Cucumber **** Banana ***** Tofu ***
Eight weeks on and the much-anticipated trio of programmes Cucumber, Banana and Tofu by Queer As Folk writer Russell T. Davies have now drawn to a close. Though their mere existence is clearly not as groundbreaking as QAF's was, the shows managed to gather momentum after their shaky start to portray and expose elements of the LGBT Community that had never been seen before on British TV. That there were still 'Firsts' to be portrayed in this field is surprising enough, but as Cucumber and Banana wove their web of characters, they effortlessly included the first transsexual character on TV to be played by an actually transsexual actor, as well as sending shockwaves through its whole audience with a storyline about gay panic that was as gripping as it was abhorrent. So were the three programmes all they had promised to be? Well, yes and no, though the no is more complex than you'd think. (AND BEWARE, THERE ARE DEFINITE SPOILERS AHEAD)
Cucumber, its central C4 show, focused around a handful of middle-aged gay men whose lives catapult from suburban normality into liberal Bohemian chaos. Its central characters, Henry and Lance (played by Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri), are a couple who split because the former refuses to engage in penetrative sex. After a farcical caper involving a botched three-some and the police, they go their separate ways - Lance to pursue his hunky - and supposedly "straight" - colleague Daniel (James Murray) and Henry to lust after free-spirited 24 year old Freddie (Freddie Fox), after moving into his loft apartment-cum-quasi squat, which he co-habits with the ditzy Dean (Fisayo Akinade). But as Henry's sister (Julie Hesmondhalgh) talks him through his mid-life crisis back to the man he loves, Lance's liaison takes and sinister and brutal turn. Many people switched off after the first episode of the flagship show of the trio. Davies' comedic tone and brutal honesty about the stereotypical promiscuity of gay men led to many in the LGBT Community feeling misrepresented, with the emphasis on sex over sexual orientation. There's no doubt that Henry was a frustrating character, whose flighty but half-lived sexual urges dominated everything he did, but this characterisation is what drove the show. Henry was always meant to be a flawed - and sometimes deplorable - character, whose actions turn the lives of those he loves upside down. However, explore beyond his gaze and Manchester's Gay Community is depicted here with rich diversity, celebrative honesty and a life that extends far beyond the limits of Canal Street. Of course the now notorious street had its moments to scene-steal (it would be hard to forget Denise Black's cameo return as Hazel from QAF), but as the drama unfolded on the streets of the Northern Quarter, Didsbury and Castlefield, it depicted a community assimilated, accepted and proudly diverse. Henry was never meant to represent the entire LGBT Community - but unfortunately I think a lot of people expected him to, and were widely disappointed by this damaged and awkward man.
At times, Cucumber was crass and bawdy, but at others it was as moving and tense as the finest imports from the US. Though strikingly British in tone, it took itself seriously as appointment-to-view television and subsequently delivered on its promise. In the sixth episode, in which Lance's dalliance with Daniel came to a brutal end, as much care was taken in our emotional connection to Lance - showing the key moments of his life to that point over the entire episode beforehand - as there was in the tension of his final scenes. And as Lance sat with blood pouring from his head, who wasn't in tears as the life we had just witnessed flashed before his eyes? As we watched him die, from both inside and outside his head, we saw exactly what homophobia could lead to. Because though Daniel wasn't outwardly homophobic, his inward homophobia, sculpted from his childhood and past, meant that he hated his own sexuality so much that he couldn't control his own rage and self-loathing. This complex a reaction to sexuality has never been seen, or explored, on British television before. Because some people never do come to terms with their sexuality. And it can have diabolical consequences. In the final words of the final episode, Henry finally admitted to Freddie that despite coming out decades before and having multiple long-term relationships with men, he had never fully come to terms with his sexuality. Through eight episodes we had witnessed Henry's undecipherable actions, seesawing between lust and neurosis like a schizophrenic housewife, but in that moment it finally became clear that Cucumber had never been a drama celebrating the glories of sexuality, but instead an examination of the problems it can cause, even now in a post-marriage equality Britain. Because the histories LGBT people carry with them go far beyond the here and now, with wounds that go back to much harder times. As such, Cucumber went far beyond QAF, examining the very nature of our relationship to sexuality. Appropriately, Tofu talked us through the normalities and oddities of scores of people, from all backgrounds, ages and sexualities. Focused on displaying sex in all its glory, we heard stories and anecdotes, boasting, admissions of embarrassment and the most intimate of secrets. For a while I wondered why this 4OD companion show existed, when the show itself wasn't explicitly about sex, but once it became clear that the nature of these programmes was to show how sexuality interplays with the rest of life, its intention became finally clear.
And against the backdrop of both of these, Banana emerged as the strongest of the three shows. A companion to Cucumber,fleshing out the lives of a handful of its minor characters, it expanded like a mind-map, taking the story and running away with them elsewhere, until the characters were woven back into Cucumber again. This narrative device was strikingly effective, with the world of the shows growing by the week, where Henry and Lance were just two random people in a cast of thousands. Just like life. Just like Manchester's actual Gay Community. While some episodes' link to the mother show was obvious (Dean's story gave us the initial and strongest link), others' only became evident far later (the story of the police officer who attended Lance's murder only emerged toward the end of the episode), giving us a tangential but rich tapestry of lives that scrape against others, populating these lives with acquaintances, strangers and people they will never actually meet. In the final episodes of Cucumber, the casts of Banana had fleeting moments returning to the frame, some of whom Henry knew, some of whom he didn't. And while the show's soap opera sexploits alienated some with its frequent pandering to cringeworthy stereotypes, its absolute triumph was the diversity and fullness it created over eight short weeks. I nearly didn't persevere after its first two (I found Henry's dogged pursuit of Freddie often uncomfortable viewing), but I'm certainly glad I did now. Because Cucumber wasn't there to represent the whole LGBT community - that was Banana's function - and with the two running side by side, they resplendently brought to life the community in which I live, while examining the bare fabric of sexuality.
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