I’ve missed this, the thrill you get from watching anything Russell T Davies has written. Yes it’s a bit rough round the edges, packed with incident sometimes at the expense of logic but his work challenges and grabs your attention in the way few television writers can. Understandably since his commercial peak running Doctor Who RTD as we call him has been less prolific but anyone who saw his one Wizards Vs Aliens story will know just how strongly it blew the walls out (sometimes literally)  of that children’s series. Cucumber is the first series he’s written not intended for a fantasy or children’s audience in over ten years so understandably it has an air of being let off the leash. It is therefore a series that might offend or challenge some people. If there are clichés present- and there are to some extent- that’s only because they are true. Nobody likes being stereotyped but reviewers who claim that the hedonistic path chosen by some characters in this drama is unrealistic haven’t met enough people because there were times when I watched this and thought `oh yeah, that’s just like ######”. That’s not someone with an unpronounceable name by the way! Anyway like the series this review contains adult themes and also plenty of spoilers. If you’ve not seen it and you’re open minded enough to give it a try please do before reading any reviews of it.  
The eight part series explores sex, relationships and ageing in a world dominated by technology and youth culture and is very much from a gay outlook as you’d probably expect. That’s not to say there is nothing here for others though some may find endless references to the lifestyle wearing when it doesn’t quite reflect everyone’s experience. Chalk that down perhaps to the sudden creative freedom RTD has now he doesn’t have to write family orientated stuff.  This potential pitfall is swerved to some extent by the quality of acting as well as RTD’s always pertinent observations.
The series has been greeted by a mixed response with episode 6 causing a buzz while the rest being summed up as alright if you like that sort of thing and quite funny at times. Of course the real reason why that one episode is so powerful (though for me episode 7 is better) is because of the work done in the preceding episodes which paint a world that, whether it is familiar or not, becomes inhabited by people we feel we know. It opens without compromise, after half an hour there have been so many sexual references and so much of what TV announcers like to call `strong language` that doubters may well have turned off there and then.
What stops it all becoming gratuitous is a gem of a character in Henry Best played by Vincent Franklin who was in The Thick of It. I can’t recall seeing another character quite like him even though serious TV drama is awash with middle age angst. 46 year old Henry has been living with Lance Sullivan for 9 years in which time they have never had penetrative sex. Lance is still waiting for this to happen, Henry has managed nine years of excuses why it won’t. It’s not even that Henry is uninterested in sex just that he seems to prefer looking rather than doing. If this in itself seems unlikely than the first couple of episodes stack up a whole pile of other problems Henry largely brings upon himself. Like a character in a farce he is the cause of most of his own issues. So when we join them for the typically RTD pacey opening scenes Henry doesn’t want to go out, he hates all their friends, he hates youth culture and so on. On the one hand the couple seems mismatched with different outlooks and RTD even gives them weirdly appropriate jobs with Henry in an office environment working in insurance while Lance is in the altogether more glamorous aquarium. These work surroundings sum up their characters to a tee.
Henry’s gripes are delivered with a nonchalant acceptance that he will nonetheless experience these things, is entire life seems to be something of a grin and bear it experience. In an early scene where he meets friends he actually insults them to their faces, in a jokey way and they obviously find this familiar. He is not so much a flawed personality as someone who doesn’t really know what he wants. Unsatisfied with every aspect of his life, he does nothing to change it and continues to make the same mis-steps again and again. Vincent Franklin puts his all into what is surely one of the TV performances of the year; he certainly deserves a BAFTA nomination for the role.
At work a seemingly insignificant moment where Henry lends an essay to a colleague studying for a course turns into a monster of a thing involving suicide, race, accusations and then Henry’s suspension while after a night out goes very wrong he ends up living with two much younger acquaintances in a draughty half converted warehouse. This is all presented in a cross cutting of scenarios as the colleague’s increasingly frantic calls for help are mingled with Henry dancing away in his front room to Kylie. Thus the set up is established and it does sound like a farce- middle aged repressed gay man living with two confident and sexually daring youngsters.
Two episodes in, everything seems to have gone wrong for our main character. All of this, however, is presented in a jokey, airy and frequently funny manner. Though he never says this you feel Henry is always moments from shrugging and declaring “Oh well, never mind.” In some ways the suicide plot is more daring than all the sex talk because it allows RTD to chuck in some very risky quips about religion and tradition yet you reach the conclusion that with Henry anything is possible on screen. It spins unexpectedly around with the widow suddenly making up a lot of things she alleges Henry said to her late husband things that people can quite believe he did but which he actually didn’t!

