This week we hit the Manchester gay scene, travel back to the 16th century and witness one of the worst light entertainment shows in recent memory.
Fifteen years ago Russell TV Davies wrote a groundbreaking drama that caused a stir when it first aired on Channel 4. That drama was Queer as Folk; an unabashed look at the Manchester gay scene, an area Davies re-explores in his return to Channel 4. Cucumber gets its title from a certain state of male arousal that is explained in an opening scene by Vincent Franklin’s protagonist Henry. Whereas the characters in Queer as Folk were in the know when it came to Manchester’s night life, Henry and his friends seem a little clueless. Obviously Henry’s heyday was at a similar time when Queer as Folk was filmed, however now he feels a little out of step with the modern world. A scene in which he and his friends quickly find an online profile of an attractive barman leads Henry to assess that the mystique has all but gone from modern dating. Not that he should care, as Henry and his partner Lance have been together for fifteen years to the extent that the latter proposes marriage. However, Henry doesn’t seem that enthused about his relationship and his eye is soon turned by Freddie; the new young assistant at his work’s cafeteria. Freddie’s flatmate, the enthusiastic Dean, soon enlists Henry’s help in sorting out their rent and allows our protagonist a chance to spy on his room. We soon learn that Henry and Lance have never properly cemented their relationship a fact that the latter seems bitter about. This all changed in a hilarious final scene which involves a proposed threesome and the police being called out. This leads to Henry to make a final decision which will impact both his relationship with Lance and change the course of the series.
It took me a while to properly get into the world of Cucumber and this was for a number of reasons. Firstly I felt that Henry wasn’t that likeable of a central character and his constant winging didn’t do much to change that. Secondly, I did feel at times like there was too much sexual dialogue and it made me a little uncomfortable. Although I should have expected this sort of thing from Davies, I didn’t feel a lot of it added anything to the plot and instead was there simply to shock. However, I finally got into Cucumber during a scene in which Henry is getting ready for his date with Lance. Whilst Henry is dancing along to a Kylie track; he receives a number of phone calls relating to an incident that occurred earlier at work. This brilliant comic sequence suggested to me that Cucumber was a show that balanced both a fun side and a more serious tone. On the whole, I also enjoyed the cast which was led by the brilliant Vincent Franklin. Although Franklin struggled to make his character seem likeable, by the end I’d grew to understand Henry and think that the change of scenery that he experienced at the end of the episode will make him even more intriguing. Cyril Nri’s performance provided the perfect balance to Franklin’s; as he made Lance the more grown-up member of the couple even if his actions towards the end of the episode were incredibly immature. Although Cucumber didn’t strike me as an instant hit; there was a lot to like and it was obvious to me that Russell T Davies has devoted a lot of time to making these characters feel realistic. Whilst I’m not going to commit myself to a full series at this point, I’m definitely going to stick with Cucumber and see where it goes.
Cucumber was complemented by the E4 series Banana which focused on the younger members of the cast; most notably Dean and Freddie. The first episode of Banana brilliantly filled in the gaps of Cucumber and let us see what was happening with the young flat mates when they weren’t interacting with Henry. At this early stage I have to say I’m not a fan of Freddie Fox’s Freddie; who has a highly inflated opinion of himself and walks around with his nose in the air. However, I did find Fisayo Akinade’s Dean quite endearing as he enlisted Henry’s help with his flat problems. But if you thought Cucumber was graphic, Banana goes all out as we seen Dean in several compromising positions throughout the course of the episode. Despite already seeing Dean’s unique appendage in Cucumber; in Banana we see it in action on more than one occasion. However, Banana at least brings a little more context to the character of Dean as we see how his parents feel about their son’s sexuality. It also added an extra scene to the end of the first episode of Cucumber; as we learnt just why Dean allowed Henry to stay with he and Freddie. Whilst I enjoyed the tone of Banana I don’t particularly think I can keep up with the same level of sexual content every week. However, unlike Cucumber, Banana will present us with a different set of characters every week so I’ll be interested to see where the series goes over the course of its eight episodes.
Changing the tone completely we arrive at this week’s other big debuting drama; Peter Kosminsky’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s best-selling historical novel Wolf Hall. Set during the 16th century, Wolf Hall follows the life of Thomas Cromwell as he attempts to climb the social ladder in the court of King Henry VIII. One of the issues I had with this first episode was the fact it flicked between Cromwell’s appointment as one of Cardinal Wolsley’s advisers and the Cardinal’s eventual fall. This was rather a jarring experience and ultimately spoilt my enjoyment of this first episode. At the same time I do appreciate the necessity to lay the historical groundwork in order for the audience to understand Cromwell’s position at the start of the story. As somebody who hasn’t read the source material I was surprised at just how little Henry VIII was in this first episode; especially since actor Damian Lewis currently appears on the front of this week’s Radio Times. In fact this first episode featured a lot of characters talking about exciting events rather than us the audience seeing any of them play out online. In its favour, Wolf Hall has an excellent central performance from Mark Rylance; an actor who is best known for his Shakespearian performances. Here he plays Cromwell as a master manipulator, somebody who knows how to play things to his own advantage and switch his allegiances when needs be. As Henry and Anne Boleyn respectively; both Lewis and Claire Foy showed promise in their brief appearances in this first episode. I also love the atmospheric nature of the direction and in particular the way the corridors that people lurk in are shot. Although some people have complained about the lack of light, I feel it adds to the authenticity of the programme and is definitely one of Wolf Hall’s plus points. Just like the other dramas this week, Wolf Hall can only get better especially now we know that Henry VIII is becoming a major player in the story. Despite not being won over by Wolf Hall I loved Rylance’s performance enough to at least give it a second go around.
Finally we come to the latest surreal ITV weekend offering in the form of Get Your Act Together. This bizarre light entertainment programme saw c-list celebrities learn a myriad of variety skills and then compete against each other for the benefit of a studio audience. Every one of the fairly famous faces is coached by an already established act so for example former Westlife star Brian McFadden learnt escapist magic from Penn and Teller. Although the premise seems fairly pedestrian, what makes Get Your Act Together so bizarre is the way it’s been filmed. Bland host Stephen Mulhern meets each act backstage and for some reason we’re forced to follow their progression to the stage before they perform. The producers also keep up the pretence that we’re eavesdropping on every element of the show as the other acts commentate on their rivals from the green room. Additionally, we hear from the audience after the end of each act as they attempt to decide who to vote for after all five have performed. Oddly, as well as normal folks in the audience, there are numerous celebrity attendees including Lionel Blair and Christine Hamilton. It’s never quite explained why there are celebrities in the audience as well as on the stage, but it’s one of Get Your Act Together’s many elements that doesn’t really make sense. Get Your Act Together does really seem to have the philosophy of throwing everything against the wall and seeing if any of it sticks. To is credit it did have a couple of memorable moments but these were mainly when the celebrities couldn’t master a skill such as Sherrie Hewson’s plate-spinning or Nigel Havers’ ventriloquism. But two minute highlights from a forty-five minute show does not a decent programme make and overall Get Your Act Together ranges from the dull to the extremely puzzling. Mulhern said in a recent interview that he was shocked about the reception that Get Your Act Together has received, but I’m not quite sure why as nothing about the show screams hit and I’d be very surprised if was recommissioned following this first disastrous run.
Next Time: Fortitude, Call the Midwife and Catastrophe