Prism Book Alliance would like to welcome back special guest columnist Alexis J Hall for Tea Time with Alexis J Hall & Friends. We would like to extend a special welcome to today’s roundtable guests: Allan Jay, Beverley Jansen
Hello Teatimers! Today I’m joined by Prism’s own Beej and Allan Jay, m/m-writer and Twitter hanger-outer.
Beej: Hello All. Hello AJH, and randomly accosted Brit., Allan, and welcome.
Allan: Hello to the pair of you.
AJH: Today we’re going to be talking about Cucumber–
Allan: The programme, not the vegetable and oft used sex-toy substitute? Right?
AJH: Ahem. As I was saying, we’re talking Cucumber, the Russell T Davies show that recently aired on Channel 4 as part of its commitment to LGBTQ programming. Something like a 14 years after Queer as Folk first hit our screens, it’s been an odd sort of reunion. We’re also very aware that probably most of the world hasn’t seen this yet, as it tends to take a while for UK television to get out into the wider world.
Allan: It starts showing in America on April 13th on Logo.
AJH: Ah, there we go. So, for them as don’t have a clue what we’re talking about, Cucumber focuses on Henry Best, a middle aged man, whose life basically explodes following a disastrous date-night with his long-term boyfriend, Lance. Suspended from his job, with his relationship in tatters, Henry moves into a semi-derelict, semi-converted warehouse with a pair of twenty-year-olds: beautiful, pansexual, out-of-everybody’s league, Freddie Baxter, and Dean who is basically adorable. Any more than would kind of ruin it, but if you’re already familiar with the work of RTD, especially Queer as Folk, you’ll probably already have some notion of the sort of show it is.
Beware of spoilers ahead, although I’ll re-warn when as we’re approaching. So, broad thoughts folks, how did you find it?
Beej: The more I thought about it the more I saw in it actually. But I really enjoyed ‘most’ of it very much. It was very much RTD’s style of drama/comedy.
Allan: I thoroughly enjoyed it. Every episode had something to make me laugh and to gasp about. As a whole series I very much liked it; thought it was audacious and had something to say.
AJH: I did like it – obviously – but I felt it was tonally uneven in places, moving from quietness to (some might say excessive) melodrama. I think I responded to its quieter moments most strongly – there are some absolutely amazing monologues, beautifully written and beautifully delivered.
Beej: But that is RTD: he whacks you with a ‘cucumber’ and the word ‘cock’ then lulls you into the deeply dramatic underbelly of the drama – then makes you laugh.
Allan: He does that very good thing of hiding some drama in comedy. Making you laugh, but then making you wonder. Tonally it was all over the place and I’m not sure why, because he’s usually a more thoughtful writer than that. So it’s there for a reason.
AJH: I’m sure it was there for a reason, but I’m not sure it overall worked. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t think Cucumber was doing some really good stuff, it’s just a very … I guess … ambivalent piece? Self-consciously ambivalent. And, for me, sometimes this made it interesting, and sometimes made me frustrated.
Beej: I felt it tonally unbalanced because life is. It didn’t always feel dramatic, didn’t always feel comedic it almost felt spontaneous in places …he allowed for the boredom of life to seep in…which highlighted the dramatic elements for me.
Allan: I also think that it depends, like all good stories, on the perspective of the reader/viewer. At the end you both went ‘huh?’ and I was all ‘Yes!’. So it may be that different viewers are getting different things from it.
AJH: Well, I don’t want to talk about the ending straight off the bat – but I think part of my reason for the ‘huh’ was because anti-climax is a difficult thing to work with. And while it can be very powerful, it can also feel like … uh … a let down because, well, it is. But I feel that tension dominated my responses to Cucumber throughout its run: it was a very ambitious and, as you say, audacious piece but at the same time, it didn’t always completely work precisely because it was dependent on unravelling and confounding expectations.
Beej: No lets work towards the ending….it was very powerful and made you see the series in a slightly different way after.
Allan: rolls eyes You’re not very deconstructionist, are you.
