Will Young hasn’t been to a sexual health clinic before so our hosts at Manchester’s LGBT Foundation, a community charity near the city’s gay village, are keen to impress upon him that sandwiches and cakes do not come as standard for its service users. “They’re posh ones from the deli – not the Greggs stuff we usually lay on for visitors,” remarks Peter Brampton, a sparky sexual health project leader.
Young and his film director friend Chris Sweeney are here as part of their tour of the north of England for the second season of their rose-tinted yet highly successful podcast Homo Sapiens. The first series heard the pair chatting to LGBTQ+ luminaries, such as the trans actor Rebecca Root, actor Bisi Alimi (who caused fury in his native Nigeria by coming out on television) and human rights activist Peter Tatchell. A visit to his tiny London flat was poignant, with Young somehow managing to convey the depths of Tatchell’s personal sacrifice with fretful asides about the dusty clutter.
The format for the podcast – interviews and current affairs through a queer filter and inspired by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour – was conceived early last year, while Young was at a residential treatment centre for the post-traumatic stress disorder that caused him to drop out of Strictly Come Dancing in 2016. Mobile phones were not permitted but Young smuggled one in. “I was at boarding school,” he says, “I’m good with contraband.” Sweeney snorts. “I’ll say! You can get four iPhone 6s up there if you’re careful.” Young and Sweeney have been friends since Sweeney made a video for Young. It’s the one, says Sweeney, in which “Will takes a shit dog to Crufts”.
Now Young and Sweeney are on the road to craft a less London-centric second series. Earlier this week heavy snowfall scuppered a trip to the Central, a remote gay bar said to be changing rural attitudes in Northern Ireland.
Their Manchester story, posh cakes aside, is a political one about the HIV prevention drug PrEP. Though it’s featured on the World Health Organisation list of essential medicines for preventing the spread of HIV among groups, including men who have sex with men and sex workers, there has been debate about providing it on the NHS. Last year, NHS England agreed to make PrEP available via a selective three-year trial that’s currently rolling out across clinics in England and Wales. Brampton says the delay has allowed PrEP to be stigmatised by the right-wing media as a “lifestyle drug” (Mail Online has referred to it as the “promiscuity pill”).
The Foundation’s awareness campaigns around PrEP are characteristically sex-positive, and Brampton’s conversation with Young and Sweeney covers “sex on premises” venues and the practice of power-bottoming. Somehow, Young’s and Sweeney’s bouncy curiosity makes such material sound as benign as Bake Off without trivialising it. “The most important thing we’ve learned is just to let people talk,” Sweeney tells me later, “to be a human tape recorder.”
For another interview they meet Roger, a gay man in his 60s who got caught up in Manchester’s chemsex scene after injecting the drug mephedrone at a party in 2012. By March last year he was suicidal – addicted to an array of substances and dependent on weekend-long sex parties, which he describes in nightmarish detail. He says the funerals he’s attended in their fallout have brought back memories of the 1980s and the Aids crisis. Now he’s clean, he’d like to see gay hook-up apps, the means by which practically all chemsex parties are organised, take responsibility for their role in what he calls “the next big health crisis to hit gay men”.
Young clearly doesn’t know where to look when Roger reads out the lyrics to a song that resonated with him when he was at his lowest ebb. It’s I Just Want a Lover, a track from Young’s 2011 album Echoes, and a haunted hymn to anonymous sex as an emotional defence mechanism. I wonder if there’s something peculiarly intimate about podcasting that means it’s a relatively safe space for interviewees to ruminate on ideas that might be sensationalised elsewhere. “It’s a two-way street,” says Young, who has found discussing his own mental health issues on Homo Sapiens to be a form of therapy. “I’ve never spoken so freely, because I know that it’s not going to be presented out of context or modified – apart from Chris interrupting me, of course.”
The next destination is a remote cottage on farmland outside Keighley, West Yorkshire. As we ascend the winding moorland road in a relentless blizzard, Young demonstrates why his turn on Top Gear’s Star in a Reasonably Priced Car challenge was one of the best ever for wet weather conditions. Sweeney, who’s on satnav duty, offers encouragement and refers to Young as “sister”. The interviewee is Francis Lee, a director whose first film, God’s Own Country, has been nominated for a Best British Film Bafta for its nuanced portrayal of same-sex love in the kind of rural, working-class milieu that’s rarely given an outing on screen.
