Gay-themed drama on British television has become largely synonymous with the name of Russell T Davies. As the creator of the iconic and controversial Queer as Folk, first broadcast on Channel 4 in 1999, it was perhaps inevitable that Davies’ most recent offering, the eight-part drama series Cucumber, also broadcast on Channel 4, would be subject to no shortage of critical attention.
My own feelings upon viewing Cucumber have been, to say the least, ambivalent. The series’ narrative centres upon a character named Henry Best, a middle-aged, middle-class gay man, living in a spacious, semi-detached house in the well-to-do suburbs of Manchester, with his long-term partner, Lance. This diegetic normalcy quickly unravels, as Lance makes a marriage proposal, which Henry declines, and the pair’s relationship breaks down. Leaving the not-quite-marital home, Henry ends up sharing an apartment with two sexually voracious twenty-somethings, Grindr-obsessed Dean, and bisexual nymphomaniac Freddie (who is a perpetual object of unrequited lust for Henry), prompting Henry to undergo a turbulent and cathartic reassessment of his seeming steady, stable and happy life, throughout the course of the series.
In this way, Cucumber offers a de-construction of the ideal of monogamous, marital bliss, which has been the defining impetus of mainstream gay rights discourse in Britain for the last two decades (and which seems to have reached its logical conclusion with the legislative extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples in 2014). Yet, for much of the series, I couldn’t help but feel that the show painted a rather too rosy portrait of contemporary gay existence, one in which experiences of prejudice and homophobia have all but evaporated from public life. I have therefore chosen to use this blog post as a space to air some early observations around how far both Cucumber itself, and the series’ critical reception, has mobilised what we might call a ‘post-gay’ representational frame: the notion that gay people are now so firmly embedded within the fabric of day-to-day life in modern Britain, that gay sexualities are rendered ‘acceptable’, normalised, unremarkable, simple part-and-parcel of the terrain of contemporary social life.
A drama about people who just happen to be gay.
Considering the striking structural similarities between Cucumber and Queer as Folk – both were created by Davies, and are both set in Manchester, centring upon casts of (mostly) gay male characters – it is perhaps unsurprising that much of Cucumber‘s critical reception has placed the show in explicit dialogue with its predecessor.
Much critical writing has constructed Cucumber as a calmer, contemporary ‘answer’ to the (politically and sexually) confrontational Queer as Folk. If Queer as Folk appeared to capture the essence of a particular, historically situated moment of millennial gay life, Cucumber, or so this popular dialectic claims, has offered a portrait of what it means to be gay right now. Actually, it would be more accurate to state that popular commentary has celebrated what Cucumber appears to suggest it does not mean to be gay in 2015. Critics seem to have almost unanimously read Cucumber as a kind of de-gaying of gay identity, where being gay in the present moment doesn’t really mean very much at all; being gay has become unremarkable, unspectacular, no big deal. Through this critical optic, Cucumber is not a ‘gay’ drama, or even a drama about gay people, but rather a drama about people who just happen to be gay.
This valorisation of ‘incidental’ gayness is the crux of what I am tentatively terming ‘post-gay’ TV. A review on the Daily Mirror website, for example, described the show as a ‘hugely watchable and funny human drama’, and Sam Wollaston of The Guardian commended the series as ‘dead funny and – most of all – very, very human.’ Critic Ben Dowell, writing for the Radio Times, articulated similar sentiments, stating:
Cucumber is squarely a relationship drama, but one which happens to involve gay people. This feels satisfying as it reflects the way gay life is now incorporated into the mainstream – we don’t have to think of Lance and Henry as just a gay couple (or for that matter a multiracial gay couple as [Lance] is black) but really just as a couple. This seems to nicely bookend Queer as Folk, showing how far gay liberation has travelled – but perhaps also how far it still has to go.
According to this reviewer, Cucumber evokes a kind of post-modern identity, in which the old-fashioned categories of sexuality and race are rendered almost meaningless, overridden by the recognition of a transcendental, essential humanity, which cannot be reduced to specificities of ethnicity or sexual orientation.