Beej: We like order lol
AJH: Well, it’s a bit tough on the reader if we start at the end…
Allan: But this is my point about viewer perspective. Someone of Henry’s age, and similar experiences ‘got it’ at least halfway through. I’m Henry’s age. I spoke with a couple of friends about watching it and it all made sense to all of us. Henry’s sense of fear (no spoilers) is very palpable to us, very visceral.
AJH: Yes, I’m kind of a half-Henry. So I’m between Henry (who is 40-something) and, say, Freddie (who is nineteen). And I think as an exploration of queer generations – or at least queer British generations – I thought it was fucking stunning. Though I definitely feel closer to Henry than I do to Freddie.
Beej: I would have very much enjoyed being close to Freddie! I don’t think it was that I didn’t understand Henry because he was a very well constructed and I think a typical RTD character, but somehow I wanted answers for Henry at the end. However, I realised there could be no answers just life and searching.
Allan: The queer-generations and broader family, linking into community was one of its strong points for me. And I would run a mile from Freddie. (with a pair of those underpants, just for safe keeping though).
AJH: I agree (especially about the underpants). I think I found it super-interesting in the context of QaF as well – in the very episode they sort of realise that they ‘created’ Freddie and his generation by, essentially, being QaF. If I wanted a glib soundbite, I guess I’d say QaF was about pride and Cucumber was about a shame. Which feels like it should be odd but makes perfect sense to me.
Beej: I’m butting in because this ^^^^^ That’s what I would have said if you cursor hogs hadn’t run away.
Allan: But do you remember QAF at the time? Lots of people were desperate to have a life like Stuart. Everyone else was horrified. He was a monster. Yet QAF did create a generation of them: shallow, sex-obsessed, emotion avoiding pretty boys.
AJH: Yes, I agree, he was monstrous but also … we all wanted him, and wanted to be him right? Most importantly what he had was joy and freedom and absolute ease in being queer. And he wasn’t dead of AIDS or rejected by society or unloved and alone or any of the terrible things we were told our life would be. And, at the end, he is – in true romance novel style – semi-tamed by love and he goes off to have amazing gay adventures with the dude who has been devotedly loyal to him his whole life. So it was just this perfect “fuck you, yes we’re here, we can be whoever we like and we’re having more fun than you” kind of fantasy. Fantasy being the keyword.
Allan: This is the core of the cucumber – the seedy bit. That Henry never had that. Henry grew up as a teen in the middle of all that AIDS stuff. His life was shaped by it. He wasn’t told that’s how life would be – it was how life was. When he was a teenager he would have been surrounded by AIDS panic. In his early twenties he’d have friends who died – like Lance’s previous boyfriend, It’s no wonder Henry has the shame he has.
Beej: I wanted to add that we all celebrated QaF because there wasn’t anything like that around at that time and yes Stuart was a monster but although most of us felt like Vince, we wanted to be….’seen to’ by Stuart. What Cucumber has done is again new in that it has aged the generation of QaF and shown us how the ‘stereotypes’ play out.
AJH: Yes, it’s fascinating to me that QaF was made in 1999 and Cucumber in 2015. It’s interesting to see the evolution or the development, perhaps, of the types of stories we’re telling about ourselves.
Allan: Cucumber is a fascinating moving on of the story. It gives us a different version of romance. Where the hero is the one that gets in the way of his own ‘one true love’. He’s the one who blows it all apart because he can’t deal with who he is. This story isn’t about how the world fights against them, but about how they fight against their own futures.
AJH: Yes, it’s all turned inwards. Like how do you live in a world with a Grindr when you’ve grew up in a world … y’know .. do you remember the AIDs advert from the 80s? I was so young, like too young to really understand, but I just have this really vivid recollection of it. The big block and the chiselled out words. Like fucking Godzilla. And narrated by John Hurt for God’s sake. John Hurt Thinks You’re Going To Die of Gay.
Beej: I remember that with terror and then I was so ‘unsafe’ in my own behaviour and yet living in Brighton I was surrounded by people affected by this ‘plague’ who also ignored the warnings, but lived in terror of the consequences.
