How Russell T. Davies revolutionised TV queerness

by | Feb 24, 2022 | All, Opinions

One of the scenes I remember most vividly from Cucumber, Russell T. Davies’ underrated 2015 mini-series – which could somewhat reductively be called Queer as Folk for the 21st century – is a sequence in which three characters, all men, all queer, get ready for a night in town. It’s set to ‘Some Nights’ by fun (a song I never think of beyond this context). I was in the second year of my undergrad degree when it aired, and I ended up telling everyone about it. I thought about the ‘Some Nights’ scene whenever I would get ready to go out, but the figure that stuck in my mind the most throughout Cucumber was Freddie Baxter (played by Freddie Fox).

There weren’t any explicitly bisexual characters in Queer as Folk; I remember talking to people about it at university; people I knew at the time said they thought it was outdated, too full of stereotypes, and problematic characters (hello Stuart).

But to call Queer as Folk dated is as much an oversimplification as calling Cucumber a new version of Queer as Folk would be. Instead, the two shows belong together (alongside, but not in a direct lineage with, Davies’ AIDS drama, It’s a Sin), two links on a chain that show the ways in which queer life has changed or stayed the same, both on-screen and off.

It’s this triptych of men getting ready, to an almost-forgotten pop song, that captures one of the biggest changes between Queer as Folk and Cucumber: in the latter, not everyone is white; there’s a range of ages, and of sexualities. It captures this moment of change, when what was once called “the gay community” is becoming “the queer community” instead, something more able to illustrate the multitudes of contemporary queer life. Narratively and in terms of the world it takes place in, Queer as Folk is much narrower in focus – a few gay men are the focus of the story, and the spaces that they navigate are what could be called “gay spaces,” maybe even safe spaces. The men practically live on Canal Street; in pubs and clubs, places where they know they’ll be safe. Queer as Folk always casts an eye on the gap in-between those spaces, from cruising sequences set to ‘Sexy Boy’ (Davies’ shows have always known how to use a needle drop), to the anxiety of overhearing co-workers talking about gay men in a harmful way.

But in Cucumber, the world has grown, and opened up with it; in an early episode, Henry (Vincent Franklin) and a group of friends are out in a pub. It isn’t an explicitly gay pub, but their gay lives are transplanted there with no problem; instead of cruising corridors and clubs, some of the men are on Grindr; there’s an ability to be more “out” with a smaller – but by no means non-existent – element of fear. But fear and the shadow of violence have always loomed large in Davies’ shows; often communities come together in the wake of loss: from Phil’s death in Queer as Folk, to the shocking violence that comes late in Cucumber.

At the dawn of this lineage – and so much of queer community – is It’s a Sin, where queer communities small and large are wrenched apart, and brought back together, as the AIDS crisis begins to cut through them. Davies’ queer communities – even the ones that are narrow in their representation – are built on a foundation of solidarity, of trying – and sometimes failing – to be there for one another.  The characters in It’s a Sin leave their families and create one of their own. La! Davies always makes sure that sexuality never defines them. It just happens that the AIDS epidemic is targeting young gay men but Davies is clear to paint these men as ambitious, bold and deeply human rather than just define them as ‘gay men’. There’s an impending doom that hangs over It’s a Sin but what hits you most are the joyous moments when ‘the family’ is together fighting the fight and celebrating each other. Davies’ scripts have always danced between comedy and heavy drama and in the case of It’s a Sin, the drama hits all the more effectively because we know these characters so well. It’s the show Davies always wanted to write and because of this, it feels his most personal work to date. Like Queer as Folk and Cucumber before it, it’s a show that isn’t afraid to shy away from the realities of queer life.

It’s a thread that is even present in Years and Years, his speculative sci-fi, which has the primary tension of if the characters will do what’s best for themselves, or for those around them – it even flirts with ideas of queer representation and how the world moves on; when a child says that they’re trans, the first thing they get asked is if it’s about gender, but instead, they say that they’re transhuman.

Even in what might be considered his most mainstream piece, ITV’s Bob& Rose, the queer characters feel well measured. The story of Bob,(Alan Davies) an openly gay man in Manchester who is surprised when hefalls for Rose (Lesley Sharp), who he forms a close bond with on a night out on Canal Street. The world Davies paints here shares more than a little DNA with Queer as Folk; it’s more than possible to believe that Bob might have had a run-in with Stuart on one of his hedonistic nights. The unlikely love story between this happy, proud gay man, and an unfulfilled woman with a job she had no passion for, living with a boyfriend who’d grown too used to her company was Davies at his most tender. The pair share a sense of humour, a disappointment in the direction their lives have gone, and feel instantly comfortable in each other’s company. The show explored how their two respective friendship groups reacted to a relationship they couldn’t understand.

News of her son’s new relationship hits Bob’s mother Monica (Penelope Wilton) the hardest. She has spent her life, since her son came out, campaigning for gay rights, and feels as if all the work she has done – organising marches to push legislation through – has been for nothing. The series subverts the traditional narrative of a formerly straight person discovering that they’re queer, by showing how Bob wrestles with how his new relationship has changed so much about his life, making him question who he really is.

Cruelly axed by ITV after one series (and shifted to a post-news slot for its last two episodes), the series was perhaps another example of Davies’ writing being at once a product of, and ahead of, its time. Like all of his series, Davies creates a world in Bob & Rose that feels lived-in and fully realised. There’s always a temptation to bemoan any channel that dares to pull the plug on a show, but with something like Bob and Rose, there’s something that feels quietly radical about taking a show as strange and intimate as this, and trying to give it the broadest possible audience.

There’s a moment in Cucumber, just before a moment of shocking violence that every fan of the series will remember all too vividly when a ghost from Davies’ past appears – Hazel from Queer As Folk. It’s a moment that acknowledges both series as existing in the same world; there’s a temptation to gaze at the back of every frame, to see if anyone else is there. But what this really does is reinforce why Davies’ constantly changing, evolving queer communities are so compelling and powerful: they exist in a world like our own; it mirrors our progress, our losses, and our continued desire to try to be there for one another.

Queer as Folk, Cucumber, Banana, Tofu,  and It’s a Sin are all available on All 4. Bob & Rose is available on BritBox Years and Years is available on BBC iPlayer.

Sam Moore

Sam Moore

24/02/2022

Sam is a writer, artist, and one of the founding editors of Third Way Press; they have contributed to Little White Lies, Neotext, Digital Spy, and other places. They are the author of All my teachers died of AIDS (Pilot Press), and the forthcoming Long live the new flesh (Polari Press).

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