To coincide with both LGBT History Month and Valentine's Day our latest blog comes from stipend holder Dr Chris O'Rourke, Senior Lecturer in Film and TV History at the University of Lincoln. Chris has explored our collection of fan magazines as a source of queer interactions and as a site of romance, beginning with a court case involving mass circulation fan magazine Picture Show in its issue on Valentine's Day 1953.... 

My trip to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum was prompted by a story that appeared in the British newspapers in 1953. In July of that year, three men were brought before the magistrate in Ulverston, a small town in Cumbria, northwest England. One of the men, 19-year-old Graham, was a local unemployed youth, but the other two (slightly older) men had made long journeys to get there, travelling from Surrey and London, where they worked as a salesman and a shorthand typist, respectively. All three were charged with sending obscene letters through the post. Although the letters weren’t read out in court, their content apparently hinted at sexual desire and possible sexual liaisons between the men. At a time when ‘gross indecency’ between men was punishable by a prison sentence, this made the letters dangerous documents in the eyes of the law. After pleading guilty to the charges, Graham was ordered to see a psychiatrist, while the other two defendants were given heavy fines.[1]

What caught my eye about the story was how the three men first made contact. According to the news reports, Graham initiated the correspondence when he placed an advertisement in the weekly film magazine Picture Show. Newspapers reporting on the case were keen to point out that this was a ‘misuse’ of an otherwise ‘perfectly respectable periodical’.[2] But, despite such protestations that there was nothing scandalous about the magazine itself, I wanted to know more about Picture Show’s relationship with its queer readers. Was Graham’s case a one-off, or did the magazine have a longer history as a virtual meeting place for queer men? More generally, I wanted to know what else could be learned about popular film culture in the UK in this period by looking at British fan magazines from a queer perspective.


Graham's personal ad in the 14th February issue of Picture Show

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum holds an extensive collection of British popular film periodicals. Picture Show (1919-1960) was one of the longest-running titles of its kind in the UK, with its relatively cheap price (initially 2 pence per issue) making it appealing to working-class and lower-middle-class film fans around the country. Like other early film magazines, it primarily targeted a female readership (its long-serving editor, Maud Hughes, had previously worked at Woman’s Weekly), yet it was clearly read by men and women from a variety of backgrounds.[3] By the mid-1930s, it had a circulation figure of about 60,000, quite a bit lower than its glossier rival Picturegoer (1913-1960), which enjoyed a figure almost twice that (over 111,000), although it may have significantly increased its readership when it merged with another cheap-and-cheerful title, Film Pictorial, at the end of the decade.[4]

The personal ad that caused Graham and the other two men such trouble appeared in the Picture Show’s ‘Star Fan Club’ columns. This feature began in 1938, apparently in response to popular demand. It was intended as a way to let readers swap autographs and publicity photos of their favourite film stars, and ‘to make friends […] of those who have the same film taste’.[5] To join the club, all readers needed to do was collect tokens from the magazine (giving their spare copy to a friend), then send in their letters.


Cultivating an active interest in film stars and letting readers feel like they were part of an imaginary community of fans were central aims of all popular film magazines. But no other British title seems to have given as much space to readers’ personal ads as Picture Show did. The ‘Star Fan Club’ section appeared regularly from April 1938 until the magazine ceased publication in 1960. Over that time, readers wrote in not just from all parts of the UK but from around the world. At first, most of the ads were from young women. By the late 1940s, though, there were ads from male and female readers across Europe, as well as from places as diverse as Nigeria, Iraq, Malaya, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Canada, Australia, Singapore, India and Hong Kong. Clearly, the magazine travelled along some of the pathways of the disintegrating British empire, and members of the armed services stationed overseas were well represented in the ‘Star Fan Club’ pages. The magazine’s international readership raises interesting questions, such as how do we define British ‘national’ film culture in these years?

But how did readers like Graham use (or ‘misuse’) the ‘Star Fan Club’ as a way of starting flirtations with other men? Historians have noted that personal ads in newspapers and magazines actually have a long history of appealing to people who might not otherwise be able to meet easily or safely in person, including women looking for casual relationships and men attracted to other men.[6] We know about this history because responding to classified ads got other people in trouble with the law as well. A case from the 1920s involving the lonely-hearts magazine The Link saw three men sent to prison after their love letters were intercepted by the police.[7] Queer readers of Picture Show also seem to have had brushes with the authorities before Graham. The actor Alec Bregonzi, known for his radio and television work with Tony Hancock in the 1950s, recalled answering coded personal ads in the magazine as a teenager in the 1940s. One day, he later told interviewers, his parents got a visit from a police detective, who was gathering evidence against one of Bregonzi’s pen pals (an RAF officer in East Anglia), although whether this case made it into the courts is unclear.[8]

The ‘coded’ way that queer men found to communicate with each other via Picture Show also remains necessarily ambiguous. Bregonzi suggests that declaring an interest in certain stars was one way to signal your sexual orientation to other readers. But which stars? Bregonzi mentions Farley Granger and Montgomery Clift - actors who were later known to have been in romantic relationships with men as well as women - but this might be hindsight talking. Reports of the Ulverston trial in 1953 suggest a more gradual series of exchanges. One common way to test the water with new pen friends was apparently to ask whether or not they were ‘broad minded’. Depending on the answer, the correspondence either stopped there, or continued along more explicitly romantic or sexual lines. Graham received 141 replies to his initial ad. It was only when one of his more openly worded responses was delivered to the wrong address that the police became involved.