Allan: These are the things that shaped Henry and men of his generation, including Daniel, Lance, and even the celebratory Cliff. LIfe has moved on though, back at QAF it was all ‘this is gay men and we have sex, so fuck you’, now it’s Cucumber and its ‘we are gay men, we have emotional lives too, and oh fuck is this all there is’. External to internal.
Beej: But QaF was actually closer in time to all the AIDS terror adverts and advisory films.
AJH: Yes, but it’s almost like a two-step process isn’t it? I mean something that preoccupies me a lot are the ‘types’ of stories that are deemed queer stories. And QaF is very much one of those types – a necessary type – but it’s very much, as Allan says, YAY WE’RE GAY, DEAL WITH IT. But that’s as limiting in its way as all your stories having to be about epic Giovanni’s Room style tragedy.
Beej: ‘We’re here, we’re queer I’m buying you a beer!’
AJH: So, to me, Cucumber felt liberating. Because ‘we’re here’ stories often feel as much focused on … well … non-queer people as queer people. I mean, it’s nice to be told I don’t have to be miserable my whole life, but at the same time it’s as much about presenting and representing and – to an extent – selling ourselves. Whereas Cucumber seems to have moved beyond that, somehow? Like it’s almost a post queer story – deeply ‘about’ life and queerness, but not necessarily having to worry too much about what people who aren’t queer might take away from it.
Beej: Yes, in a way, a lot of my thoughts on Cucumber were polarised by watching the video Allan linked in his blog…The TEDx Panti Bliss video. It was the perfect thing to watch while I was still thinking about Cucumber…so to speak.
Allan: To me Cucumber was a multi-generational take on the same QAF issues. About belonging, sex and sexuality and relationships of all types. How the younger generation are shown is as instructive as how Henry and his generation are shown. The younger generation have almost moved beyond sexuality as part of identity, they are so carefree with it. Some of the younger generation – Dean and Freddie – have things to teach Henry about sex and relationships.
Beej: But don’t you think the younger ones were shown as having problems and sadnesses that replaced the ones Henry worried about. It was almost like being told – yes they have lots of hook-ups and sex but they are just as screwed up as the generation before. Look how Freddie is at the end…and Dean is heading for big trouble, blindly unaware.
AJH: I didn’t feel Dean was heading for trouble, actually? I thought Dean was kind of hilariously well-observed. I mean, he’s spent his whole life being told that certain sort of things happen to gay people … and sadly has been unafflicted with any of them. Like, his parents are very supportive and so he pretends he’s been kicked out by then. And in the first episode of Banana (companion series to Cucumber) he fantasies this whole doomed love affair that never happens. And, despite having what you would expect to be really ‘dangerous’ sex, he’s fine. Totally fine. Unabused, undamaged.Which I think is important. Because, as Allan said above, one of the themes of Cucumber is how fucking terrible it is that you’re essentially teaching an entire sub-section of people fear.
Beej: Yes…I agree the ‘non’ doomed gay youth was very funny and he was always trying to shock, but made people laugh instead…but the last scene hasn’t Dean become part of a gang? Or did I miss something about it? Dean was one of my favourite characters though.
Allan: I loved Dean. He has his own sexual problem to deal with (as do all the younger generation – and its a great point being made that no matter how things change there will always be sex related things to deal with). But Dean deals with his not by looking externally and seeking medical help, but by going internal. He explores different expressions of sexuality in the physical in the hope that it’ll help solve his particular problem.
AJH: I genuinely thought his problem was he was 19? Not that he was having a genuine medical pre-ejaculation problem.
Allan: Lol. Quite possibly.
Beej: I thought it was ‘over excitement’ and enthusiasm and youth. Lol.
Beej: Of course Freddie is Bi – How do you think that was represented and discussed within the drama?
Allan: I have some problems with how Freddie was portrayed. He is shown to be mean and manipulative, particularly with sex and the power that he wields, what with him being the sexy pretty character. While I think that it’s clear that that’s who Freddie is as a character I was a bit uncomfortable with the main Bi character being the ‘baddie’.
