In the late 90s, Russell T Davies introduced gay sex to British TV not with grunt-y rutting or a sleazy blow-job scene, but with rimming.
As anyone who was a teenager then and stayed up to giddily watch Queer as Folk on their little bedroom TV will attest, the scene where Charlie Hunnam's character, 15-year-old Nathan, experiences the awakening of his life as Aidan Gillen's character, Stuart, puts his face between his glistening, softly-lit buttocks was – still is – one of the most exciting screen moments for a generation. Nathan's eyes bulged along with the rest of us.
Queer as Folk brought 3.5 million viewers to Channel 4, along with truckloads of complaints. But the excitement around Davies lead to the BBC giving him Doctor Who to rescue from fustiness and turn it, once again, into a primetime smash. Next week, Davies returns to to Channel 4 ("We wouldn't be Channel 4 if we weren't planning to lightly outrage the Daily Mail, says their chief creative officer, Jay Hunt) and the gays with a new comedy drama about gay life in Manchester, which premiered at the Barbican last night. Only, we're not just getting a single show from Davies. We're getting a threesome.
A new series, Cucumber, will be on Channel 4 on Thursdays at 9PM, followed by Banana – a collection of one-off stories from all sexualities and persuasions – at 10PM on E4. Then there's Tofu, a set of short films about the lives and sexual escapades of "real people", that will run on Channel 4's website. Davies says a scientific study on the erection that divided the hard-on into four categories, from soft to hard – "One, tofu. Two, peeled banana. Three, banana. And four, cucumber" – was the inspiration behind the titles.
Queer as Folk was famous for breaking ground with its celebration of gay sex at a time of fierce campaigning to get the age of consent lowered from 18 to 16, but while Cucumber, Banana, Tofu may not be set to cause quite as much fuss (men can legally marry each other now), it's an ice bucket challenge of gayness (still with a lot of sex and naked penises) at a time when gay lives are still, for the most part, a television wilderness. As Davies says on the phone from his Manchester home, "we still have a way to go."
VICE: Hi Russell. Fucking hell, Cucumber is good.
Russell T Davies: That's the best response I think I've ever had. It is good, isn't it?
It's nice to be absolutely flooded with gayness because, apart from the soaps, gay TV in Britain is pretty lacking these days. Was that a big drive in making the series?
RTD: Well, from my point of view there are a lot more gay characters than there ever used to be. Don't forget, soap operas have the highest viewing figures every night in this country, and they have lots of gay characters. You can't bloody move for them. I'm 51 now, and remember the days when you wouldn't see a gay character in 365 days of television programming. Now, shows like Hollyoaks are full of them and gay presenters like Graham Norton, Alan Carr and Paul O'Grady rule the roost. However, I know what you mean, and I do try and do my bit. You have to keep fighting.
Let's not forget that you're the man who made a bisexual superhero – Captain Jack – kiss Doctor Who on primetime children's television. When I was a kid, "gaylord" was a taunt that would have you running for the legs of a dinner lady. Now, kids might be bolting around the playground actually pretending to be a bisexual superhero.
(Laughs ) Well, I've done a lot of protesting in my time. I've signed hundreds of petitions. Sometimes, throwing a brick at things works. But often a joke carries just as well as a brick does. If you can do these things with a sense of humour, with a lightness that sort of defies anyone to have a problem with it, it's great. Sometimes, when everyone is shouting, no one is listening. If you come into the middle and laugh, you're going to get somewhere. I think I've proved that. I've done that.
Have you heard about the uproar of the straight-washing of the Pride DVD in the US?
Yes! I was amazed.
Amazed, as in, horrified?
No, I actually found it funny. There are worse things in the world, to be honest, and it's not going to get me flying the torch. Sometimes the insistence of gayness can quite naturally turn an audience away because, if you showed me a drama about golf, or something, I just wouldn't be interested.
Right. Surely the fact that a film about the history of the gay fight can be brought to a wider audience that may have never chosen to watch it is a good thing.
Yes, I agree with that.
You're really punching us in the face with gay in Cucumber, Banana, Tofu, though, aren't you?
(Laughs) Well, if you get me talking, it's all gay, gay, gay all the time, because, quite simply, it's what fascinates me. It's what I love. It's why I'm writing. Going back to what you said about gay characters, though, it's true that you can scroll through 300 channels of an evening and not find a single one.
