This review contains spoilers.
You know how it goes: you wait years for a brilliant adult Russell T Davies drama, and then three come along at once.
Getting proceedings underway is Channel 4’s Cucumber – a raucously funny and wistful portrait of gay middle-age sex, relationships and frustration. Following that is E4’s energetic half-hour Banana, which swings the focus over to gay Generation Z. Finally comes talking heads-meets-speculative fiction web series, Tofu.
The British love of innuendo being alive and well (as illustrated by C4’s cheeky, colourful promo campaign for the shows), everyone’s calling it a threesome. A flexible threesome at that, one designed to be watched separately or together as the viewer chooses – according to Davies, the first episodes of Cucumber and Banana have the most crossover; it’s just little nods to each other’s worlds from hereon in.
But we’re here to talk about Cucumber, the story of Henry Best, a middle-aged man who makes a spectacularly messy exit from his comfortable relationship and middle-class life in order to relight the youthful “furnace in [his] head”.
We get to know Henry (The Thick Of It and Twenty-Twelve’s Vincent Franklin) through a series of witty, filthy monologues, each one crescendoing towards the bathetic punchline that is Henry himself. The modern world, he tells us, has left him behind.
Paunchy, horny, and unable to have sex with the long-term boyfriend who wants to marry him, Henry attempts to escape it all. To this end, he shacks up in a Manchester warehouse with much-younger motormouth colleague Dean (the brilliant Fisayo Akinade) and dream shag Freddie (the angelic Freddie Fox). With new digs and a new start, is Henry about to get his groove back?
Did he ever have it might be a better question.
Phallic gag aside, Davies says that Cucumber was so-named for its cold, hard stare at sex in modern gay relationships. And as far as this long-married straight gal is able to judge, that’s exactly what it provides. It throws a comically unflattering light on hard-ons, kinks, threesomes and wanking, choosing honesty over titillation every time. The hottest it gets is Henry’s Ryan Reynolds party piece, and that’s narrated against the distinctly un-erotic backdrop of a neon-lit taxi rank.
It’s fast, frank, very funny, and written with all the pace, energy and enjoyable pop culture nods we’d expect from the creator of Queer As Folk and new Doctor Who (“I miss the nineties, I was happy then. I once got a fax off Liz Hurley” reminisces one of Henry’s pals).
Davies proves once again what a dab hand he is with structure in the episode’s centre-piece, which splices two climaxes – the marriage proposal and the suicide – and glides easily between entertaining farce and palpable human distress. Director David Evans and the editing team snip and chop between scenes with rhythmic punctuation that keeps the energy up throughout the hour.
That energy makes the episode’s quiet, emotional moments stand out all the more. When Henry is wistfully looking back on his youth with the ex-alcoholic friend who “drank his hips off” (Con O’Neill) and tells him that he and boyfriend Lance are fine, Davies makes you feel every millisecond of the lie.
Finally, though Davies told a post-screening Q&A that he hopes the very deliberate diversity of age, ethnicities and sexualities in all three shows is unremarkable as “it just feels like 2015 up there”, Cucumber’s rarity in this respect demands at least remark, and here it comes.
Thank fuck for Russell T Davies.
If being able to watch a proper relationship and sex drama about anyone other than homogenously hot twenty-something white women felt like a cool, refreshing shower to me – who sits in one of the best catered-to demographics on TV – what must it feel like to watch as a LGBT, black, Asian, or minority ethnic viewer? Davies and pals are dragging TV into this century. May every other show follow suit, and soon.
Read highlights from Russell T Davies’ post-screening Cucumber, Banana, Tofu Q&A here.
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