Russell T Davies on Cucumber, Banana, Tofu

Russell T Davies explains how new shows Cucumber, Banana and Tofu fit together and bring new voices to television…

Last week, Russell T Davies’ new Channel 4 trio of dramas, Cucumber, Banana and Tofu was launched at London’s posh Barbican centre (followed by an after-party held aptly at – where else – The Gherkin).

The post-screening Q&A, hosted by Boyd Hilton, took in all manner of topics, from Cucumber’s non-sexy look at all things sex, to age, race and sexuality diversity on screen, and the legal challenges of deliberately seeking out gay writers to bring new voices to television.

As the venue couldn’t hold you all, we picked out a few choice bits of what creator and head writer Mr Davies, Producer Nicola Schindler and actor Vincent Franklin had to say about the terrific new set of shows…

On how Cucumber, Banana, Tofu relate to each other:

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Russell T Davies: You can watch them all separately, that [first episode of] Banana is more interlinked with its episode of Cucumber than any other, because I was setting out my stall and I could do that. You can watch them completely separately, I think you get a richer experience if you watch all three in a row, but in this day and age, you choose what to watch whenever you fancy.

[…] They have a separate life and they have a connected life but we’re quite careful that it’s never too much so you can’t still follow the story.

On Cucumber as an unsexy show about sex:

RTD: I really wanted to properly do a series about sex, not in a sexy way and not in a salacious way and not in a shocking way. That episode of Cucumber actually, it’s about not having sex. They haven’t had sex. They haven’t had sex for nine years, it’s about frustration and ageing and all of that. I wanted to look at sex without being sexy and to compare the different generations. Even Dean’s story is about not having sex, he gets it wrong – bless him – in his way. They’re not salacious sex stories, they’re proper examinations of the things that go wrong and why they go wrong and how it’s alright to go wrong, and the whole series continues like that.

It’s not just set up as a bit of a shock in the first episode, it goes on seven more hours staring at that problem. I wanted to call it Cucumber, because apart from erections, it’s a hard stare, there’s a hardness built into the programme, staring at these men and why they do what they do.

On bringing new gay voices to TV through Banana:

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RTD: The important thing about Banana was to get other writers in, because Cucumber is a great big male, gay show and I was very aware there are other voices – as Tofu shows – there are so many other voices out there. So we got in a lot of new writers to Banana, some of them writing their very first scripts for the very first time. All gay writers, to get different voices in there. The later episodes of Banana are much more freestanding, and there are tiny little links to Cucumber.

People keep saying that Play For Today doesn’t exist. There’s eight of them there – eight little stories about lives and they could go round LGBT film festivals around the world.

On deliberately making sure that all three shows featured a range of ethnicities, ages and sexualities:

RTD: It was absolutely deliberate and we will continue to do it. I think you have to do it as a policy. If you’re white, middle-class and everything else, you will see the world through that lens and make everything like yourself, you have to fight that in life, in making fictions I think. It absolutely is deliberate and I think it worked brilliantly.

Nicola Schindler: You now have to educate yourself to look at things differently and think differently and make sure you’re much more inclusive. I think Russell’s brilliant at that because he puts it into the script, it’s there from the very beginning. There’s a racial mix, a mix of sexualities and I think that we’ve learnt loads from this and we’ll carry it on on every show.

RTD: It just feels like 2015 up there, doesn’t it? Unremarkable, I hope.

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On Cucumber’s focus on male characters:

Nicola Schindler [Producer]: Because Cucumber is the story of Henry and the world that Henry exists in, that is men of a certain age, but Banana has lesbian stories, it has a trans story in it, it has young gay men in it, so it’s much more varied than Cucumber which is just one single story. There are a lot more women in Banana. Apart from Julie’s [Hesmondhalgh] character, there’s not very many women in Cucumber, but that’s because it’s not what it’s about. It doesn’t have to be.

RTD: That’s why Banana was created separately, to give access to those voices and to see those things. Had we tried to include them in Cucumber – if you try and make a show that appeals to everyone, that represents everyone, that makes a stand for everyone, it’d just be this mewling, doe-eyed puppy of a show, instead of a dog!

On the legal challenge of deliberately seeking out gay writers:

RTD: It’s fascinating once you touch on that subject, is a writer gay? Is an actor gay? It’s actually true now that we’re breaking the Equality Act of 2010 if you ask an actor whether they’re gay or straight. No journalist has yet realised this! And we do not do it in any audition, just as if I was working for Tesco’s and you’re employing people to work on the till, you should not be allowed to ask them their sexuality in case that influences your decision. That’s a brilliant rule and it applies to actors just as much as it applies to factory workers.

It then gets tricky when the guidelines being laid down for employing LGBT staff – it’s a very interesting territory because there are new guidelines out saying it will help if 6% of your staff are LGBT, because technically you’re not allowed to ask. So in finding our writers, our script editors had to phone around a lot of agents saying ‘If you have anyone who might happen to be interested in a gay subject from a personal point of view…’ we had to do that.

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Every single one of those writers is out and proud and very happily gay, and came forward and said ‘I’m gay, I’ve got a story, can I do this?’ so it’s a little bit of modern etiquette that you dance around a little bit.

In terms of casting, I have no idea, there’s still plenty of the cast I don’t know about and some I do know are gay and I don’t think I can sit here and happily say that they’re gay because that’s up to them. So it’s a really, really tricky area. However, I would say that there is more gay-for-gay casting in this than in anything I’ve ever worked on and it’s been tremendously successful and a great joy. Tricky area, but I think good inroads are being made.

On how much control Davies took over the stories told in Banana:

RTD: We tried to give them specific guidelines, but I think we kind of realised that I was being a bit dictatorial and we relaxed then. We said come and write what you want to write. They’re each little jewels, Banana, each one captures just a moment in someone’s life, a passing, fleeing moment. From the heart, I did not rewrite a single word of these things, unlike normal, I just let the writers do what they want and it’s been lovely. They’re truly beautiful little expressions.

On Cucumber’s cinematic production values:

Nicola Schindler: From the off again, Russell said ‘it’s really domestic, it’s people in houses, it’s people having conversation, go the opposite way with the production values, absolutely make it big, make it as wide as you can, it shouldn’t feel small, it shouldn’t feel unimportant just because it’s about people and relationships’, so he was pushing us to have the same production values as Doctor Who, but with people. In terms of Queer As Folk, we set out then to intentionally bring a different dial to British telly. Since then, we’ve had to move away from that a lot because it’s been copied quite well.

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On Cucumber’s lead character, Henry Best:

Vincent Franklin: Henry’s massively complicated and if you’re an actor over thirty-five, you don’t get offered that very often. You’re usually a function in a series and you know from reading pages one, two and three, that’s what it is.

What I loved about Henry is that he is just a mass of contradictions like I think real people are. He’s the smartest person in that and the most stupid. He’s brutally honest to other people and is never honest to himself. He loves lighting these little fires. He is a man who realises that things could be better, and unlike most of us who are my age who go, yeah, they could be better but actually they’re quite comfortable where they are, he just decides that there must be another cock out there somewhere, and until he’s found that… So he’s Jason-like on an Argnonaut journey. For me that amazing warehouse building became that ‘a wood outside of Athens’ place you go, or up the beanstalk, somewhere the rules are different. I love from hereon in, he just doesn’t know the rules, he has to find them very slowly and very painfully.

[…] I think most people over the age of 23 have a little bit of Henry Best in them.

Cucumber, Banana and Tofu continue on Channel 4, E4 and on the Channel 4 website next Thursday the 29th of January from 9pm.

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