Channel 4’s new cross-channel series consists of three strands showing across Channel 4, E4 and 4oD — Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. The titles are references to states of male sexual arousal. This is a return to Queer As Folk territory — the taboo-breaking 1999 TV series — and none the worse for that.
Tofu is a documentary series about sexuality, while Banana and Cucumber are drama series. Cucumber, written by Russell T Davies, features Henry and Lance, a middle aged gay professional couple dealing with the fallout after they have the date night from the inner circle of Hell.
It benefits from having not just good leads in Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri, but also great supporting roles from Julie Hesmondhalgh and the always excellent Con O’Neill. Banana, penned by a range of new, young writers, is centred on young working class lesbians and gays.
It is headed up by Fisayo Akinade as Dean, Freddie Fox as Freddie and Letitia Wright as Scotty. According to Channel 4 it is set to cover “50 shades of gay and beyond”. It is important to remind ourselves why Queer as Folk was so significant as drama 15 years ago. At the time it went out it was legal to sack people for being gay.
Lesbians and gays were still being purged from the armed forces. Section 28 was still on the statute book, which made it enormously difficult to challenge homophobia in schools, or even get accurate sex education in school. In this context there was little on TV to show gay sex as a joyous and liberating experience.
We had gone through a plethora of Aids dramas on screen, where every gay-themed movie seemed to be a modern reworking of Camille. In Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks, I seem to recall that the main characters barely kissed. Where gay characters did exist without dying in the last reel it was as supporting turns.
They seemed to have taken over from Eve Arden as the leading lady’s sexless, wisecracking friend. Lesbians were barely visible and where they were they were presented as being predatory.
Any representation of gay men (unless they were dying of Aids) presented them as tortured eunuchs with no evident sex lives. And they were represented in very narrow terms.
It wasn’t just that working class gay men were invisible; middle class gay men were invisible too. Gay men had cut-glass accents and high cheekbones. Apart from the occasional Merchant-Ivory type film there was little to see. This was why Queer As Folk was so important. It put the sex back into sexuality and presented gay lives that were actually recognisable to gay people.
It was also not worthy — it didn’t feel it had to deal with “gay issues” such as disease, discrimination or family rejection. It dealt with people’s sex lives. It also, most importantly, put gay people at the centre of events. Banana and Cucumber can be described as NSFDMR: Not Safe For Daily Mail Readers. It was the Daily Mail which spearheaded the campaign against Queer As Folk and it would not be surprising if we got some headlines declaring a similar “Tsunami of Filth!” from them now.
It was largely due to the tabloid outrage that Queer As Folk became such event television. I imagine Channel 4 executives might be reminiscing about the hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of free publicity the Daily Mail gave them last time and wondering if they would be kind enough to oblige them with this new venture.
It is worth remembering, however, that it wasn’t just the right wing who were alarmed by Queer As Folk. Many members of the LGBT establishment who were lobbying for acceptance of the community by the mainstream found the plotlines of casual and underage sex worrying.
They had spent years arguing for how respectable and law-abiding lesbians and gays were, and they were clearly watching the show through their fingers. These new dramas, similarly set among the gay community of Manchester, might seem to be a continuation of Queer As Folk, but they are not. They are much more ethnically and socially representative.
Cucumber does appear to be a return to form for Russell T Davies after his recent involvement in Dr Who. There is less of the sentimentality that has become a feature of that series. It has a wonderful economy of writing and it moves at a cracking pace. It’s also funny and sexy and wonderfully moving. With its ethnically diverse mix and prominence of good roles for gays and women it is guaranteed to upset all the right people.
It is also very direct about sex, anal sex and visual depictions thereof. It doesn’t have wall to wall scenes of gay men rutting like hounds, but enough to cause enormous distress for your average Ukip candidate. It is a pacy series and beneath the drama and comedy there is an inescapable sense of a celebration of modern Britain.