The year I spent studying abroad in the UK was a series of firsts. First time on my own, away from the house I’d lived in for 23 years. First time visiting England, still the place I consider to be my spiritual home (needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed). First exposure to people who hadn’t just grown up differently than I did, but who came from a globe-spanning cross-section of countries and nationalities, some of whom I lived in very close quarters with as housemates in one of the international residences on campus. First gay flatmate, in the form of T., a teddy bear of a man from Taiwan who came out to us in halting tones that first night in our cottage. First time living through a mini-cultural revolution.
The historic vote in Ireland, the prominence of Aiden Gillen’s Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, and the viewing of Russell T. Davies’ two new series, Cucumber and Banana, have all intersected in my mind like a synaptic Venn diagram, charting my path from naïve Pollyanna graduate student to proud author of M/M romances. A time-travelling direct line can be plotted from present day to that distant, if dearly held, transformative year to being on the front line of the first LGBTQ-related controversies in the UK, i.e. the premiere of RTD’s Queer As Folk.
A broadcasting miracle on par with the advent of HBO and that classic episode of Maude, the airwaves were full of condemnation and threats in the weeks before the show’s premiere, which pretty much guaranteed that everyone would watch it. The usual accusations of perversion and moral degradation were lobbed at the producers, the actors, and Channel Four in the weeks that followed, as the series became more and more popular. It helped that nothing like it had ever been seen on television before, a boisterous, groovy, and sexually frank depiction of the life and loves of a trio of gay men in Manchester, anchored by the close friendship between voracious Stuart and adorkable Vince. (If you haven’t seen it yet… well, what are you waiting for?)
Every week, T. and I would curl up on my springy cot in front of my crappy little 10-inch, twitching like meth addicts as we waited for our weekly dose of cool. Like Vince, I was mad about Stuart. I loved his aloofness, his bravado; we used to mimic his signature slinky strut as we walked down the street. T., on the other hand, fell hard for the virginal but bold Nathan, and would later become embroiled in an ill-fated and unrequited romance with his own lithe blonde boy-nymph. But the thrill of it wasn’t just watching a great show—though there was that—but the sense that you were watching something unprecedented, revolutionary. It was the televised epitome of Cool Britannia.
I hesitate to call RTD’s return to Manchester and the LGBTQ scene a bookend to his career, because I hope he continues to write great shows for a very long time, but there definitely is a sense of coming home and a return to form with Cucumber and Banana. For a while, RTD was threatening to emigrate to America, but allegedly his efforts there amounted to nothing but frustration. No surprise, if this is the kind of daring, provocative, and addictive show he wants to make. RTD is still breaking new ground in terms of LGBTQ visibility on television, and it has been a treat to watch.
RTD, like many a good M/M author, excels at basing his narrative around an impromptu family of interconnected people, some of whom have known each other for years and some of whom have ended up together through a series of unfortunate events. After breaking up with Lance, his partner of nine years, middle-aged Henry moves in with two much younger co-workers, Freddie and Dean. Recurring characters include Henry’s sister Cleo, a single mum, her son Adam, and a blokey co-worker of Lance’s who he very awkwardly tries to court. Henry is your classic anti-hero; he comes off as a deeply reprehensible human being in the first episode, but as the layers of the onion slowly peel off, you sympathize with him, while never forgetting his inescapable flaws. Lance is more genial and likeable, but is saddled with his own issues, and it’s hard to completely fall under his spell when he breaks it off with Henry for reasons I find very closed-minded (and sort of cruel). Freddie, meanwhile, is both Henry’s object of lust and a classic RTD aloof bisexual dynamo in the Stuart mode, though he, too, is humanized as the drama unfolds. Dean is a young flibbertigibbet who doesn’t stop long enough to take in what’s happening to him, or indulge in some much-needed self-examination. Oh, and he’s something of a pathological liar. But the genius of RTD is that you have great fun in their company, and you can’t wait to see what crazy things happen next.
RTD productions always zoom from scene to scene at a breakneck pace, quips and quails coming at you in expertly edited montages set to propulsive dance tracks. Who can forget Queer As Folk’s use of the song “Sexy Boy” by Air at the beginning of the second episode? I certainly will take the images of Nathan stomping down the school hallway and Stuart’s playful smoulder across the table at a co-worker to my grave. But RTD’s usual chaos and melisma never drowns out the character moments, and he never, ever blurs the uglier sides of his characters. These are flawed, complicated humans who regularly give in to their baser urges and exercise spectacularly poor judgment. And we as viewers are the better for it.
Banana is a companion piece to Cucumber, featuring some of the same characters in minor roles and fleshing out side characters from the mothership. It’s a far more poignant series exploring emotional topics not covered on the main show. Each episode is a vignette, a peek into the romantic life of a side player, more often that not with the aim of tugging on the heart strings. One thing that I find exceptionally appealing about an RTD production is that he always tries to assemble the most diverse cast possible. Though Cucumber revolves mainly around a cast of racially diverse gay/bisexual men, Banana tells stories about people of all sorts of sexual orientations. In both series, there is not a topic or aspect of modern sexual mores that isn’t covered, some more superficially than others. But like Dean, the series doesn’t often stop long enough to say something profound, possibly because, like Freddie, it’s too cynical to assume those kinds of questions have answers.
Sixteen years after the debut of Queer As Folk, Russell T. Davies has brought me back to that special time in my life, once again offering a slice of Manchester life with universal themes, and pushing the boundaries of what aspects of LGBTQ life can be discussed on television. We’re both more seasoned and—ostensibly—mature, but aren’t above getting off on a little slap and tickle.
So check out Cucumber and Banana. They’ll change the way you go grocery shopping forever.