Fifteen years after his seminal take on life in the Manchester gay scene, Queer as Folk, left our screens, Russell T Davis returned to Channel 4 last night with a new three-pronged project exploring the passions and pitfalls of 21st century gay life.
Davies has written all eight episodes of Cucumber (Channel 4), which tells the story of a gay man suffering a mid-life crisis just as his long-term partner decides to propose, and oversaw a team of upcoming young writers for E4’s anthology series Banana.
The interlocking shows are accompanied by 4oD’s Tofu, an online documentary series exploring modern sex in all its guises with YouTuber Benjamin Cook.
From the outset it’s clear that the five years spent tackling vengeful alien civilisations and time-travel paradoxes as Doctor Who showrunner have done nothing to dampen Davies’ relish for confronting the minutiae of real relationships, and his writing is as outrageous, revelatory and disarmingly human as ever here.
Cucumber stars a brilliantly cranky Vincent Franklin as Henry Best, a selfish, petulant 46-year-old who’s dissatisfied with the charming suburban life he’s cultivated with his long-suffering partner Lance (Cyril Nri). When Henry crudely rejects his impromptu marriage proposal, Lance decides to seek his jollies elsewhere, hooking up with a coked-up stranger he meets at a nightclub. The incident sparks a disastrous – a painfully comic – chain of events that ends with a half-naked Lance locked in the back of a police car while Henry walks barefoot through the streets of Manchester.
The fallout from the worst date night in human history thrusts Henry into an altogether different drama as he is forced to seek refuge with his 19-year-old colleague, and the angelic cafeteria worker who becomes the object of his affection, in E4’s companion series Banana.
From its familiar format of following a different character each episode to its irritatingly handsome cast of urbanised youths who live a life a drug-fuelled ecstasy and great sex in cool, spacious lofts that only exists on TV, Cucumber’s little sister shares a lot of the same DNA as Skins. Yet it also gets closer to representing the truth of what it’s like to be a young adult in the twentieth century, building a more nuanced, varied and, ultimately, more satisfying picture of modern day life than its stylistic cousin managed in seven series.
The first episode mostly concerned itself with Dean, a cheeky, fun-loving mail room assistant at Henry’s insurance firm, as he tries to find £400 to pay-off his possibly crooked landlord – when he’s not shagging the hunky fellas he finds on Grindr or showing off his “chastity belt” to all and sundry, that is. Fisayo Akinade plays Dean perfectly, underscoring his effervescent character with the naïveté and wide-eyed hopelessness of a young man thrust into the real world with no idea how to survive on his own.
The starkest and proudest difference these two shows have with Queer as Folk is that they really aren’t about homosexuality – they’re energised relationship dramas that just happen to involve gay characters. In a satisfying reflection of how gay life is now incorporated into the mainstream, Henry and Lance’s relationship is not especially different from that of any other couple and they experience the kind of problems to which almost everyone can relate.
Last night’s series opener, for example, depicted the familiar story of a relationship that has sterilised as middle age approaches. Henry and Lance may share a house together, but they live distant lives because they’ve never had sex. They pursue their own interests, lusting after younger men and passive-aggressively letting out their sexual frustration because they lack the intimacy to openly communicate.
Likewise, Dean’s story details just some of the issues affecting young adults starting out in the world. He’s broke and struggling to pay rent, working out how to balance an adventurous social life with his crappy job, and he’s still trying to cut-loose from the seemingly over-bearing eye of his protective parents.
In fact, Davies flat out refuses to make his casts’ sexuality an issue, refreshingly creating friendly, tolerant characters where other writers would try to create conflict. We see this in Henry’s neighbour, a cheerful young mother who helpfully suggests he get some thicker blinds because her daughter can see him masterbate through the window, and in the taxi despatch receptionist who is surprisingly titillated, rather than disgusted, by Henry’s graphically homoerotic fantasy involving Ryan Reynolds.
The closest we get to a suggestion of homophobia is when Dean tells the story of how his parents forcibly removed him from the family home when they discovered his sexuality; and even then it turns out to be just another of his attention-seeking fantasies – his real parents are actually gently accepting of his lifestyle and only hope that he finds a nice boy to settle down with.
All considered, the most telling statement about the status of equality raised by Cucumber and Banana is not to be found in the shows themselves but in the media speculation that surrounded them. Fifteen years on from Queer as Folk and we still consider a series that’s written by and about gay men as a rarity, and while Davies’s shows demonstrate how society has grown to accept the gay community to the point of banality, the fact that it’s still considered an original angle shows just how far television has to go before it catches up with the rest of the world. Because, as Lance so eloquently put it: “All the world’s a gay bar now, you know.”