Cucumber, a spiritual sequel to Russell T. Davies’s seminal 90s comedy-drama Queer as Folk, explodes onto the screen in a flurry of vivid colours. This is the way to celebrate a subculture on television – loudly and proudly, with bold visuals, frenetic editing and a thumping soundtrack. It is so exuberant and unapologetically in-your-face that it instantly makes most contemporary films and TV shows about gay characters seem quaint, insipid and mealy-mouthed by comparison (Matthew Warchus’s critically-acclaimed Pride looks particularly tame next to Cucumber). Welcome back Russell, adult British drama has sorely missed you.
One of a trio of interconnected series focusing on sex and love in 21st Century Britain (with E4’s spin-off anthology drama Banana and web documentary Tofu), Cucumber follows 40-something frump Henry (Vincent Franklin) as he navigates his way through a mid-life crisis and sexual reawakening following the breakdown of his long-term relationship. As Henry leaves the safety and comfort of his domestic “fortress” and begins to take risks, he rediscovers his joie de vivre with hilarious and heart-warming consequences.
So far, so American Beauty. What differentiates Cucumber from other coming-of-middle-age stories though is not only its focus on gay characters, but a mischievous sense of humour and a willingness to laugh at itself while exploring serious issues. For example, Henry’s isolation within the gay community is illustrated by having his junior colleague Dean (Fisayo Akinade) inform him that “No-one says ‘hashtag’ out loud anymore, it’s a bit BBC3”, and the validity of gay marriage, a bone of contention in Henry’s relationship, is questioned with the line “We don’t need to get married…we’ll lose weight, we’ll both be sexy and we’ll be fine”. As a result, material that could feel po-faced and pretentious in the hands of a lesser writer instead feels fresh, relevant and, above all, hugely entertaining.
Davies is a master at constructing scenes which hide great emotional complexity behind a veneer of cartoonish farce, vulgar jokes and full-frontal nudity. Halfway through the pilot episode, Henry makes a lengthy speech about Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds that is simultaneously a statement-of-intent for the show, a defiant two-fingered gesture to homophobes everywhere, and a revealing insight into the character’s emotional life (and the lack of excitement, passion and sexual fulfilment in his relationship). That Davies manages to accomplish all of this with one of the silliest and most foul-mouthed monologues ever broadcast is extremely impressive and only adds to Cucumber’s camp charm.
Leading a talented cast, Vincent Franklin excels as Henry, playing him as part David Brent, part Freddie Mercury. He’s ridiculous, infuriating and loveable in equal measure and, if Cucumber were less explicit, one could easily see him becoming an iconic British character in the mould of Basil Fawlty or Del Boy. Cyril Nri brings great warmth and humanity to the role of Henry’s loving but frustrated boyfriend Lance, while Con O’Neill adds sardonic grit as Henry’s drunken best friend Cliff. Other notable supporting characters, including Henry’s co-worker Dean, carry over into E4 spin-off Banana.
Perhaps inspired by the success of his Doctor Who franchises Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, Russell T. Davies has created Banana as an anthology-style companion series to Cucumber which fleshes out minor characters from its parent show and tells self-contained short stories. If the episodes of Cucumber form a visual novel, then the episodes of Banana are its colourful, hyperactive appendices.
Banana shares so many similarities with Cucumber, including its cast and writer, that it’s initially hard to view as a separate series in its own right. However, there are definite differences: it’s shorter (each episode clocks in at roughly half the length of a Cucumber episode), faster-paced, and focuses more directly on issues affecting “the Grindr generation”.
The first episode centres on Dean as he engages in a series of casual hook-ups organised through social media, battles premature ejaculation, and tries to survive in Manchester on a shoestring budget. In a funny reversal of cliché, Dean’s real struggle is not to be accepted, but to be an outsider. His parents are so tolerant that they annoy him and his efforts to define himself as someone who has overcome adversity are mocked by his friends, who see him as a fantasist trying to be interesting. He has difficulty connecting with others not because he is gay, but because he is human. It’s clever stuff, again showcasing Davies’ ability to delve beneath the surface of stereotypes to reveal deeper, hidden truths.
Much has changed for gay people since Queer as Folk first aired in 1999 and Britain has become a far more inclusive society. It is therefore unsurprising that Cucumber and Banana lack the anger and aggressive polemic of that show. However, what Davies’ new series may lack in edge, they more than make up for with style, wit and sense of fun. Being gay hasn’t looked this cool since Vince and Stuart rode off into the sunset fifteen years ago.
Cucumber begins on Thursday 22nd January at 9pm on Channel 4. Banana begins on Thursday 22nd January at 10pm on E4.