Manchester is a city that really punches above its weight for its size. The Industrial Revolution. The women’s suffrage movement.
Plus, the birthplace of socialism. Also, the world’s first computer (for which openly-gay Alan Turing was partly responsible). And the world’s oldest and longest running television soap opera. (And a dance music history to rival Chicago or New York.)
The last two on this list we’re the main influences for my new semi-autobiographical play: The Newspaper Boy.
In 1994, aged 14, I was cast as the newspaper boy in Coronation Street and thrust well and truly into the limelight.
A lad from working class family from Manchester, I now had attention and money like I’d never known before.
And boy, did I take advantage.
I’d known I was gay since I was young. And working in television, I was introduced to an array of people who worked hard, and liked to party to let off steam too.
It was an intoxicating combination for a 14 year old: growing fame, money, new older (and very cool) mates, designer clothes… I exploded onto Manchester’s famous gay scene complete with wet look curtains and dressed head to toe in Comme De Garcon.
Mantos, Paradise Factory, Danceteria and the legendary Flesh were my regular haunts.
I’d found a place where I felt I could just be myself and dance the night away necking lads, ogle at infatuating drag queens and meet other people just like me… I was in heaven (I’m sure the drugs helped with that too).
Paul Cons had created a revolutionary gay night at the Hacienda called Flesh that only happened on a Wednesday. Despite my television career, I was still a teen and attending school which meant I could only go during school holidays – I could just about manage the come down in Maths on a Monday morning after Paradise and Breakfast Club, but not mid-week after Flesh… Flesh was on another level.
One night Flesh put a fairground directly inside the Hacienda. It totally blew my mind. The outfits (or more the lack of outfits) that the partygoers wore, the effort that people made, that’s what made it so special. People would plan what they were going to wear for Flesh weeks before… and, not surprisingly, most didn’t show up for work the day after.
People laugh when I talk about the 90’s Manchester gay scene like it was on a par with the New York disco scene and Studio 54, but I make no apologies for it. It was MY Studio 54 and it was MY awakening.
Of course it was the people that made it. The Manchester gay scene in the 90’s had a real community feel to it. Even if you didn’t speak to someone, you certainly knew them and saw them dancing in the same spot every weekend.
‘Mantos’ declared: “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re ready to party…”‘
At the time, I had no idea just how revolutionary the whole scene was. Opening in 1992, Mantos was the first gay bar with huge glass fronted windows. It was immortalised in Channel 4’s Queer As Folk.
Before this Canal Street had been made up of small, seedy bars with peep-holes on the doors. Despite homosexuality being legalised in the 1950s, arrests of gay men for ‘soliciting’ and ‘indecent behaviour’ actually increased in the decades that followed.
The HIV/AIDS crisis was looming. Thatcher’s homo-hating Section 28 legislation was in power. And a seriously homophobic press was holding court. But Mantos’ architecturally declared: ‘We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re ready to party…’.
More bars followed swiftly after, each one out-doing the next in style, design and name: Paradise Factory, Cruz 101, Essential, Queer – Manchester’s Canal Street was soon catapulted to international gay party capital status culminating in the city hosting Europride in 2003, the predecessor to Manchester Pride as we know it today.
Some may say that partying is just frivolous, hedonistic behaviour… That gay men (and our lesbian, bi-sexual and trans friends) just don’t want to grow up and face the real world.
But for me, partying with pride is a defiantly political act.
In the 1990s, and to a certain extent the early 2000’s, homophobic attitudes still prevailed. And in a way that thankfully they don’t today. Dancing to the music we loved, parading through the street, simply being visible and unapologetically queer helped in the fight to change that.
‘The street itself, whilst still busy at weekends, is struggling’
Many would now say the Canal Street bubble has well and truly burst. As societal attitudes have improved, LGBTI revellers have branched out. We now feel more welcome in venues across the city.
The street itself, whilst still busy at weekends, is struggling. Bars open and close in the space of a few months and attempts to lure party-goers back. Cheap drinks offers somehow cheapen the whole experience of visiting.
Sometimes I feel sad for the end of an era. But times move on. And it’s great that young LGBTI people are finding their place in the world. And in their own way, just like I did.
But capturing that nostalgia, those memories, that history, is hugely important. What we experience today, will be tomorrow’s history. That’s what drove me to writing The Newspaper Boy.
The play is semi-autobiographical. Most of the people in it are based on real people I once knew. The story follows a similar pattern to mine. A young man who finds fame and fortune on a fictional version of of Manchester’s famous TV cobbled streets, only to lose it on the other.
The story follows a 15 year old Christian Dibmore. he bags the part of the new paper boy in fictional northern soap opera Mancroft Walk. It’s set in 1992, a time when the age of consent for gay men was still 21.
When Christian become friends with his on-screen girlfriend, Mandy, who has played the ‘adorable’ Rosie Chadwick in Mancroft Walk since she was 10 days old, his eyes are opened to a whole new world. Mandy (Manchester’s answer to Drew Barrymore) introduces him to designer clothes, the gay scene, drugs… and her gay half brother, Max.
‘The tabloid press get hold of the gay underage sex scandal of the decade’
Christian and Max start a secret affair. But when the tabloid press get hold of the gay underage sex scandal of the decade, Christian finds himself in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
Putting on the play has been may way of celebrating a small part in Manchester’s immense queer history. I was never outed by the press like Christian is in the play. But I did find myself, aged 15, plastered across the front of the red tops after being caught with a (very small) amount of cannabis.
We’re also really excited to be hosting a rave after one of the shows. Hacienda regular DJ Dave Kendrick and Guy Williams will be spinning Flesh and Paradise club classics.
It’s a chance for those nostalgic for that incredible part of Manchester’s recent cultural history to reminisce one more time.
I for one will be reliving my youth… see you on the dance floor.
Words: Chris Hoyle (additional words by Nathaniel Hall)
Chris Hoyle is a playwright from Manchester and is Artistic Director of Dibby Theatre.
The Newspaper Boy is on from 13-24 February, 7:30pm (including matinees) at 53Two, Albion Street, Manchester. Tickets are priced £11 ($15.47, €12.39) and can be bought from fatsoma.com/thenewspaperboy.