In this penultimate episode of Cucumber, Russell T Davies doesn’t give us what we expect.
There’s no knock at the door for Henry or Marie – no sudden, shocked bewilderment at news only half-comprehended. Instead, the action begins on the day of Lance’s funeral and we follow Henry going through the motions of thanking guests for their attendance, casting bitter glances at Marie for sucking up the oxygen and attention, before, finally, waves of grief overwhelm him in the Cricket Club toilets.
As a portrait of attempted composure suddenly undone, it’s highly effective – and all the more so coming from a man whose emotional range, despite recent declarations of sincerity, has veered hitherto between the petulant and the wilful.
Because this is Davies writing, mawkishness is deliberately avoided and a streak of black comedy runs through the scenes at the wake. Gay men huddle together in awkward solidarity. They’ve confronted so many taboos in their lives that death isn’t something to be solemnised. So there’s a quote from Acorn Antiques; an admission of jealousy at Henry’s newly-acquired patina of tragedy. In the toilets, a scene of farce ensues involving a flaccid penis and one very long hair.
If you were tuning in to see Julie Hesmondhalgh turn in performances of howling rage and grief, you’d be disappointed. What we get is something broader, something that’s darkly unillusioned about the follies and caprices of men. Sex follows these characters even at the wake, as the Grindr profile of one of the waiting staff is quickly accessed. Days later, Henry, Freddie and Dean have settled on the idea of a foursome and use GPS technology like a divining rod to pursue their prey, Aiden.
You thought the hard truths were exposed last week? You watch this stuff through your fingers, unsure whether these men are defiantly cocking a snook at life’s vicissitudes or whether they’ve sacrificed decency and dignity in favour of a permanent adolescence.
Somewhere, in a parallel universe, we’re watching a programme called Papaya, in which Cleo, Scotty and Ghost Hazel are the leads, and it’s a considerably less sordid affair. But then, in the list of sentences no one has ever written must come, ‘Russell T Davies just doesn’t understand the male libido’.
Henry breaks down. Of course he does, and for most viewers – those who have followed the trajectory of this series exactly as intended – it will be enough to redeem him. The scene of Henry, Freddie and Dean sat in their car during the downpour is the kind of self-consciously bravura sequence that will be taught on scriptwriting courses in years to come.
Davies knows what he’s doing, giving Henry his moment of self-recognition, and colliding character threads from throughout the series. There are punning quips about LGBT as a kind of sandwich; a recounted sexual fantasy about Harry Judd and Dougie Poynter that it is assumed all gay men have had. There are, in fact, assumptions made about the interior lives of gay men that will strike you as either brutally true or charmlessly cynical, depending on your preconceptions.
Briefly, a character note about Freddie interjects. ‘Who’s Christopher?’ Dean asks, and it’s genuinely intriguing – this assumed brother who, knowing Freddie, is probably more familial white sheep than black. Still, of those three characters, it’s only Dean – it’s always only Dean – who has the innocence, charm and essential good-naturedness really to win us over. Freddie may tell Henry, ‘I’ve never liked you more,’ but we’re not sure we can say the same.
By the end of the episode, a genuinely unexpected thing has happened. Freddie, Dean and Henry have been turfed out of their warehouse apartment, the victims of a nasty landlord sting, and furniture, televisions and pot plants rain down on their heads, as characters from the entire run of Cucumber and Banana posture and gesticulate outside in the confusion. It’s like a latter-day bonfire of the vanities, only in Manchester, with gays.
Even before Cliff (Con O’Neill) has turned up, sans crutches, to whisk Henry off to a cathartic house party, there’s a definite series finale feel to proceedings. Henry reclaims his home, Marie is sent packing and it’s dancing boys a-go-go.
But the really radical thing is this: we have one episode still to come. One episode and very little idea of where the plot may go to fill it. Yes, there’s Daniel’s defence of ‘gay panic’ to address and the mystery of Christopher to resolve. But had Cucumber ended tonight – freeze-framed on that close-up on Henry’s smiling face – would any of us have felt that this wasn’t conclusion enough?
Aired at 9pm on Thursday 5 March 2015 on Channel 4.
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