As Lance Cyril Nri is the closest the drama comes to a wider audience identification figure which he performs excellently, eyes wide open but gradually becoming tired of Henry’s wayward behaviour. Lance clearly has reached the end of his sainted patience but still loves Henry who on the other hand declares that he knows Lance will wait for him whatever he does.  His flirting with other men, in particular diver Daniel Coltrane is born of frustration more than anything.
Angela Hesmondhalgh is tremendous as Henry’s sister Cleo, a real Northern earthy type who is reliable and supportive  yet harsh when she needs to be. It’s a performance with subtlety and grace and some formidable shouting! Freddie Fox plays one of Henry’s new co-habitants also called Freddie and is used in the same way that an attractive female character is often seen in dramas as a sex object for all concerned. In that respect has gay drama some catching up to do? Freddie remains coolly aloof and initially dismisive of Henry yet the way their relationship evolves into a tentative friendship over the series is one of the best aspects of the writing. The other flatmate Dean seems more of a peripheral character during most of the series but is an assured tv debut for Fisayo Akinade.
As you’d expect from someone of RTD’s history the setting is as up to date as 2014 when it was filmed –there’s even a reference to The Vamps in there- with much emphasis on modern life. Probably lurking un-noticed amidst the innuendo and bravado, he incudes some telling observations of youth culture from a middle aged perspective.  Henry’s most genuine smile in the first episode comes when he sees a group of young people on a night out stumbling across the road nearby. He seems to pine for that sort of fun while avoiding what is available to him now. As the series progresses this tension between an idealised past and a realistic present rears its head again and again and is something anyone can identify with. It isn’t so much nostalgia, wishing you could be twenty years ago, rather a feeling that today’s young generation have it so much easier with everything available instantly. Loss of youth is a common enough theme in drama but Cucumber resists the usual dislike of young people, instead it is envy that is on display from its middle aged protagonists. 

The middle episodes show Henry adapting to his new flatmates while trying to earn some money after Lance closes their joint account. There is also, in part 3, a sudden focus on the hitherto mysterious  Freddie whose past appears to involve some less than legal encounters with a married teacher. Freddie is a difficult character to understand in these episodes, seemingly happy to tease some while indulging others. Lance meanwhile is similarly engaged in trying to unwrap another enigmatic character in his case Daniel . Rather like Freddie, Daniel sends out mixed signals and it occurs that both Henry and Lance are on similar journeys while firing increasingly bitter broadsides at each other by text.
This stew of avoidance and mixed messages comes to the boil in the fourth episode, the one which I suspect would make some people decide they don’t necessarily want to watch the show any more.  We follow five different characters on the same night. Both Henry and Lance meet up with potential new partners but neither encounter goes as planned while Freddie meets up with a girl whose own attitudes towards his sexuality bring unexpected perspective to the drama. As for Dean, well his night out is too bizarre for words! It is Cleo’s date with an old friend that provides the most unexpected perspectives and some touching if brutally honest moments. She is a lovely character, a perfect foil for Henry, and a strong reason to keep watching.
The pivotal scene though, as is often the case with RTD’s work- is quieter and more reflective than what’s gone before as Henry’s fears are told in a superbly pitched monologue by Vincent Franklin. This excellent scene, which he tells to someone he’s only just met in a café- encapsulates the unusual worldview that RTD has developed for this series. There is very little gay themed drama that digs this deeply beyond the superficial and even less drama that gets under the skin of middle aged people. They are usually depicted on TV as blandly settled or quietly neurotic but Henry has many more dimensions than that. The scene also goes back to the era in which he (and RTD) grew up, those `big icebergs` he mentions are from the disturbing Aids adverts of the 1980s. 
This is contrasted with the carefree attitude of today’s teenagers- something picked up further in the following episode where Henry’s You Tube video sideline gets out of hand in a way that hits home. There’s a cracking scene in which Cleo fires all cylinders at her brother for the effect his videos have had on her daughter’s behaviour. The implication here is that, whatever Henry thinks about today’s young people, their lack of fear could lead them into different sorts of trouble.
The Lance/ Daniel situation develops in unexpected and disturbing ways. Daniel is well played by James Murray and is clearly a powder keg of unresolved issues and uncertainty waiting to explode. Every time Lance is drawn into his orbit you worry because Cyril Nri conveys how attracted Lance is so well and you want to say `No! Don’t`.  
