Well, you can’t say we weren’t warned. In the opening sequence of this episode, the caption clearly reads, ‘Lance Edward Sullivan, 1966 – 2015’.
There was the possibility that this could have been a piece of Russell T Davies misdirection, in the spirit of Rose Tyler’s ‘This is the story of how I died’. But no, by the end of the episode, Lance is brutally killed in a homophobic attack by Daniel, his death later confirmed by one of the leads in tonight’s Banana.
It’s not a scene to cheer the soul. Indeed, so grim is the sequence, even before the attack begins, that it rather overpowers the rest of the episode.
However, there is much else here to talk about, not least the storytelling chutzpah that chooses to tell Lance’s sexual and familial history as a series of potent flashbacks, each built around the signifiers that mark out a life: a row of sympathy cards, a Playgirl magazine, a series of Christmases which lead from antipathy to rapprochement. What Davies is doing here is described, brilliantly, in the ‘hot to the touch’ tirade that Lance (Cyril Nri) later directs at Henry (Vincent Franklin): the ascribing of personal meaning to the banal or everyday detail.
In one of those weird coincidences that can resonate with a reviewer, Lance explains how he is unable to wash up without thinking of Vanessa Feltz’s grandmother, and I know precisely the feeling. Years ago, I heard an interview with Vanessa Feltz in which she described how the sight of a fox in the garden, following her separation from her husband, reinforced her feelings of aloneness, and now I am unable to see a fox in a garden without thinking of Vanessa’s divorce.
Vanessa Feltz – who knew that she was the barometer for our times?
Our journey through Lance’s life – certainly for viewers of Queer as Folk – reaches its emotional peak when Hazel Tyler (Denise Black) counsels Lance about his current confusion. As Daniel (James Murray) parades in the background, fake-buggering some poor sod and offering his crotch out for a feel, Hazel wears the wisdom of her years and asks, ‘Is it worth it?’
It’s a performance of real sensitivity, as you’d expect from Black, and then – whoah! – suddenly the scene becomes something else altogether, as Hazel announces that she has died, and we understand that her wisdom has come from eternal watchfulness over the citizens of Canal Street.
Of all the things we expected from Cucumber, magic realism was probably one of the last, and yet the scene plays with real tenderness and beauty – and is even explained, retrospectively, as the ramblings of a drunken homeless women, for those looking for rational explanations.
‘Way back when in the 1920s, boys came down to the canal,’ Hazel observes, and the fights, the pursuits, the drama of gay life in 2015 resonate against a historical backdrop. The wheel always turns, and the recent discoveries of the bodies of young men in Manchester’s canals – a genuine news story sensitively referenced by Davies – are seen, for all their horror and tragedy, as part of the cycle.
It leads to the episode’s best line, ‘Now I walk up and down this street. Me and the boys in the water.’ It’s the kind of television that gives you the shivers and defies you not to cry.
But after such beauty, oh such ugliness, because this is not where the episode ends. Hazel’s prophecy that ‘I’ll see you again’ has yet to be fulfilled, but, as the episode ends, as we follow the fleeting visions of a dying man, it is.
Daniel’s attack on Lance – his self-loathing, his accusation of rape, the visceral shock of it all… it’s such a repugnant scene. Truly repugnant, and that’s okay. Homophobia and sexual violence are repugnant. But gosh, it fills you with despair for these characters and this world. Russell T Davies has always been a writer who has avoided what he has considered the self-indulgent grimness of Sixth Form-style storytelling. But truthfully, if it weren’t for the knowledge that there are two episodes yet to go, we’d be questioning how far he was holding fast to those principles.
Now, more than ever, these characters need redemption. Not Cleo – Cleo’s got her head screwed on. But Dean, Freddie… Lance’s sister, Marie, and especially Henry: every one of them needs to find the splinter of light that can lead them through this darkness.
If anyone can effect this, of course it’s Davies: an expert in the kind of storytelling that celebrates humanity and finds hope in despair. Part of us, if we’re honest, is looking forward to it: the prospect of Julie Hesmondhalgh, Adjoa Andoh and Vincent Franklin turning in performances of raw feeling. But, if we’re equally honest, we feel kind of tainted too.
This is television that leaves you not only moved but also brutalised, and, as such, we’re not sure if it’s sympathy for Lance we’re left feeling but for us: for the whole sorry mess of us.
Aired at 9pm on Thursday 26 February 2015 on Channel 4.
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