‘I hate gay men,’ said Henry (Vincent Franklin) in Cucumber’s opening episode last month. ‘It’s all ‘Hi!’ and ‘Oh my God! Look at you!’’
It was the kind of comment that was all whipped cream with knives: the kind of frothy acerbity which – following on from a titillatingly phallic opening sequence – wolfishly opened the door to critics eager to condemn the programme for its hyperrealism and knowingness.
It was also, as shown by tonight’s episode, an exercise in misdirection, because, five episodes in, Cucumber has proven itself to be knowing in the best ways. This isn’t an ironized depiction of sex and sexuality. It’s not a single entendre sustained over five weeks.
On the contrary – Cucumber is unswervingly, and unnervingly, precise in its examination of the origins and consequences of a sexualised, and increasingly pornified, culture. You may not agree with what it has to say. You may not like the way it says it. But what it says will stay with you.
It’s two scenes this week that make the point. In the first, Cleo (Julie Hesmondhalgh) excoriates Henry for his venture into cyber-titillation; in the second, Daniel (James Murray) angrily self-pleasures in front of an eager Lance.
Both scenes wrongfoot the viewer with their audacity and explicitness, the former rather more successfully, having the advantage of huge polemical intent and lacking, in Daniel, a character whose behaviour is as hard to fathom as it is to believe. As Cleo launches into a monologue that precisely traces a link between a pair of tweezers, her daughter Molly’s burgeoning sexuality and online porn, she delivers the kind of fierce truth-telling that can only come from a place of moral outrage and maternal love.
Out of shame at their own bodies and desire to conform to the expectations of a boy, Molly and her female peer group, we discover, are brutally rejecting their bodies’ new-discovered growths. The very online clips which Henry has produced have led to a playground craze in which girls’ bodies have become public property to be pawed at and humiliated. As for the boy doing the pawing – ‘They,’ says Cleo, ‘are enslaved to him.’
It’s not an easy listen; but it is, you may feel, in the week after the cinematic release of Fifty Shades of Grey, a necessary listen, as a corrective to commercially-packaged fantasies of domination and submission.
The sexual bluntness is, of course, shocking, precisely because we are so unused to hearing it in television drama. But it’s worth also noting what writer Russell T Davies doesn’t do here: he doesn’t show Cleo squaring up to her daughter.
There’s no soapy brandishing of the incriminating tweezers, accompanied by an accusatory, ‘What do you think these are, young lady?’
Davies’s moral delicacy lies in understanding that 13 year old actresses can be spared scenes that cast pubescent sexuality as melodrama. His righteousness is in knowing that the shame in such a situation needs to be directed, dramatically as in life, not at those who suffer under the stigma but at the men who originate it.
And so to the scene involving Lance and Daniel, in which sexual fantasies of a different, but related, kind are acted out. There’s no getting away from it: this scene is weird – intentionally so, because Daniel is an erratic and volatile man, but weird also in a ‘What were they thinking?’ kind of way.
As Daniel masturbates in front of Lance, the focus is on how confused and confusing Daniel is: turned on by the moment, but also – typically – angry, controlling and homophobic towards Lance who is only allowed to reciprocate verbally. However, although Daniel is an almighty head case, that’s for sure, he’s not the only screwed-up person in this encounter.
Daniel may allow himself, albeit resentfully, to become a sex object for Lance, but it is Lance who has encouraged him to self-pornify. Lance, who has kept a stack of images of Daniel on his computer; Lance, whose soft-focus fantasies about Daniel were shown in a dream sequence last week.
If this scene seems like masturbatory fantasy, that’s because it is masturbatory fantasy. Having been denied sex for so long, Lance’s behaviour has been coloured by all those hours spent, single-handedly, watching the likes of Dodger from Hollyoaks, and his language here is pure porn movie.
This is television that you’re meant to watch through your fingers and which, for all its unevenness of tone, asks hard questions. Is it just the young who are undone by the porn they watch and enact – Adam (Ceallach Spellman) pressured into sucking off his online partner, Tomasz – or is it every man (every one?) with access to a laptop and an imagination?
Yes, Cucumber is cringe-inducing in some of the places it chooses to go to, but – credit where it’s due – it is propelled by huge social concern and awareness too.
And for that, it is worthy of more than being shaken off.
Aired at 9pm on Thursday 19 February 2015 on Channel 4.
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