Episode 6 opens with a banner that suggests Lance dies in 2015 and the first half involves selected flashbacks to different points in his life. That opening makes watching these quite tense because you just know something bad is going to happen and RTD makes us wait until the last couple of minutes before revealing what it is. Demented Daniel has taken Lance on a trip into town and is his usual swaggering, provocative self but the viewer’s foreknowledge that something will go wrong peppers everything we see. In the show’s only bow to RTD’s previous existence as the show runner of Doctor Who, Lance gets a premonition in the form of what turns out to be a dead woman (also apparently a character from Queer as Folk)  about `just going home` but he doesn’t heed this warning. Thus he ends the episode with the sort of clubbing he definitely wasn’t expecting. The whole thing makes for uncomfortable viewing but as a television moment it is undeniably full of drama.
The episode caused a stir when broadcast but I’d say that the following one is much better. In fact it is excellent despite the heady brew of funerals, housing disputes and Henry’s attempts to deal with Lance’s death. RTD’s scenes of bravado inevitably become better known but what always balances these are the quieter ones, the moments when characters bare their souls but in a very natural way. One such scene in part 7 is the best in the whole series as the unlikely trio of Henry, Freddie and Dean shelter from a rain storm in a car in town and reveal things they would not have told the others at the start of the series. Well, Freddie doesn’t actually reveal too much but he does allow his more caring side to show a bit. This sequence is so well written because it absorbs everything we’ve learned about the characters and demonstrates that they have grown too. It’s only one of several perfect scenes that make this the most satisfying episode of the series. There’s also a memorable row between Lance’s sister and Henry in a bar and a chaotic yet amusing eviction at the end of the episode which throws in another left turn. Various cast members have described the funeral reception itself, incongruously held in a cricket club as a `grief off` and this is very much the spirit of these scenes as each family appears to be competing to appear the most bereaved. For Vincent the day is one in which he is determined not to reveal his true feelings, these remain hidden from view though we get to see them.

For Vincent Franklin this a tour de force of an episode. He has so many conflicting emotions to deliver and he does so with a manner that makes it look easy. Having thought that Lance would be the character most people would root for, it turns out to have been Henry all along. You may not share his lifestyle, his background or anything but you feel like you know him so well and that is the way a brilliant actor transmits a powerful script. In some ways the last scene would be a good way to finish with a house full of noisy people and loud music the last shot is of Vincent grinning like a kid.
Instead Cucumber concludes with an ending that is neither upbeat nor downbeat but instead somewhat true of that old adage about life going on. While initially Henry’s house becomes a self styled, riotous commune and he marshals Cliff and Freddie to help him get his job back, he is slowly left alone as people move on. The awkward demeanour between Henry and Freddie returns before the latter disappears after a row. This, we learn later from Dean, is what he does.
With no intention of there being a second series, RTD is able to wrap up various stories and if this seems bitty and a tad anticlimactic after what has preceded it narrows the focus to Henry himself and shows how he never really gets over Lance’s death and begins to see just how complicit he was in the scenario that led to that terrible event. “I’m not to blame” he keeps saying but you can tell he is starting to believe it less. A verbal broadside from a work colleague of Lance only drives the stake in further.
Episode 8 becomes more fascinating as it leaps on; six months, a year, six years and we follow Henry into his fifties. I’m not sure what this does to the timeframe as Lance’s death was clearly said to be in 2015 which by my estimation means the final scene takes place in 2021 or something. Anyway the point is that long afterwards Henry and Freddie have a chance meeting and awkwardly exchange tales of their intervening years. In Freddie’s case this involves worldwide travel, a failed marriage and constantly moving on. In Henry’s case it amounts to little more than staying in the same place though he has finally had full sex with someone. The way he winces when he talks about this leads into the final line, one RTD says he knew from the start of writing the series. It is a genius last line that makes a lot of sense of Henry’s evasive behaviour.   
Cucumber is both everything that people might have expected and also something better than we might have hoped for. It isn’t note perfect, it can’t have the seismic impact of Queer as Folk because times have changed, things have moved on. It’s not a series for the prudish or feint hearted not for those with strong prejudices of any sort because it’s all here. Yet if you’re interested in life, even if the lifestyle is not your own or you want to see some amazing performances and a challenging in your face narrative and you don’t mind the sometimes over gratuitous sex references then Cucumber is not too hard for you.

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