Heather Peace: The Only Gay in the City

Following the run of the UK’s first lesbian TV drama Lip Service, we chat to Heather Peace, who plays DS Sam Murray

Feature by Lizzie Cass-Maran | 16 Nov 2010

Much like the Native American in the Village People, Heather Peace is the only real-life lesbian in the cast of BBC3’s Lip Service, and seems resigned to her conclusion that this is why she’s getting the bulk of the press attention. "Put it this way," she tells me, "If Ruta [Gedmintas, who plays Frankie] was gay, I don’t think anyone would be paying me any attention at all."

In fact, Peace first auditioned for the part of Frankie (along with every tomboy actor in the country), but admits it didn’t really suit her. "I remember sitting there saying, 'Well, Sam I could do standing on my head' and as soon as it came out of my mouth I thought 'Brilliant – what if they get you to read now and you’re rubbish?'" Fortunately, writer Harriet Braun (also a Real Life Lesbian, if you’re counting) agreed she was perfect for the part.

And, beguiling as Frankie is, Peace might be doing herself a disservice: a quick Facebook poll of some Edinburgh queers shows Sam as the clear favourite – mostly because she’s dependable and one of the sanest characters on the show. Seems lesbians really do want someone they can move in with on the second date

Her status as the only lesbian wasn’t something she was aware of at all during filming. "All of the women in the show are women that love women – they’re women, whether straight or gay, who want to tell stories about women. I don’t think you have to be having sex with other women, it’s just a case of wanting to tell female stories."

Lip Service – along with probably every lesbian drama in the next fifty years – will inevitably be compared to The L Word, but Peace rejects such a comparison:

"L Word was issues-based – lesbians having babies, getting married, all those issues. This series is just trying to be a really entertaining show. It’s more like This Life than The L Word. I think what’s different about it is that it becomes for the masses, because it deals with things that everybody does, whether you’re gay or straight – friendship, love, betrayal, things that are not about being gay. I think that’s where it’s groundbreaking."

However, with a recent BBC survey finding that 18% of people are still uncomfortable with the portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual people on screen, the show, which can be very explicit, runs the risk of alienating some audiences. Peace agrees that the show is graphic (although "beautifully lit") but suggests that more people are probably uncomfortable with seeing male gayness than female. She also feels that a lot of commentators have got caught up in the shock factor of some of the sex scenes – in particular when Frankie has sex in a mortuary in the first episode. "It’s a one-time scenario." she explains. "There’s so much fixation with that, but it just shows where she’s at in her head; she’s crazily mixed up and nothing is sacred to her… It shows lives that are not actually that different from everybody else’s."

At the same time, she feels it unlikely that we’ll see a transfer to a main BBC channel after its trial on BBC3. Most of the cast and crew seem up for a second series, and the BBC is happy for the time being, too. But it does cater to a specific demographic, and she thinks it would be a very bold move to ask half the population to watch a lesbian drama. But then, the idea of a smaller audience suits Peace well – she turned down a role in Coronation Street for the part of Sam. Although some might think of this as a risky move, she tells me that, following her higher profile roles in London’s Burning and Ultimate Force, it was a very easy decision. "Everything I’ve ever done has been prime time TV. London’s Burning was massive in its day and we were front cover of every magazine and to be honest it’s not my bag being part of that. Lip Service is still a niche market, I can still go down to ASDA in my jogging bottoms and nobody knows me. Or I can choose to go to a gay bar in Brighton and everybody knows who I am – I can choose to be in it or out of it at the moment. It’s also just a very cool exciting show – I thought if this does well, and I don’t do it because I was doing Coronation St, I’ll kick myself."

In any case, Peace is in a good place to take risks – in between acting gigs, she's building a reputation for herself as a jazz singer. Her recent launch as a soloist has coincided nicely with the airing of Lip Service; the show was originally due out in March and she tells me that she wasn’t prepared then for the gigs she’s playing now. The gigs are selling out and she’s well aware that people are booking because of Lip Service, but hopes they’ll like what they see enough to come back for the music. And although she’s always had a gay following, she expects the show’s success to change the demographic of the audience a bit. Her parents are coming along to her gig in Hebden Bridge (once dubbed the "Lesbian Capital of Great Britain" by Thatcher’s former press secretary Bernard Ingham) and she’s warned them it might be a bit different to other gigs they’ve been to: "I’ve got a feeling I might get a bit of heckling. I do quite a bit of chat in between, Q&A and all of that, so I said to Mum 'Bring some ear plugs, there might be some things you don’t want to hear!'"

Talking of things you don’t want your mum to hear, some of the stories I’ve heard suggest the scene where Sam gets down and dirty with Cat in a police station is not a far cry from reality. So I can’t resist asking Peace whether she's ever been party to such stories. In response, Peace – now very much taken – only tactfully concedes that "there might have been a phase in my very early twenties."

I’m sure we can all relate to that.