Cucumbers and Canal Street: Russell T Davies talks to Northern Soul
There’s a real lump-in-the-throat moment part-way through the first episode of Russell T Davies’s new Channel 4 drama Cucumber. The main characters go out in Manchester city centre: cut to a bustling Canal Street at night, the trees festooned with lights, a crane shot reaching high up above the scene, the music soaring. It’s so reminiscent of Davies‘s 1999 break-though show Queer as Folk that it can’t be a coincidence, and it may well stop you right in your tracks in the best possible way.
Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Davies says of Cucumber: “It is kind of unashamedly related to Queer as Folk in that sense. You can’t fight it. I’d be daft if I tried to fight it. It’s like, Canal Street looks the same. The atmosphere on a Saturday night there is still exactly same, no matter how much the world changes. And it’s Manchester, so it’s people from the same world. So it’s kind of like we’ve just turned the camera to look a different way and to pick up a different story. But I’m quite happy if people see those links. And I love Queer as Folk. No-one loves it more than me!”
By the time of Queer as Folk, Davies had already been writing for television for more than ten years. The shows that followed in its wake – Bob and Rose, The Second Coming, Mine All Mine, Casanova – consolidated his standing as one of the most gifted, exciting TV writers of his day, and all of them were made by the Manchester-based outfit Red Production Company under the aegis of producer Nicola Shindler. Then, in 2005, Davies really hit the big time as master and commander of the revived Doctor Who, which promptly became one of the biggest shows on British television. He left it behind in 2009 to explore other avenues. He’s since contributed to a variety of shows, from The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood to Old Jack’s Boat. But his next big, original project has been some time in coming. Cucumber, then, represents a bit of a comeback.
In fact, the seeds of Cucumber have been growing quietly for ages. Around the time when Davies first took on Doctor Who, he was gradually developing a project at Red Productions which, for reasons which will become clear, was first codenamed ‘MGM’. “It’s been ticking away since not long after Queer as Folk time, really, though nothing ever went down on paper then. When I was talking it up I’d say, ‘Oh, gay men again! I’m going to write More Gay Men’. Somewhere along the line that got reduced down to ‘MGM’, but that was never a title, absolutely never.”
For a time after he left Doctor Who, Davies was working on possible television projects in America, and Cucumber, as it became named, was all set to become one of them. In the event, though, he ended up moving home to Manchester in pretty drastic circumstances to care for his boyfriend through a course of cancer treatment. Now Cucumber has finally been made in and around Manchester by Red Productions.
“So it took a long time. You’ve just got to be patient in this game sometimes, and for all I know maybe the wait did it good. These thing stew and gestate – and flourish, I hope, a bit. In the end, it feels like it was written at the right time, I think.”
It’s not revealing much to say that Cucumber centres on the relationship between Henry (Vincent Frankin) and Lance (Cyril Nri), a long-term couple for whom the cracks are seriously beginning to show. Back in 2007, when the series was still on the back-burner, Davies mentioned in a Guardian interview that one initial spark for the project had been a chance remark – ‘Why are so many gay men glad when we split up?’ – made by his friend Carl Austin.
“Yes, lovely Carl, who used to be Mr Gay UK – I must tell him that this is on, actually. Funnily enough, that reaction doesn’t actually take up much space in the end. I think maybe when you talk about things in advance, you kill them dead. I did have that as a bit of dialogue at one point and, do you know, I never used it after all that. Sometimes when you say things out loud, you’ve used them and they feel a bit inert. It also felt a bit sociological and there were much more interesting things happening in the story, much more true things than a wry observation. So, it’s funny. That thing that Carl said, you kind of keep the wisdom and the truth of that in your mind, but you don’t necessarily write that centre-stage. You do sometimes but I didn’t with that in the end. Still, I will one day. That means it’s still sitting there as a story.”
But in essence the finished Cucumber is the same idea that Davies had been slowly piecing together all along.“It was always this story. It was always Henry and Lance, even though they didn’t have names back then. That was the story, that was exactly where I was heading…it just sort of accumulated over the years. That’s how everything does really. Everything I ever write actually goes through that process. It’s just kind of unusually visible this time.”
Northern Soul has seen the first episode of Cucumber and can reveal, yes, Russell T Davies is back, and he’s still got it. It’s hugely entertaining, jet-propelled drama, delivering big, filthy laughs and a first-rate cast. It’s absolutely teeming with intriguing, sometimes unexpected story threads (and for Northern folk there’s that extra little thrill of playing spot-the-location). It has all the hallmarks of a big hit and while its setting is specific and detailed, its key concerns – of relationships and ageing – are universal. It’ll be a pleasure to find out where it’s going.
As Davies explains, Cucumber is designed as an eight episode serial with no intention of it coming back for a second run. “It finishes. It absolutely finishes. The ending is like the ending of a novel. Cucumber is the story of Henry and it’s absolutely done this year. Which is nice – it makes you focus. You’ve got eight hours to tell the story of someone’s life. You could tell the story of The Bible in that time! It’s a long time, eight hours. You get to know Henry and Lance in so much detail by the end of it.”
Cementing its status as a full-on television event, Cucumber comes with not just one sister show but two. Banana, airing on E4, is an anthology series of one-off dramas by a variety of different writers, set in and around the world of Cucumber, with some cross-over of characters. Then there’s Tofu, a documentary series with interviews exploring all aspects of modern-day sex and sexuality which will be available on demand online via 4oD. Keen viewers can watch all three straight through in one sitting. By the way, if you’re as yet unaware of the significance of the assorted foodstuffs that give each show its title, rest assured that, in the first few moments of Cucumber, all will become clear (though once you know it, you can’t ever un-know it).