This is not to say that Cucumber down-plays the specifically gay aspects of the characters’ lives: Grindr, an iPhone app used largely to arrange casual sexual encounters between men, features regularly in the show, and the politics of ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ are explored in a nuanced and humorous manner. Yet, these figure primarily as quirky and superficial idiosyncrasies within what has been almost unanimously received as a drama which speaks to a transcendental ‘human’ condition. In this critical reading, gay sexuality is seamlessly incorporated into an at once diverse and cohesive tapestry of contemporary human life, where anyone can identify with the emotional drama played out on screen, irrespective of the their sexual orientation.
Indeed, in an interview with The Independent, Russell T Davies himself distanced Cucumber from dramas which address specifically ‘gay issues’. He is quoted as stating:
A lot of gay dramas are representative, they’re seen as part of the argument for equality […] But if you kind of assume that you can put the equality argument to one side for the moment – public opinion is more or less on our side at the moment (with huge caveats) – then it should now be doing what straight drama has been doing for 2,000 years. We can catch up and say ‘we don’t need to wear a placard any more’.
Davies mobilises a complex and contradictory logic here, in which positive – that is, politically progressive – gay representations on television, are configured as those which do not try to be political at all. Davies appears to propose a relinquishing of political responsibility, a shedding of the burden of representational obligation on the part of creative practitioners, as a means of discursively re-situating gay identities under a banner of normative ‘humanity’. Davies’ assertion that sexual minorities no longer need to ‘wear a placard’, carries a variety of assumptions, not only around the apparently ‘equal’ position of gay subjects within contemporary British society, but also around what this purported equality could or should mean for the future of gay visibility in television drama. Davies implicitly draws upon a history of dramatic narratives centred upon the ‘normal’ or everyday aspects of heterosexual relationships, to evoke the seamless insertion of gay identities within these established generic frames as the model of ‘good’ or progressive gay representation.
Indeed, the trailer circulated before the series began, down-played any suggests that the show speaks solely, or primarily, to a specifically gay subject position, offering a de-spectacularisation of gay sexuality, and the embedding of gay people within the fabric of day-to-day life and community, particularly in the modern metropolis.
This dramatic construction of a post-gay era could be interpreted as part of a commercial strategy on the part of Channel 4, particularly in its imperative to reconcile statutory public service obligations with its status as a commercially-funded broadcaster. The Communications Act, established in 2003, mandates that Channel 4 must provide programming which ‘appeals to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society’. Cucumber therefore fits squarely with the Channel 4 brand, offering dramatic representations of sexual plurality, whilst framing these representations in a rhetoric of universal and transcendental, liberal ‘humanity’, so as not to isolate majority audiences, who in institutional discourses are invariably coded as heterosexual. Such an approach is particularly salient in the context of the higher costs associated with commissioning and producing fictional drama, particularly an eight-part series with a large, ensemble cast, helmed by a ‘big name’ such as Russell T Davies, and broadcast in a prime-time slot on the network’s flagship television channel. Indeed, it is worth noting that Channel 4’s documentary output has mobilised a fairly contrasting register, continuing to explore the specific issues attendant to life as a gay person in contemporary Britain, in programmes such as Underage and Gay, and The Black Lesbian Handbook: a series of short documentaries about black lesbian subcultures, only available for streaming on 4oD.
Episode Six: A change in tone. Violence and utopia.
As I have explored, the bulk of the series offered a mostly cheery and light-hearted articulation of the post-gay sensibility, in which experiences of homophobia have become largely eradicated from public life. The final three episodes, however, took on a far more complex, if also seemingly far more pessimistic, tone.
As the critical commentary around Cucumber is paradigmatic, popular discourses would have it that being gay in the current moment is really no big deal; gay people have become highly normalised and accepted features of the social terrain of contemporary Britain. Whilst there may be some truth to this, to be gay is still to be distinctly outside the normative, to be different to how society and the media tells us most people are, or should be. The social world is still pervasively structured upon the assumption that pretty much everyone is heterosexual, and whilst the legal status of gay citizens is now one of formal equality, one’s difference to the norm can be felt, in often highly elusive, intangible and affective ways (Sara Ahmed, in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, offers a brilliant theorisation of these kinds of ‘queer affects’).