But then I also think that Freddie is the new Henry. Until he deals with who he is and what life could be he will never move on from being the manipulative one. In some ways Cucumber was a cautionary tale to Freddie.
Beej: I began the series having a serious problem with the character of Freddie, but by the last episode I felt sorry for him. He was aimless, couldn’t decide on anyone or anything. He’d even tried marriage and that didn’t go well…so yes I think Freddie is a young Henry. They were both searching, which is why I found the end so difficult and slightly depressing and happy at the same time…
AJH: Well, like Allan said, he and Henry are very similar characters (both powerfully manipulative and emotionally repressed) and ironically they’re both trapped by the same expectations about queer identity and queer sexuality i.e. that it’s all about sex, and sexual behaviour, and other needs and wants – like love, just to be really wet for a moment – become complicated and downplayed. I thought Freddie was okay, partially because Freddie Fox (the actor) is so completely delightful to look at, but also because I thought this relationship to sexual power was interestingly deconstructed. I mean, since we’re talking about QaF, in the opening episode of that, Stuart fucks this 15 year old boy and it’s consistently shown to be A Good Thing To Do. Nathan is empowered and awakened by the experience. And Freddie also was seduced by an older man (a teacher) – someone he was apparently sleeping with throughout his adolescence. But that’s explored much more ambiguously.
Beej: Ah I have to disagree with you there a bit after Stuart fucks Nathan…he’s called to be at the birth of his son. His happy go lucky fuck everything that moves changes after that and Nathan. Freddie is sex on a stick and manipulates with his looks and sex appeal but it doesn’t bring him happiness either, I don’t think RTD is saying that either case of being fucked by an older gay man was a good thing. The older man in Cucumber is punished for his ‘sin’ as well.
AJH: I didn’t get that all. There’s no hint in QaF that Nathan is materially damaged by being fucked by Stuart.
Beej: No, but he is growing up as a gay teenager with very disapproving parents and he is supported in a way by the confidence Stuart’s initial interest gives him to discover his way as a gay man. Freddie’s parents don’t seem to really care that much about Freddie at all, and it is almost as though Freddie has been let down by all authority figures in his life except, Henry.
Allan: Oooh, so many things to pick up. Where to start. Both shows are quite clear that teenagers actively instigate sex – for whatever reasons. Sometimes this is good, sometimes not. As someone who was thoroughly enjoying sex at aged 15 I’m going on the ‘tis a good thing’ side. As for Freddie. I liked how the show used his looks. Most effectively in the last episode, which was both quite porny and very uncomfortable emotionally for the purpose that lay behind it.
AJH: As a teacher, I feel if you fuck someone under the age of consent you are committing a crime. That is statutory rape, even if they claim they want it. I get that’s a legal distinction not a moral one. But the thing about arbitrary lines in sand is that you have to kind of accept their arbitrariness because they’re there to protect people who are legally deemed incapable of offering meaningful consent.
Allan: Indeed. As it should be sometimes. But if we had stood and not challenged arbitrary lines in the sand then the age of consent for gay folks would still be 21. It’s having these kind of discussions that helps explore and refine things.
AJH: That’s true – and I strongly believe the arbitrary line in the sand should be the same for everybody 🙂 Again, it throws up interesting things about the differences in context. QaF was about challenging that line and Cucumber is about exploring what the consequences of those challenges might be.
Beej: Do you think that Cucumber and QaF shared the lack of ‘Hero’ idea? Or rather ultimately flawed heroes….Do you think there was a hero?
Allan: For me this is the distinction between romantic heroes and dramatic ones. Both QAF and Cucumber were full of dramatic ones, the focus of the action, rather than anything else.
AJH: Yes, I agree. I identified with a lot of the characters at different times, but I didn’t always like them. That was enough to engage me. I didn’t feel I needed also to have someone there in a cape I thought was awesome.
Allan: Yes, even Lance I disliked on occasion. Poor Lance.
AJH: Okay, since you’ve invoked the L word.
