Cucumber: a salad made of work and sex

SPOILER ALERT: look away now if you haven’t seen Cucumber or don’t what know to a few things that happen.

I was far too immature to get into Queer as Folk when it played on TV. I must have been about 15 and all I wanted was the sex and kissing scenes. So I recorded each episode on the VCR in my bedroom and then I’d fast forward through the programme until two guys started to snog, and I’d just watch those bits. I even transferred these clips onto another tape to cut out the drama. The best scenes were in the first episode, when Stuart brings Nathan home from the nightclub. I watched these clips over and over again. I wore the tape out. I can still remember the dialogue. “And the whole football team is there, naked and in shorts, and the coach is going yes, yes, yes…”

Queer as Folk is talked about as a watershed for gay characters on TV, only I didn’t take part fully. I only came for the rude stuff. I am sure I didn’t watch the full stories because I didn’t want to be a part of the gay world. I didn’t want to be involved in the drama because I didn’t want to accept that I was gay. Wanking to the sex scenes was one thing, but caring for the characters and desiring their lifestyles and wanting to know similar people in real life—that would all be too much. Fast-forward was my friend.

But now I’m grown up. And I was so excited when I saw that Queer as Folk’s writer Russell T Davies has written a new series about gay characters. Well, not just one series but two, Cucumber and Banana. I just watched the first episodes of each, and fell in love. They are so rich and so authentic that I really cannot wait for their stories to unfold over the coming weeks.

The main character in Cucumber is Henry, who explains the series titles in the first episode’s opening sequence. The titles refer to different degrees of hardness in an erection. As Henry is explaining this he is pushing a trolley round a supermarket and perving on the other men. It’s hilarious and, yes, erotic. Years ago I would have found the scene distasteful: characterising a gay man only through his sexuality, the stereotypical one-dimensional way that many straight people view gay people. But now I just found it brilliant because, frankly, it was true and honest. And it sets up one very important theme for Cucumber: Henry and sex.

As men, even gay men, we face pressure to be having sex and to be good at it. Henry and his longterm boyfriend Lance (a hilarious name) don’t seem to be fulfilled on the sex front. What an excellent device, Russell. Here’s why it’s so clever. Gay men are sexualised in films and TV. Straight people do find it funny to make jokey innuendos to their gay friends more often than they do to their straight friends, I think. There is no avoiding the fact that the gay identity is a sexual identity. So Davies tackles this head on and says, OK, if this is such an important part of a gay man both externally and internally, I’m going to show up the flaws in that perception and I’m going to turn it against my character and see how he breaks. In episode one we’ve already started to see Henry break, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how he crumbles in the coming weeks.

There are other pressures on Henry, pressures that are no different from those on a straight man. The scenes in his workplace are minor but fascinating. Henry sits in his own room adjunct to a large open-plan office. This means he’s more senior than the people in the main room. He wears a suit and smart specs. The company does something to do with insurance. The computer screens play spreadsheets—you just know it even if you can’t see it. We don’t yet get the feeling that Henry is unhappy with his work, but the contrast between it and his personal life is pretty sharp. At work he’s smart and competent and professional, but in the pub with his friends he’s boisterous and crude. I guess we can all sympathise with this, but it does make me wonder what are the effects of being that work person for 40 hours a week. The Japanese have a word for people like Henry: he’s a salaryman. If you just look at Henry in his work life you’ll see him as cool, organised, competent, capable, conscientious and so on. He’s a good worker. And yet because we get to see his home life too, we’re aware of how much this is a performance. He’s breaking down. The way he jealously guards one of the essays that he wrote for the qualification that helped him to become more senior is far more telling than it appears actually: he is insecure in his seniority. Henry knows his work life is an act, an act of energy and arrogance.

The act of work, I think, is one reason why we’re so exhausted come Friday night. It is not recognised alongside the physical and intellectual fatigue, but the performance of being a certain somebody in the workplace is just as draining as all the other things.

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