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I TALK Cucumber, Banana & Tofu

2015 is shaping up to be a brilliant year for Channel 4 with Catastrophe, a brilliant new comedy starting this week as well as three brand new interlinked shows from Russell T Davies; Cucumber, Banana and Tofu. 

Cucumber (1 hour) will be shown on Channel 4 followed by Banana (30 mins) straight after on E4 and then you'll be able to watch Tofu (15 mins) on 4oD.

16 years on from Queer As Folk, Russell T Davies returns with Cucumber and Banana, two original drama series that explore the passions and pitfalls of 21st century gay life, as well as Tofu which is an online documentary that explores all facets of contemporary sex culture.

Last week I attended the launch of all three programmes, and what I witnessed was the most refreshing and culturally diverse pieces of telvision I think I have ever seen... and what's even better is that it does it so effortlessly.

Cucucmber begins with Henry Best, played by Vincent Franklin, talking to us about a ten-year study in Switzerland on the male erection, which came up with a scale for measuring hardness; tofu, a peeled banana, a banana and yep you guessed it, a cucumber. So just in case you thought the name of each show was coincidentally sexual, you'd be wrong. If there's one thing these shows don't shy away from, it's sex and sexuality and it lets you know this right from the word go.

Henry is our main protagonist in Cucumber, he's a 46 year-old man who lives with his boyfriend of nine years, Lance, who is played by Cyril Nri. When we first meet them they appear to be in a comfortable loving relationship, however we quickly realise that there's trouble in what we think is paradise.

A trouble that really starts when date night goes horribly wrong... and I mean horribly wrong. Just how wrong can date night go? Well, there's a death, a threesome, two police cars and probably worst of all, Boney M. So yeah, I'd say that's pretty bad.

Speaking at the launch for the series, Vincent Franklin described Henry as an incredibly "complicated character" and told us that what he loved about Henry is that he is a "mass of contradictions".

I think regardless of age, gender or sexuality, there's a bit of Henry in all of us. There's so much going on in his life, and he's such a complex character that there's bound to be something about Henry with which you empathise.

In the first episode we also get to meet Henry's sister, Cleo, played by the wonderful Julie Hesmondhalgh, best-known for playing Hayley Cropper in Coronation Street. Cleo is the only female character in the first episode of Cucumber, she's a busy and professional woman, whose life is chaotic having to look after three kids. In reality looking after three kids is much easier than having to look after Henry.

We don't see an awful lot of Cleo in the first episode, but I'm promised (by Julie herself) that we see a lot more of her as the series continues. Speaking at the launch, Julie told the audience that she would describe her character as a single mother who's "looking for a bit of action". She also tells us that as one of the few female characters across all three series, her story goes "...far beyond gay sex, and explores this whole world which is incredibly relevant to me. It's been a real privilege."

Banana is a series of eight witty, heartfelt and unique stand-alone stories, all written by gay writers, which cover different aspects of LGBT life. What's really great about Banana is the way in which it offers an unexpected look into the individual lives, loves and losses of a range of a diverse range characters. The first episode is all about Dean who has many family secrets and find himself meeting a Geordie man for sex during work hours.

There are many more female characters in Banana than there are in Cucumber and the main reason for that I guess, is that Cucumber focusses on Henry, a gay man, whereas Banana as I've mentioned is built up of eight standalone episodes which tell different people's stories.

Some of the characters and stories we discover in Banana include Scotty (Letitia Wright), who's a young lesbian pursuing unrequited love, Sian (Georgia Henshaw) who struggles to choose between lover Violet (Hannah John-Kamen) and her over-protective mother Vanessa (Lynn Hunter) and Helen (Bethany Black) who is besieged by unwanted attention from an ex.

The standout star of Banana for me has to be Fisayo Akinade who plays Dean. For his first major role on television, Fisayo does a fantastic job and I'm sure this is only the start of what will turn out to be a very successful career for him. Dean is a 19-year-old gay guy who works as a mail boy in Henry's office, and as a result of that disastrous date night between Henry and Lance in Cucumber, Henry ends up actually living with Dean a relationship that's explored in both Cucumber and Banana.

Across both Cucumber and Banana there are a host of familiar faces starring alongside new onscreen talent, including Luke Newberry (In The Flesh), Rufus Hound, Ardal O’Hanlon (Father Ted) and Ceallach Spellman (Waterloo Road).

And finally there's 4oD's Tofu which is slightly different to Cucumber and Banana in that it's not a drama but rather an online documentary, directed by prolific YouTuber, Benjamin Cook. Think Gogglebox, but with people talking about their sex lives instead of what they've watched on telly.

Hats off to whoever did the casting for Tofu because there are some very colourful characters indeed but the only name you'll remember after watching episode one is Vladimir. A guy who feels there's nothing wrong with paying for sex, and his reasons for paying for it get worse and worse the more we go back to him. The stars of Cucumber and Banana also appear in Tofu (as themselves) highlighting the very real issues that are referenced in the fictional shows.

As if CucumberBanana and Tofu weren't enough, just after halfway through each series, a new 15-minute drama, Screwdriver, will be available to watch on the Channel 4 website. The drama is a two-hander between Cleo (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and her son Adam (Ceallach Spellman), and explores what happens when a mother talks openly to her son about porn. Speaking at the launch, Julie described the character as "naive" and somebody who has "no idea what's available."

To repeat what I said at the very beginning of this piece, Cucumber, Banana and Tofu are three of the most original, refreshing and culturally diverse pieces of television I think I've ever seen. It couldn't be more 2015 if it tried... and I mean that in a good way and it's a real credit to Russell T Davies who has proved that television can be different, it can be culturally diverse and it can talk about sex in an open and honest way. He's also proved how great he is at creating television that is able to brilliantly mix genuine laugh out loud moments with sadder moments, which may bring a tear to your eye.

Will it shock? Will it offend? Well yes probably, and Channel 4's chief creative officer Jay Hunt has been quoted as saying "We wouldn't be Channel 4 if we weren't planning to lightly outrage the Daily Mail." Well, quite. But on the whole I'm really hoping the shows will be received positively and with the utmost respect it deserves.

Cucumber, Banana and Tofu start Thursday 22nd January at 9pm on Channel 4, 10pm on E4 and 10.30pm on 4oD


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