It feels like one of Cucumber's biggest strengths is how it's removing the other-ness of gay lives, too. It's just a load of mates going to the pub and being funny.
Exactly. It's just people getting on with life. It's about relationships and their break downs, about getting to know why people's lives are taking the paths that they are.
But you're also touching on how men of a certain age may have explored their sexuality when they were young compared to how young men do now. You've got a load of middle-aged men sitting around a pub table in one scene, talking about cumshots being shared on Grindr as a modern chat-up line.
Well, yes, and they're not even sitting in a gay bar. It's just a bar. Grindr is an interesting subject because, really, it's just a modern expression of what was always a sub-text for men my age. You can get on a soapbox and talk about the commodification of sex, and there are merits to that, certainly. In later episodes a younger character uses Grindr and we explore all the problems that ensue, but, you know, these are the problems you'd have with any bad hook-up. A bad hook-up is a bad hook-up. Equally, a great hook-up is a great hook-up, however it happens.
Right. Presumably, if a gay man has ever wanted a shag, he's found one. Grindr feels like a heightened version of what once was.
Yes, and it shows how inventive gay minds are that we'd build something like that. Where will we be with it all in 20 years? I have no idea. I dread to think. But Grindr isn't the mechanisation of sex. It's a subtext of what we were always thinking.
Did you have any idea about the different stages of erections – tofu, banana and then cucumber – before writing the show?
No! I'd never had that conversation with my friends. The world sees it as simply hard or soft. But there's a million sort of erections! I did think the titles that we chose could have been seen as a bit crude, a bit Carry On, but they're so accurate. I mean, we're talking about men, cocks and erections, aren't we?
One of the stand-out scenes in the first episode of Cucumber is when the lead character Henry and all his mates are sitting in a taxi rank, in the rain, and he goes off on this charged monologue about how Ryan Reynolds becomes gay when he wanks in front of a mirror.
Right, yes. (Laughs) Well, no matter who you fancy – no matter how handsome or beautiful the man – they must wank. It's true. Doesn't matter who it is, they've all got it out and had a wank in front of the mirror.
Do people still come up and ask you about Queer as Folk?
Less and less. But to this day I still can't believe we got away with it.
The rimming scene?
Yes! God. It was a very carefully selected scene, actually. It was a sexual experience that a young boy wouldn't have even imagined experiencing, because these kinds of visuals just weren't available back then. He would have sat in his bedroom wanking his head off thinking about men and sex and cumming, but probably would have never imagined being rimmed.
I remember the lighting being really beautiful.
It was. It had to be. It couldn't just be fucking, because fucking can come across as cold, mechanical and aggressive. The two men fucked later on, but this scene was so important. It was pivotal. And, if you watch it now, it hasn't dated. Every detail was gorgeous.
Now, though, a gay teenager will definitely know what rimming is. They'll have watched it on the internet.
Yes, if you talked to a young boy now, they're more likely to have seen it than not seen it. It's amazing really, because I'd have sat through anything to watch sexy gay men have sex! It's a bit heartbreaking.
What would you hope a young person watching Cucumber, Banana, or Tofu took from the shows?
Well, I'd like to think that, although a lot of strong thing happen in Cucumber, it's not there to shock. It's there to create a world full of great people who you'd want to spend an hour with, and then go and watch Banana and meet more people afterwards. There's no drug dealing. No one is sold as a sex slave. It's not judging anyone – even when their behaviour is monstrous. It's saying: bad behaviour is bad behaviour. If you behave badly, you're bad as a man. Not because you're gay.
Do you hope it normalises things more? Because we're obviously still living in a time where gay education is desperately needed. Same-sex sex education in schools, for example, appears to be abysmal.
I do hope it normalises things, yes. But it's hard. I absolutely appreciate what you mean but I'm glad I never think like that when I'm writing. I don't think I've ever thought, 'I'm going to educate you now'. I'm much more in the moment, sitting on the couch and contemplating, and believe that the end result can educate. Life is complicated for everyone – this is the point. It's just life, no matter what your choices are. I hope the shows provide a step away from polarisation, a step away from the shouting. They're saying, "Come and have a laugh with us."
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