Tuesday, 17 February 2015

On bananas and cucumbers

All the "IT" was out at the job centre this morning. I duly went in to sign on, but no one was able to tell me the status of my claim. I've heard nothing at all from anyone for two whole weeks. I took my passport with me - which was something I'd forgotten last time and had been asked to bring - but the man I saw couldn't think what to do with it, and vanished for a while to discuss the problem with colleagues. I could see them across the office scratching their heads and looking perplexed. There was more than a whiff of the blind leading the blind about the situation.

Eventually the man came back to tell me that my "claim form was blank" which, he felt, meant I'd been abroad for some time because there were gaps in my national insurance contributions. I explained that my NI was paid by direct debit and that I'd never missed a payment. He looked confused. "Is it because I'm married?" "I don't think so. To be honest this is between you and them. We're not really allowed to get involved." "But I thought you WERE them?" I said. "No. We're just the middle men in this office. You need to talk to Norwich." "Not Norwich?!!!" I swear I heard a series of dramatic chords.

Well, I did talk to Norwich. To a horrible woman, in fact, with a thick accent, who made it very clear she had nothing to say to me. It turns out I'm not eligible for any benefits - none whatsoever - not housing benefits, or council tax, or income based job seekers allowance or contributions-based job seekers allowance or tax credits. Nathan, it seems, just earns too much money slaving away in his box office for £10 per hour. I married him for his money, obviously...

We've been dutifully watching Russel T Davies' Banana, Tofu and Cucumber on Channel 4. I'm told the ratings are in free-fall, which makes me incredibly sad, but, I'm afraid, not entirely surprised.

There are some wonderful acting performances in the series, most notably Vincent Franklin, who plays the lead role of the troubled middle-aged Henry, and the utterly luminous Julie Hesmondhalgh, who plays his sister. Both are beautiful, nuanced, funny, deeply talented performers who could probably read the bible and make me believe in God.

The concept of the shows is also really strong; a trilogy of interlocking dramas (one of which is a sort of documentary fantasy.) It's rather intriguing to watch the characters interacting whilst having the luxury of being able to see different events from different perspectives.

In almost every other way, however, the shows miss the mark. Every time I tune in, I'm aware that I'm watching a series of vignettes which don't seem to have any sense of over-arching drama. The over-lapping of stories feels like a gimmick rather than a well-considered device. The same party seems to have featured in countless episodes, but we don't discover anything new about it, even though we're seeing it from five different perspectives. There's no single event which unites the characters; no sense of mystery unravelling, just lots of people dancing and getting drunk, and in the background, periodically, someone we recognise from another show.

The characters, a parade of box-ticking LGBT stereotypes, are largely unlikeable, primarily because they're all vicious to one another. There's no love in the shows, just lots of meaningless sex which seems to trigger nothing but bitterness.

The bottom line is that the shows feel like they were written and shot in the 1990s. They're set in Manchester, of course. You remember Manchester in the 90s? It's where all the queer dramas were set because of Canal Street, and because TV execs thought Soho was "too obvious." Based on Cucumber, it would seem that everyone in Manchester is still as bitchy and hedonistic as they were when we based our perception of gay men on Queer As Folk, and more importantly, they're still living in those enormous, minimalist loft apartments. Even the poor ones!

My issue is that it's no longer daring or even interesting to show gay people "doing" sex. Most people now realise that gay relationships go a little deeper than the ones they saw in the 90s which had been created for televisual shock-value. Yet in cucumber we see nothing but a meaningless yawn of sexual encounters designed to show how dysfunctional and self-loathing Russel T Davies' wants gay men to seem. Channel 4, by the way, are marketing Cucumber as a "gay drama." Just as they'd use the word "edgy" or "urban" to describe a show with a predominately ethnic cast. Even they would stop short of advertising "our new black drama!"

To make matters worse, nowhere have I ever been aware of so many actors in a show playing gay, whilst being so obviously straight. I'm afraid the majority of them look incredibly uncomfortable doing the sex scenes, and I'm almost convinced that the directors of the shows are straight men. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Banana, where we get to see majority of the lezza action. The camera lingers on the girls snogging for way too long. It's like something from Tipping the Velvet...

...And to cap it all, the plot lines have a habit of simply vanishing. In the first episode, Henry's co-worker kills himself because Henry accuses him of plagiarising the essays he's been writing for his part-time masters course (I kid you not). As a result, Henry is dismissed from work on no pay (like that would happen), but after episode two of the series, he forgets all about these particular woes. He's too busy sniffing around a load of twenty-something lads in a palatial warehouse.

So there you have it. The gay community's PR department takes one giant step forward. The world gets to see us falling in love and getting married; and then a year later, we take a massive step back and the world gets to call us all psychologically flawed again.

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