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WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Opening with a humorous voiceover about hard-ons and their firmness (from tofu, to peeled banana, to banana, to cucumber), Cucumber goes on to beat us around the head with phallic imagery, while constantly referring back to the 1999 TV show which made Russell T. Davies a household name.
I was 13 years old when Queer as Folk hit the TV in February of 1999. I remember seeing the adverts and being so excited that, finally, there were people like me on TV. I stayed awake late to watch it with the volume turned down low and the lights off, so no one would catch me out. I taped every episode and watched them on repeat pretty much every night until I was 16. It felt so vital to me. Its portrayal of gay male power shattered the stereotype of the queer victim like Stuart Alan Jones’ Jeep going through a car dealer’s window. Its opening episode – which featured Charlie Hunnam playing a 15-year old being rimmed by an older man – shocked a nation and saw Beck’s pull its advertising deal for the show. Back then, it really did feel radical.
Having been there in 1999, at an age where it was literally world-changing for me, I was excited when I heard about Cucumber – but also petrified. Because how could anything match up to the effect that TV show had on my life? I wouldn’t be living in Manchester today if it wasn’t for Queer as Folk. So I waited, and I was anxious, and I prayed and I hoped. And then Cucumber screened last night, and the waiting was over.
Back again is the bold gay male gaze of Queer as Folk: we hover over bottoms, men bent over in tight jeans, bulges, younger men and older men. Like Queer as Folk, the dialogue is characterised by a queer, Tarantino-esque kind of theatrical anecdote: meandering, seemingly tangential stories (usually featuring lots of cock), that veer off to a humorous punchline and later resurface as something key to the narrative’s forward momentum. People don’t have normal conversations (even for TV drama), because everyone is telling stories and spinning yarns. However, the cumulative effect of this is that the show becomes very stylised and reminds us of its fictionality. This is gay life as spectacle, and this time, we’re not faced with the virile young ‘king of the world’ of Queer as Folk, but his past-it future self, who had it all and now realises his world is owned by the kids beneath him.
Manchester oozes from the background through the characters. This is one of the most racially diverse versions of the scene I’ve ever seen – which is good, but perhaps fails to recognise the actual homogeneity of much of our ‘gay scene’. Sister show Banana – which has an even more black-heavy cast, and is all the better for it – might go this route, and it would be interesting if it did. There aren’t many spaces in mainstream LGBT culture for non-white queer people. (Although, troublingly, the ‘hero’ fails two of the three major non-white characters in the show over the course of this opening episode – allowing one to get arrested and one to kill himself, both because of his petty desire for revenge – while lusting over the third (thanks to Segun Lee-French for pointing this out).)
It was a nice treat for locals, however, to see our familiar haunts (and even a few friends in the background) reflected in the show. Queer as Folk did for Manchester’s gay scene what Sex and the City did for elite Manhattan, and Cucumber continues that legacy: the city is both beautiful and charming.
Russell T. Davis has said in interviews that he wanted to portray a more inclusive presentation of LGBT life in Britain, so it’s fair that this outing features a wider range of individuals and it’s a smart move. There’s also a disabled character,too, who – although the butt of a visual gag where he struggles through the rain with his crutches – is largely a step in the right direction for LGBT representation.
There are plenty of nods to Queer as Folk – some of which enrich the experience and reward fans of that older show, and some of which make Cucumber seem overly derivative. It would be interesting to see if these mirrors continue to appear throughout the series, or if they’re just a decide in this first episode to drag us back to the setting, and to remind us that this is a sequel (in spirit, at least) to Queer as Folk.
The parallels with QAF are visual, down to the angle of specific shots and the stylised gay male gaze; aural, such as the punchy soundtrack, which riffs off the style of the 1999 series; and narrative-based, with many of the story beats echoing earlier plot points in Queer as Folk. Eagled-eye viewers will notice the Babylon sign in the background in one of the clubbing scenes, for instance, with Henry watching over the crowd in a shot recalling several scenes from Queer as Folk 1 and 2, where Stuart, Vince and Alexander watch over the revelries and prepare to launch themselves into the fray.
There are other key motifs that reappear. There’s a lot of time spent in cars – showing the male power of these characters as they sit at the wheel. There’s lots of time spent talking about spunk – a metaphor for virility, and how the characters’ youth and prowess is slipping away from them. We even have an anecdote that is almost repeated – where one man has orange spunk. There are lots of conversations and actions cutting across each other, mostly while characters are on the phone, which is another trope that featured often in QAF.