Allan: See what I did there? Good, huh.
AJH: Cunning like the weasel. So before we move into serious spoiler territory, any final non-spoiler words for people who are thinking of watching Cumber?
Beej: We cannot spoil THAT episode for the readers it was too wonderful in so many ways..
Allan: Watch it. But contextualise it. This is a drama focussed on a middle aged man from northern England.
AJH: Yes. That’s good advice. I thought it was intriguing and excellent, but it does speak rather to my preoccupations. I’d also like to say Cleo is wonderful – she’s Henry’s sister and she’s just a brilliant character, and she’s got some amazing moments.
Beej: Cleo was the constant for me when I drifted between liking or disliking characters, but I really didn’t like Henry’s nephew and some dodgy territory was opened up there too!
Allan: Cleo is my favourite. Particularly her date night.
AJH: That whole episode – episode 4 – is it? Where they all go on different dates. Is the best hour of television I think I’ve seen in a very long time. So insightful and human and compassionate and melancholy and hopeful all at once. Brilliant.
Allan: Although it did slightly break the internet a bit with people complaining about the possibility of Hayley and Father Dougal having sex.
Beej: It mirrored an episode in QaF…not Haley and Father Dougal…one of my favourite scenes where Vince takes home a guy, from a Canal Street bar, with a false muscled abdomen, and they end up watching Dr Who.
Allan: That’s how all good dates should end. Or is that just me?
Beej: Dr Who or Star Wars…or a good RPG?
AJH: Okay, so. That’s Cucumber. If you want to avoid spoilers, go away now 🙂
AJH: We have to talk about Episode 6, right? For them as don’t care about spoilers, in this episode, Henry’s long-term partner, Lance, is brutally killed by Daniel, a man of somewhat confused sexual identity, he’s sort of been seeing since breaking up with Henry.
Beej: Boo from the gallery…I jumped up and down and yelled a lot, then cried quietly, in this episode…that’s my summing up.
Allan: The second best hour of television I’ve seen in many years (after the date night episode). I don’t recall sitting in front of the television actually stunned into silence before.
AJH: It was well-telegraphed so it shouldn’t have been a shock but, somehow, it really was.
Beej: I was stilled shocked by the actual blow…Hazel we saw Hazel then I knew it would end badly…Lance knew it would end badly…
Allan: We should have known. Once you ignore advice from a ghost from the past it’s all going to go to shit. And boy did it.
AJH: The thing is, Daniel was creepy throughout. I mean, you didn’t really need a ghost from the past to tell you that dude was fucked in the head. But you could also see why you’d kind of … keep ignoring it, invest in the idea of equality and sexual liberation that QaF was selling and not really how truly fucking dangerous that degree of shame can be. Which is, again, ironic because we’ve spent five episodes with Henry.
Beej: I’d been telling my cat all the way through Daniel was a bad’un….My Hubby watch until Episode 3…It was showing the two directions shame can go…Eventually, Daniel’s shame destroyed him and Lance.
Allan: Henry, and Daniel were both shaped by all the social and cultural things we talked about above. But it led them both onto different paths, both destructive, yet only one was so powerful that it was so brutal.
AJH: There’s definitely lots of parallelism in that episode. As you say, Henry and Lance both shaped by the same forces, and Daniel and Henry both drive by internalised shame. I mean there’s an extent to which Henry … um … well, he damages Lance and then Daniel finishes the job with a golf club. So while I don’t think it was Henry’s fault (and fault and responsibility comes up a lot in the next two episodes) I think there was a trajectory there.
Beej: One more thing about Episode 6 – I felt we are shown how Lances progresses through his life to accept being gay, and what kind of gay man he is. His acceptance by his Father is hard earned and gradual, but his life develops as it should. So Lance is a positive role model for a gay man, which is why I was so shocked that we returned to the gay guy gets killed trope. However, it does allow us to see what Henry misses out on in his younger life, and maybe why he is so unsure and confused about himself. Plus, Lance’s life leads the way to the two expressions of internalised shame seen in Cucumber.