Looking at the ‘Star Fan Club’ columns in Picture Show, I sometimes started to feel uncomfortably like one of those police detectives trying to catch potentially queer readers. Yet, reading between the lines, some ads do seem more obviously queer-coded than others. For instance, there’s the man from London looking for male pen-friends only (aged 20-35), whose interests included ‘films, physical culture, photography’ and the heart-throb Fernando Lamas. Or there’s the reader from Norwich also looking exclusively for a male pen-friend (16-25), who listed his interests as body-building and naturism.[9] But, without knowing about the subsequent court case, it would be easy to overlook Graham’s own ad, printed in a February 1953 issue (on Valentine’s Day), which asks for male pen friends anywhere, and gives his interests as ‘reading, theatre, stage’ and ‘tap dancing’.[10]

What about the rest of Picture Show and its appeal to queer readers? We know that at least one other British film magazine in this period, the monthly publication Films and Filming (1954-1990), went out of its way to court a queer male readership.[11] By the end of the 1950s, it was regularly printing adverts for the men’s clothing shop Vince’s in Soho, run by a former ‘physique’ photographer and catering to a queer clientele, which often featured suggestive photos of men sunbathing in swimwear. Its personal ads, too, could also be heavily queer-coded, as in the ‘athletic, unattached’, 44-year-old man, seeking ‘male friends’ in London, whose interests included body-building and physique photography.[12] Occasionally, star portraits - of James Dean, for instance, or a topless Alain Delon - along with articles decrying the censorship of homosexual themes, also suggested a knowing appeal to queer men as film fans and consumers.[13]


A typical cover image from Films and Filming

From the material I’ve looked at so far, there is nothing quite so queer as any of this in the content of Picture Show, even if later readers have since found homoerotic meanings in some of the star portraits.[14] What’s striking about the magazine, though, is its consistent interest in romance. As with other fan magazines, editorials and special features regularly updated readers on relationships between film actors, with headings like ‘Romances in Filmland’ or ‘How the Stars Met Real Romance’. But, whereas the front covers of Picturegoer in the 1940s and 1950s were usually glamorous publicity shots of individual stars, Picture Show during the same period almost always had a star couple on its cover. And while Picturegoer’s imagery became increasingly sexualised, including ‘cheesecake’ and ‘beefcake’ pin-up photos of the latest Hollywood or British screen sensations, Picture Show’s imagery remained notably restrained. At a time when some celebrity magazines on the other side of the Atlantic were becoming more daring and sensationalist in the way they reported on film stars’ private lives, the overall impression of the movies in Picture Show is altogether more wholesome.


I still have a lot more material from my visit to the museum to examine. It may be that the men who made queer uses out of the Picture Show were doing just that: ‘queering’ a publication that tended to see popular film culture largely as the story of the ups and downs of heterosexual romance, on and off the screen. But, within the columns of the ‘Star Fan Club’, at least, the magazine provided film fans with a way of making contact and potentially embarking on queer romances of their own.


[1] ‘Dalton Youth and Obscene Letters’, Ulverston News and Ulverston Guardian, 25 July 1953, p. 8.

[2] ‘He Wrote the Wrong Address…’, News of the World, 26 July 1953, p. 5.

[3] For women and fan magazines, see Lisa Stead, ‘Silent Era Fan Magazines and British Cinema Culture: Mediating Women’s Cinemagoing and Storytelling’, in Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal and Monica Dall’Asta (eds), Women Film Pioneers Project (New York: Columbia University Libraries, 2017):

[4] The Readership of Newspapers and Periodicals 1936 (London: Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, 1936), pp. 272-3. Picture Show and Film Pictorial merged in October 1939. See also Mark Glancy, ‘Picturegoer: The Fan Magazine and Popular Film Culture in Britain During the Second World War’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 31:4 (2011), 453-78.

[5] Picture Show, 30 April 1938, p. 26.

[6] H.G. Cocks, Classified: The Secret History of the Personal Column (London: Random House, 2009).

[7] Cocks, Classified, ch. 1. See also his article, ‘“Sporty” Girls and “Artistic” Boys: Friendship, Illicit Sex, and the British “Companionship” Advertisement, 1913-1928’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 11:3 (2002), 457-82. Some of the letters between the three men are preserved in a police file held in the UK National Archives (MEPO 3/283, ‘“The Link” - publication; conspiracy to corrupt public morals - reports and correspondence’, 1920-22).

[8] David MacGillivray, ‘Obituary: Alec Bregonzi’, Guardian, 6 June 2006: See also Cocks, Classified, p. 131.

[9] Picture Show, 5 March 1955, p. 10, and 21 January 1956, p. 13.

[10] Picture Show, 14 Feb 1953, p. 10.

[11] Richard Dyer calls it a ‘closeted gay magazine’: Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, second edition (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 144.

[12] Films and Filming, 5:4 (January 1959), 26.

[13] Justin Bengry, ‘Films and Filming: The Making of a Queer Marketplace in Pre-Decriminalisation Britain’, in Brian Lewis (ed.), British Queer History: New Approaches and Perspectives (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 244-66.

[14] Patrick Higgins, Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain (London: Fourth Estate, 1996), p. 188.

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