With the recent release of It’s a Sin (2021) and the massive amounts of thoroughly deserved praise it’s receiving, another Russell T Davies show has been on my mind.
Cucumber (2015), released alongside companion shows Banana and Tofu, was Davies’ first show for Channel 4 since the seminal Queer as Folk (1999). Putting middle-aged gay men centre stage, it follows Vincent Franklin’s Henry Best as his life falls apart after he refuses to marry his boyfriend of nine years, Cyril Nri’s Lance Sullivan. All the grudges from over years come bursting out and, after an eventful night, Henry ends up moving into a flat with the beautiful Freddie Baxter, played by Freddie Fox, in some desperate hope that he’ll sleep with him. The following episodes see Henry and Lance navigate the aftermath with Henry chasing Freddie while Lance grows close to an unstable man from work, James Murray’s Daniel.
So, Cucumber is one of my favourite TV series ever and I watch it at least once a year although usually find myself watching it more. I just think it’s genius – every watch I notice more. The storylines are weaved together so expertly and the characters are brilliant. However, this hasn’t exactly been the universal response to the show.
That’s not to say that it received mass negative reception – it was praised by most critics – but I recall the response to the series from the general viewer being a little lukewarm. It deserved more. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion and perhaps I’m the one in the wrong here (unlikely) but I know that Cucumber deserved critical acclaim and frenzied applaud.
Firstly, it’s genius – did I mention that already? Secondly, it’s hilarious and still after so many re-watches I find myself laughing out loud. Con O’Neill’s Cliff is especially delightfully comical, exclaiming at one point that he’s disgusted to find out he has standards. While Fisayo Akinade’s Dean Monroe is comic brilliance, from the way talks to the way he walks.
The drama of the piece is just as strong. Lance and Daniel’s storyline is filled with tension of every kind, all leading to episode 6, which is one of the best single episodes of TV ever. The episode is a look back through Lance’s life to the present moment all the while sound tracked by Eurhythmics and Annie Lennox. Nri was nominated for a BAFTA for his portrayal as Lance and no-where is it clearer why than this episode. Meanwhile, Murray’s gives a terrifyingly intense performance as Daniel. Sublime is all I can say.
So with all this brilliance, why wasn’t it more warmly received? I remember going on Twitter after the first episode aired and being annoyed by how many people didn’t seem to get it. Some tweeted about how they didn’t see themselves represented in the characters – personally offended by the idea that all gay men listen to Kylie.
While they claimed to not believe in the characters, I feel it was actually because the characters are too real that some viewers were put off. I don’t mean that all gay men are truly Kylie fanatics (not everyone has such good taste) and sure there’s obviously an element of heightened reality in the show, but that the essences of the characters, the emotions behind them are so honest. They’re difficult characters to like because they uncover ugly truths about all of us.
It’s not like we don’t necessarily enjoy watching unlikeable characters, probably quite the contrary. For example, Aiden Gillen’s Stuart in Queer as Folk was narcissistic and manipulative but that doesn’t change the love of the show. But Stuart isn’t really that unappealing, is he? Sure he’s a prick but he’s also sexy and successful – not bad things to be, very entertaining to watch.
Cucumber shows a deeper truth – not just about queer men, but about everyone. The characters in Cucumber, especially Henry, are filled with shame and self-loathing. Henry’s weak, he’s often shallow – rather than sensibly following convention and marrying his nice boyfriend he goes searching for more. And Vincent Franklin plays him so excellently. But despite all this, I like him – not sure why, I just do. Maybe it’s the raw honesty there.
Perhaps – I’m being tentative here, purely speculative – Henry’s shame, shame around having sex, shame around being gay is something that hit too close to home? It’s a Sin could have shame centre stage and it be okay because it’s set in the 80s therefore distanced from us. Cucumber however, is set in the present day, in a world where same-sex marriage is legal. As queer people, we’re encouraged to have pride in our identity – and that’s important, a fuck-you to a world that says we should be ashamed. It was so important to scream our pride from the rooftops just so we could marry the people we love (which still isn’t even close to a reality for millions around the world).
But growing up in a world that shuns us (still, although a lot has changed), we surely have all felt that shame. Perhaps, for some of us it’s ingrained so deep it takes more than wearing a sparkly feather boa and waving a rainbow flag for it to go away. So when we’re confronted by that in the form of Henry – even if you’re not queer, everyone has shame – it’s too uncomfortable. I’m reminded of a quote by Don Marquis: “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; But if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.” Cucumber certainly does the latter.
Of course, I could be talking rubbish and this is truly a rare dud for Russell T Davies (as if).
Someone much cleverer than me could probably do a lovely analysis of Cucumber talking about how the characters represent the id/ego/super ego or how they’re manifestations of the unconscious but alas that’s not me. So, I’ll finish up by encouraging everyone to give Cucumber a go. It really is so good. Perhaps, having watched It’s a Sin there’ll be more understanding about the collective trauma a whole generation of gay men experienced which is central to Henry’s shame. “Those bloody icebergs” he says offhand at one point. Even if you can’t relate to the shame, you can sympathise – it’s something that needs to be talked about. Also – it’s genius.