These parallels allow for some nice subverting of expectations. For instance, at one point Henry rushes off with Dean, and we think they’re going to engage in some sexual activity in the workplace (like Stuart and the married man who rush off to the toilets in Queer as Folk), but instead, Dean is just there to show off his (sort of) chastity belt. While Stuart had the power and the sex, Henry seems to have neither in a world where LGBT power is equated with how much cock you can get (and yes, this overlooks women and transpeople, who seem suspiciously absent from this first episode).
Even one of the car ads at the end of a commercial break mirrors a scene in Queer as Folk, where Cameron throws Vince’s mobile phone off a Manchester bridge into the water below. Perhaps the coincidences were merely my brain looking for connections, but there seemed to be lots.
However, at times the show felt hemmed in by these constant nods back to the 1999 show. Banana, which wasn’t as referential or reverential, seemed much more enjoyable and freer as a result. The problem with constantly comparing yourself to something that made such an impact 16 years ago is that not all the comparisons will be favourable. While QAF broke real ground with its representations of gay life and gay culture, and created a myth of gay male power and success, Cucumber doesn’t seem radical enough in what it offers. Indeed, the gloss of gay life here – and it’s worth pointing out that the heroes are all of a certain class – makes for a very specific kind of gay narrative: the power gay. The middle class queer everyman. We’re not seeing untold stories here, or particularly political ones. This might not be a criticism – it’s up to you if you deem such things important – but it’s worth bearing in mind for next time someone calls a show about LGBT people ‘groundbreaking’. In truth, I can’t help but feel that the LGBT world of John Waters and the Gay Liberation Front was much more groundbreaking, but that this world is rarely explored in mainstream depictions of queer life.
Character-wise, our protagonist Henry is a very unlikeable character. He’s repressed, held back by his own stunted emotional capacity, and frankly just irritating. Character flaws make for bad decisions, of course, and bad decisions make for good stories – so this first episode is literally bursting at the seams with drama. I didn’t particularly empathise with him, though – I was reminded of countless men with good jobs and perfectly satisfactory lives, whose only real struggle is getting over themselves.
Unlike Stuart, Henry is flawed but not particularly charismatic. He has a sort of vaguely downtrodden appeal at times, and a flash of understanding strikes when he describes how he doesn’t want to get married because he grew up in a world where same sex marriage was never a thing. But aside from one really funny tale of Ryan Reynolds making himself gay by loving his own cock, which nevertheless seems overly literary in places, he does a lot of things that make watching Cucumber frustrating.
Henry spends the whole episode – and, it seems, the preceding nine years – pushing his boyfriend away, culminating in a rejected marriage proposal and finally an abortive threesome. Then, when his boyfriend barricades him out of the bedroom and continues to fuck the man they both brought home, after Henry decides he doesn’t want the threesome after all, he gets the police to throw out the ‘intruder’. It’s like a petulant child throwing his toys out the pram. At this point I’m more interested in boyfriend Lance than I am with selfish Henry. My suspicion is that Henry is intentionally meant to offer a stark alternative to the terrible twosome of older gay gents in ITV’s Vicious. But as the episode’s plagiarism subplot appears to have gone horribly wrong, it does create an opportunity for some serious growth and self-reflection on Henry’s part.
Visually, the cucumber/banana/tofu motif gets tired quickly, too. It’s obvious. It’s crass – and I quite like crass – but it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. A parade of actual cocks would at least stand tall and firm, rather than the schoolyard tittering of edible phallic implements we get here. Let’s hope this disappears in later episodes (remember that the first series of QAF had a series of talking head moments, set against bright neon backgrounds, but these disappeared as the series got into full swing).
Overall, I’m glad Cucumber is on TV, and I’m thankful that it represents a wider range of men who have sex with men. I want to see more working class, disabled, trans and lesbian characters, though, and I hope these emerge through the rest of the series. I’m also looking forward to Henry’s character arc, simply because I’m not sure I can last out a whole series with a character who winds me up so much. I’ve also found I am highly invested in the show, simply because there is such a paucity of LGBT shows on TV – and because the last one was Queer as Folk.
Finally, I’m interested to see if and how the representation of Canal Street changes. We’ve already had a hint in this episode that the Village isn’t what it once was, and word on the street (Canal Street) has it that scenes were filmed of people climbing up lampposts and smashing bottles – which suggests the nature of the area’s current crime and anti-social behaviour problems, plus the swell of students, tourists and hen parties that flock to the Village on weekends, will make some kind of appearance. Now that would make for some interesting TV, so long as it steers clear of the gentrified image of the ‘gay’ world that seems to predominate these days – a place very different to the once-radical world of our former liberation queers. I guess I’ll have to tune in next week to find out!