the world,” asserted executive producer Gardner. “It’s a pressure cooker environment. I remember Russell [T. Davies, producer/writer/creator:Dr. Who re-make, Torchwood, Queer as Folk] and I talking about, in that world you want to fancy your colleagues, you know, you want to go to work, and you’re going to spend 24-hours a day there. Let’s just have sexual tension as you save the world.”

Barrowman smiled. "Yep, It will be interesting to see how the American audiences react to it, because it’s pretty out there, so to speak.”

However, it must be pointed out that a bi-sexual lead character in a dramatic series is probably a first in the U.S. There have been plenty of gay characters on television but few to none of them have held the lead in a mainstream scripted drama.  (I can’t think of any, other than Queer As Folk - which was more of a gay soap opera.)

It’s no secret that women love gay characters. 50% of Queer as Folk viewers were women, many hailing from the midwest and other supposedly more conservative areas. Barrowman has a certain charm that transcends gender and could attract a broad audience. And, in fact, at the BBC America party hosted by Ancier at his Beverly Hills home, several fan girls of obscure press credentials, orbited Barrowman as he stood by the upper deck pool. (Unfortunately, conversations were limited by BBC’s unwise choice of excessively loud, live jazz music - a less than ideal environment for taping interviews.)

During the panel Barrowman kept up the entertaining pace set by Jekyll’s Steven Moffat. When one journalist offered Barrowman an opportunity to “dig himself out of a hole” after the actor rambled a bit about the quality of American vs. British television fare, the very openly gay Barrowman instantly quipped: “Oh, no! I quite like being in holes.”

The audience cracked up. Gardner groaned, “oh, my god.”

Barrowman beamed. “There’s a little bit of Captain Jack in me.”

Someone asked Barrowman to describe his favorite Aaron Spelling anecdote from his days on Titans. Barrowman spilled about a lunch in Spelling’s office, dropping his voice to a gravelly level in what he called a “very bad” imitation of Spelling.  “‘John, I want to introduce you to someone. She’s going to come in today.’ and I happened to be on the phone with my mother,” said Barrowman, “and these doors swung open [to reveal] Victoria Principal. I went, ‘Mother for f*ck sake! Pamela Ewing is my Mom!’ and we hit it off. It was really good.”

UPDATE: A snippet from Seattle P.I. Melanie McFarland’s very interesting chat with Barrowman

Melanie:  "Right. Well, given what you know about Hollywood versus British television, do you think a character like Captain Jack would ever fly here?"

Barrowman:  "No, because they would never allow a gay man to play a hero. I firmly believe that. Because no actor who is playing a leading man would come out as saying he’s gay. It’s OK to be a secondary character in a show and be openly gay and play a character, but most gay, flouncy characters are played by gay men. One of the great things that (executive producers) Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner and the BBC and everyone involved with "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood," they have given a heroic leading man character to a gay man.

Who, I might add, is appealing not just to a gay audience, but to children, to women, to straight men — they have proved that the audience doesn’t care. Maybe it’s the people who are the heads of networks here — who, most of them are gay or lesbian themselves — maybe, again, they’re underestimating the intelligence of the audience."