Davies reveals that his very first pitch document for the show outlined the three complementary strands. “There were important reasons for doing that. I think the most important reason actually was that I kind of know from Queer as Folk that while, hopefully, there’s a lot of people waiting with open arms for a show like this, there’s going to be a certain amount of the audience that’s going to sigh and regret the fact that it’s a gay male show again. And it seems quite fair to say, ‘Where are the women’s voices? Where are the lesbian voices? Where are the transgendered voices? Where are the voices of the old? Where are the voices of the young?’. They’re not in Cucumber, and the worst form of Cucumber would bow to all those voices. But Banana, then, is like the safety valve. It opens up to allow all those voices in. People who might not get seen in Cucumber get seen very beautifully and excitingly in Banana. There’s all sorts of stories of all sorts of sexualities – and then Tofu covers an ever wider range…I think whoever you are you will find your voice in there somewhere.”
The cross-fertilizing between the three strands is an attempt to do something genuinely fresh and inventive. “I know there have been spin-off shows before but actually, in the way that the two shows relate to each other, I’ve never seen anything quite like this one. It’s very delicate and clever, the way they bounce and spin off each other.”
Not only do the three shows wrap around each other, if all goes to plan they should be capable of standing free of one another and developing their own unique audiences. “I imagine that a certain number of viewers will watch Cucumber and than switch straight over to Banana,” says Davies. “But the amount of viewers who can pick and choose and can watch Banana any time they like is fascinating. I absolutely think there will be viewers who will just watch Banana on E4.
“The way people experience things is quite powerful now. It’s up to them, the power rests with the viewers. So it’ll be fascinating to see how it works. We’ve been quite careful that both shows operate independently of one another. It’s very carefully constructed so that they’re free-standing, but if you watch both you get a much richer experience, you’ll get extra little moments and beats.”
Seasoned RTD fans may recall that there were also plans for Queer as Folk to have its own spin-off show, entitled Misfits, back in 2000, fleshing out the second-string characters from the main show and with the occasional cameo from the leads. Plans were well advanced: writers were on board and Davies himself scripted the first two episodes before it capsized. “Yes! That’s interesting, and do you know, there were a couple of Misfits stories that I ended up using in this. Not that you would recognise them, but those scripts got locked in a drawer and then two old Misfits stories come to life. I won’t tell you what they are because they’ve changed and it’s a completely new cast and everything.”
In fact, Davies has often remarked that, as far as he’s concerned, every character from his dramas exists in the same fictional universe. So does that mean that, in Cucumber, Queer as Folk‘s Stuart and Vince, and Bob of Bob and Rose, could theoretically be said to be lurking just off-screen?
“Ha ha! It’s a nice idea. In my mind it is literally entirely possible. In my mind the TARDIS could land at the end of Canal Street. I would stop short of having the Daleks glide into episode three, although frankly that would be the best episode you’ve ever seen of a gay drama! Wouldn’t that be brilliant? But I think you see Stephen King doing it, and I love Stephen King when his novels link up. Like, he went though one phase in the late 80s and 90s where everyone in his novels sees the same eclipse. It happens in Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne. Little moments echo across his books. Well, everything’s set in Maine. He’ll have characters referring to some woman getting attacked by a dog 20 years ago, which was Cujo, and I love that. As a viewer you get an extra little thrill, I think. I mean, here I am fanboying off Stephen King for doing that sort of stuff, so I don’t mind if I can create the same sort of reaction. I think that’s nice.”
All told, Cucumber and its siblings represent all manner of reunions for Davies. It sees him returning to Channel 4 (Queer as Folk was, in fact, the only show he’d made for them before now). It also brings him back to Nicola Shindler and Red Productions.
“The best thing of all is being back working with Red, to be honest,” reflects Davies. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s been lovely. It’s been like coming home. It is, though. Working with Nicola Shindler is just gorgeous.”
And it reunites him with another long-term collaborator, musician Murray Gold. “Oh I wouldn’t use anyone else. It was like, it got commissioned and Nicola and I just turned to each other and went, ‘Let’s get Murray’ – even before we’d got a director, in fact. He’s absolutely brilliant.”
Perhaps inevitably, some of the press coverage for Cucumber has lingered a little too long on the newsworthy subject of Doctor Who. It recently made big news when Davies was quoted as saying he declined offers from current showrunner Steven Moffat to contribute new Who scripts on an annual basis, though Davies is now dismissive of this.
“Every single interview I do, I get asked about it, and then gets it published as though I’ve sat there and made some sort of press release about my feelings in relation to Doctor Who. But it’s fine, I’m friends with Steven, and he does actually ask me every year, but he knows I don’t want to be…” Changing tack, he adds: “It’s all completely normal and lovely and I can’t wait for the next series to be on. But it’s click-bait now, unfortunately, Doctor Who.”
Instead, Davies is pressing on. Evidently he’s on a roll because his next project, to be entitled The Boys, has already been commissioned. It’s yet to be written but it will follow a community of gay male friends during the 1980s AIDS era, and will be made by Red. That’s all in the future, though. As Davies says, he’s declared 2015 “the year of the Cucumber”.
By Andy Murray
With thanks to Andrew Critchley and Ruth Bray
The first episode of Cucumber is broadcast on Thursday 22 January, 2015 at 9pm on Channel 4. The first episode of Banana follows at 10pm on E4. The first episode of Tofu will be available from 10.30pm on demand via 4oD.
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