As soon as we cross the threshold, Young realises he’s met Lee before, when Lee was working as a sales consultant at an architectural salvage yard in central London. “Oh my God, yes!” says Young. “I bought that white skirt from you, the one from the Royal Opera House’s wardrobe department!”
Lee’s life here, from the twined heather that hangs from the beams down to the frayed ends of his whitening beard, appears to have been drawn by Raymond Briggs. He describes making God’s Own Country, with its nuanced depiction of the relationship between an emotionally brutalised farmer and a soulful Romanian migrant, as a riposte to the heavy-handed conventions of issue-based writing. “There’s no agenda,” he says. “The film is about how vulnerable anyone, regardless of their sexuality, has to be in order to fall in love.” After serving us a hearty chilli and potato dinner, Lee reveals that he’s working on a new film: “I know what my characters want to achieve and I know what’s stopping them from achieving it,” he says. Any more details, though, and I’d have to kill you.
I grew up down the road from Keighley, so when the final of Pop Idol aired in February 2002 I should have been rooting for my fellow Bradfordian Gareth Gates, but there was something about Young, a bolshy politics graduate from Berkshire, that appealed. Some 4.6 million voters felt the same way. His subsequent decision to come out at the very start of his career prompted the only conversation I ever had with my late grandfather, a retired textile-mill engineer, on the subject of homosexuality. “He’s a poof, you know, and he’s not ashamed,” my grandfather observed as Young’s face appeared on his television. I said nothing, keen not to rock the boat. My grandfather died in 2010, and sometimes I regret not having been more open with him.
So-called gay shame is a recurring theme on Homo Sapiens. During the early stages of his pop career, Young was taught by his handlers to steer interviews away from “the gay thing”. In doing so, he says he feels he was complicit in presenting himself as sexually unthreatening and therefore acceptable. “If a straight, cisgender artist appears topless in a video, he’s called beefy and strong and hot,” he says. “When I take my shirt off, it’s laughably camp.”
Sweeney married his partner William, a lawyer, a couple of years ago, but was plagued with anxiety in the run-up to the wedding at the thought of kissing a man in front of his friends and family. “Obviously in 2017 I don’t think anything bad would happen if I were to walk down the street holding hands with William, but that isn’t really your point of reference. Your point of reference is what you saw when you were six, and it stays with you.”
We start the next day in the blisteringly picturesque mill town of Hebden Bridge, the unofficial lesbian capital of rural England (and the setting for gritty drama Happy Valley). Lou Millichamp brings us up to speed at Nelsons, the gay bar and vegan restaurant she’s run for 22 years.
Millichamp estimates that when she moved here from Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp she was one of around six lesbians in town. Hippies loved Hebden for its laid-back vibe and low house prices, but Millichamp encountered “quite a lot of homophobic shit on the street” in those early days, including a distinctly Yorkshire form of gay bashing. “People would throw pork pies at me or shout ‘lesbian’,” she recalls.
At Tan My Hide, a workshop in Hebble End Mill, traditional leatherworking is put to novel uses. Three weeks ago, craftswoman Rowan Sharp handed over a pair of lambskin underpants to a local client. The bespoke design featured unorthodox ventilation. “I did have a little look, but without his todger sticking out, and they looked great,” says Sharp. She moved from London, because she was frequently harassed in the street. Open-minded Hebden, she says, has given her the confidence to be “as gay as I want to be”.
The whole time her dog, Pom-Pom, is nuzzling the collar of Young’s parka jacket. There’s much talk of dog-whistle politics these days, but Young and Sweeney must be in possession of actual dog whistles. Everywhere they go, mutts flock to them. Their recordings throng with barks and the happy jangle of collars.
To be fair, humans seem to like them, too. Young thinks that winning Pop Idol caused a large portion of the British public to regard him as they would “their jolly postman. Or, if they voted, that they’ve got an investment in me.” Sweeney considers Young’s familiarity to be the podcast’s secret weapon. “What we’re doing involves trust, so if people feel they know Will already, it makes everything happen much quicker.”
I wonder whether people aren’t sometimes a little too comfortable in Young’s presence. The man who organises Happy Valley Pride, Hebden’s annual cultural festival, confides in an interview that he’d hate for his event to be overrun with X Factor types. It could be worse, Young tells me afterwards. He’s often mistaken for Olly Murs.