Allan: But men are scary. Both as objects and as people. This is why I’m single, clearly. But Lance’s path is the one that we are shown to be the most reasonable and hoped for – the acceptance and the progress. Most traditional story telling of all the characters. Until the end.
AJH: Or alternatively the most hetornormative? I mean, he’s the one who wants the house and the family and the marriage and stuff.
Allan: Very much so. Maybe that’s why he had to die?
AJH: But then we’re saying that queer people can’t have the same stuff as straight people because we’re too busy clubbing each other to death.
Allan: Or we’re saying that the search for a heteronormative life needs to die? We need to go back to what it meant to be queer. To do things differently because we don’t occupy that het space.
AJH: Or that we should be able to make choices about what we want that aren’t shaped by expectations, either queer or heteronormative.
Beej: I think the idea of choices sits better with me…you can’t say well Lance you can’t be happy with that life because it’s too heteronormative…and Henry you can’t be happy because you don’t know how to be gay…
Allan: Personally I’d go with the choices.
AJH: I confess I am slightly concerned that Golf Club To The Head is our new Dead of AIDs. I am troubled by the expectation of violence that is inherent to most queer stories. But then the expectation of violence is inherent to most queer lives. So…
Beej: The violence dead gay thing bothered me too despite, as I said, understanding it’s narrative position. Surely there is a way of representing homophobic violence, and the expectation of it, without killing off the nice, happy gay man every-time…
Allan: Death By Golf Club is the extreme of the ideas and emotions Panti talks about in her video.
AJH: Yes, and lot of Cucumber is about the extreme. Right down the threesome gone horribly wrong that ends the first episode. Which I guess brings us – in circular fashion – to the final episode.
Allan: Which made some people go ‘huh’ and others ‘yes’. Because the key to the whole series in the last few words spoken. Which is a very bold move to make for a writer, especially for a television writer. Some thought it an anti-climax, but I thought it neatly pulled everything together. It explained why Henry had his fear, why he was quite often quite obnoxious to those he loved and it explained Lance and Daniel too.
AJH: I called it an anti-climax not in the sense of it being disappointing, but in the sense of it being deliberately narratively bathetic. I mean, those whole seven episodes, all that tragedy and bewilderment of them, coming down to a single sentiment. As problematic in its way, as a trope, as Dead Gay. But just as resonant.
Beej: My opinion is that it could only end the way it did…it created discussion — it has almost fuelled this discussion. It was about life in all it’s unpleasantness and confusion, as the ‘hero’ didn’t die… life went on….living on can be anti-climatic.
Allan: And had the potential to repeat itself in Freddie – the Gay Circle of Life.
AJH: Fuck, that’s depressing. I can’t tell if we’re making progress or not. I mean, these are our stories. What are whispering into the winds of time?
Beej: No, No Freddie meets a fabulous man who understands him totally, and they have wild monkey sex into their 80’s and set up a home for LGBTQAI youth. Please!
Allan: He’s going to need stronger underpants by then. Also, by then we’ll all have written less depressing LGBTQ stories for him to reminisce to.
Beej: As a final question why the white underpants?
Alan: It’s all about the sexy.
Beej: Worked for me then :p
AJH: And on that note, I think we should wrap this up.
Allan: Now you’re both invited to lunch. Cucumber sandwiches optional.
Beej: I was waiting for JAG to say that then I realised he wasn’t here lol.
Allan: Wait, are you comparing me to JAG? I’m not sure how he’ll take that.
Beej: In the right spirit I’m sure 😉
AJH: He did not like Cucumber. But, anyway, thank you both for joining me.
And as for the rest of you – if anyone has seen Cucumber, we’d love to know what you thought 🙂
About Alexis J Hall
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
About our Guests
Allan Jay writes M/M romance. He’s had a couple of short stories published and is currently working on his first novel. You can follow him on Twitter – he’s always got it switched on – @allanjaywrites for the writerly things or @allanj69 for the everyday things. He’s also, reluctantly, on Facebook. He needs a kick up the backside to get writing from time to time, so go prompt him
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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