In Episode Six of Cucumber, Lance goes out for evening drinks with a work colleague, Daniel. Daniel, who Lance has been lusting after since the first episode, is ostensibly heterosexual, yet Lance is unconvinced, as, in a slightly bizarre turn of events, Daniel had previously allowed Lance to watch him masturbate after a drunken night out. Throughout the episode, it becomes clear that Daniel has an extremely confused, conflicted, and turbulent relationship with this own sexual identity. Back at Daniel’s flat, he and Lance begin to engage in sexual foreplay, but, repulsed by his own desires, Daniel’s internalised homophobia spills out into verbal and physical violence against Lance. The episode culminates in Daniel murdering Lance by striking him over the head with a golf club.
Lance’s violent death is prefigured earlier in the episode, where he encounters a prophetic ‘ghost’ whilst out on Canal Street. The ghost, an ageing woman identified only as Hazel, warns Lance to go home, rather than persuing his passion for Daniel. Above the soundtrack of an ominous and sonorous gospel choir, she describes how she died whilst singing karaoke in a nearby bar. She states, ‘Now I walk up and down this street. Me and the boys in the water,’ referring to the many young men who have come to Canal Street seeking, sex, romance and adventure, only to end up somehow dead, drowned in the water of the canal. Significantly, Hazel is played by Denise Black, who starred in Queer as Folk, also as a character named Hazel (Hazel Tyler, Vince’s mother). This inter-textual linkage articulates, in a highly subtle and sophisticated manner, how the (both internal and external) homophobic ‘ghosts’ of times purportedly gone by, continue to simmer beneath the surface of contemporary life, not gone away, but merely banished to the periphery of consciousness in this new-found era of ‘tolerance’ and formal equality.
Indeed, this episode marked a turn to fantasy within a show which had thus far been mostly naturalistic in style. This bringing together of fantasy and realism enabled any easy distinctions of past, present and future to collapse; the narrative of Cucumber‘s final three episodes occupied an ambiguous territory somewhere in between a celebration of the undeniable strides in gay rights in Britain, an awareness of continuing danger, phobia and marginalisation, and a somewhat utopian glimpse of a possible future yet to come.
In Episode Seven, as a means of assuaging his grief over Lance’s murder, Henry forms ‘The Collective’, a sort of commune in which all of the queer characters from the Cucumber (and also Banana, a vaguely narratively inter-linked show broadcast on E4), live together in the large suburban house Henry and Lance once shared. Here, they form a kind of alternative family, taking up and reconfiguring the normative spaces of the suburban household, and reusing them for their own, queer ends, carving out a seemingly carefree world in which all sexualities, ages and genders co-exist together. The penultimate episode of the series ended with another fantasy sequence, in which various characters from the two series, spanning a range of generations, and the sexual spectrum, are dancing together in Henry’s living room, which has been transformed into nightclub with colourful flashing lights, and a DJ playing the camp, 70s disco anthem ‘Knock on Wood’.
The Collective is, however, short-lived, as the characters each gradually move away, to live in monogamous couples or move in with family, leaving Henry alone with his grief. The pull towards normativity which appears to ultimately dismantle The Collective, could be considered a critique of the ways in which gay equality has been contingent upon the formation of particular kinds of relationships, and ways of life, moulded upon heterosexual norms, of marriage, monogamy and the nuclear family. In its mobilisation of a ‘post-gay’ rhetoric, Cucumber is therefore nuanced and complex. Reflecting upon my experiences of watching the series, the overly cheery tone of the first five episodes lulled me into a reading of the show as essentially laying claim to a denial of the continuation of homophobia in twenty-first century Britain. The bursting of this seemingly care-free bubble by Lance’s murder therefore worked to painfully bring into focus the ultimate precariousness of the unprecedented advances in gay rights, and the ongoing realities of marginalisation and violence experienced by many sexual minority subjects. However, at the same time, Cucumber imagines, albeit fleetingly a kind of queer utopia, evoking glimpses of how the world could be different: a future maybe, possibly, hopefully, still to come.
Michael Lovelock is a PhD candidate in the School of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. His thesis, provisionally entitled ‘Interrogating the Politics of LGBT Celebrity in British Reality Television’, critically explores the ways in which the appearances of LGBT people in British reality TV have been structured through discourses of acceptance and social integration. Broadly, his research interests encompass popular television formats, celebrity culture, and gay and queer representations and politics.