Queer as Folk for the 21st century: Russell T Davies on Cucumber and why his life's work is chronicling the modern gay experience

Sixteen years after his controversial drama 'Queer as Folk', Russell T Davies returns to his 'life's work' – the modern gay experience – with 'Banana' and 'Cucumber'. He'd love the shows to be seen in Russia, he tells Gerard Gilbert

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The Independent Culture

In a freezing-cold brick warehouse in central Manchester, the comedian and actor Rufus Hound is stark naked and pretending to be drunk. Hound plays a man picked up in a gay bar by Henry, the middle-aged protagonist of a new eight-part drama written by Queer as Folk creator (and Doctor Who regenerator) Russell T Davies. "If I can drop my trousers for a laugh at Glastonbury, I can sure as hell do it for one of the best British screenwriters of our generation," says Hound, when I ask him about being undressed as the rest of the cast and crew go nonchalantly about their business.

Cucumber, the name of Davies's new Channel 4 series, and Banana, Cucumber's complementary but also stand-alone E4 drama following many of the same characters (as well as Tofu, an online tie-documentary about sex and sexuality) take their titles from the various stages of the male erection – as Henry (played by Vincent Franklin from The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve), explains in an opening sequence in which he eyes up other men in a supermarket.

And if this sounds like a rerun of Queer as Folk, whose fearlessly unabashed approach to gay sex provoked equal measures of outrage and delight when it first screened in 1999, then that would be partially misleading. Because if some of the characters, especially the younger ones, in Cucumber are still ripping their clothes off with furious abandon, Henry himself is fearful of sex.

"Culturally we are seen as men who fuck," says Davies. "It's fascinating that when someone is homophobic that's the thing they're homophobic about, the physical act. There's far more to gay men than that, and there's far more to gay sex than that."

Henry works in insurance, shares a companionable long-term relationship and a double bed with a similarly middle-aged Lance, but takes his pleasures onanistically. "He's a client services director at an insurance company… a world that protects you," says Franklin. "It's a very natural world for Henry to go into – putting things between you and risk."

"Hopefully, it's going into areas of the gay experience that haven't been covered," says Davies, "We're still at an early stage of visible gay popular culture, and I suppose our culture at the moment is rather 'pretty' – we love our handsome young men. I hate to say this about Vincent Franklin because I think he's gorgeous, but he kind of knows he's not going to be asked to go shirtless on the front of Gay Times."

There are however other actors in Cucumber and its overlapping E4 series Banana who might be invited on a photo-shoot, including newcomer Fisayo Akinade as Dean, a postboy at Henry's workplace, and Freddie Fox as a floppy-haired bisexual who entrances Henry. "He's Northern and a mad, nymphomaniac party boy," says Fox, son of Edward Fox, speaking in a slightly disconcerting Mancunian voice that he picked up (along with a smattering of science) by listening to tapes of Professor Brian Cox. Fox keeps up the accent between takes, even when on weekend leave back in London. "I find that if I go home for three or four days and don't do it, I then come back and all I can think about is the accent as opposed to what I'm saying."

"Casting this was easier than it was 16 years ago with Queer as Folk and asking people 'will you play gay?'" says Davies. "That didn't crop up at all this time. People like Freddie just threw themselves into it with literally gay abandon.

"Henry was the toughest part to cast. The process was endless and we were getting very tense and knotted about it, and I was even thinking 'Should I change this character's age? Shall I make him 35?'; and then Vincent walked in the door. He literally did one audition."

Both Cucumber and Banana come with Davies' trademark lightness of touch, and with his usual punchy dialogue and storytelling prowess. Davies is eager to stress that he is attempting to break free from gay drama's history of waving the rainbow flag – "shouting 'here we are'", as he puts it.

"A lot of gay dramas are representative, they're seen as part of the argument for equality," he says. "But if you kind of assume that you can put the equality argument to one side for the moment – public opinion is more or less on our side at the moment (with huge caveats) – then it should now be doing what straight drama has been doing for 2,000 years. We can catch up and say 'we don't need to wear a placard any more'."

One of several fascinating subtexts to Cucumber is the difference between the older generation of gay men – Davies's contemporaries – and the coming, seemingly more carefree younger one. "I'm over 50 now and you look at what it is to be a gay boy now," he says. "It's an eternal story for the old to be jealous of the young… every writer writes Death in Venice in the end, and I shall set mine in Manchester.

"There are new pressures – all the sex apps on their phone and all that – but that's only a condensed version of the problems we used to have… of looking good when you walked into a bar, of being judged visually. When I wrote Queer as Folk, I had a 15-year-old out gay schoolboy called Nathan (played by the then 18-year-old Charlie Hunnam), which was quite radical and caused quite a stir. It's amazing now you come to write this 16 years later and actually a 15-year-old out gay schoolboy is no longer abnormal.

"My sister is a teacher and she was telling me all about the gay children at her school. She was asking me if I can tell the gay kids in her Welsh comprehensive school if when Banana is on, so they can watch it. You couldn't have had that conversation 16 years ago."

Between Queer as Folk and Cucumber and Banana, Davies of course rebirthed Doctor Who in 2005. "Who would have thought that Doctor Who would have become such an empire?" he asks. "I began Doctor Who thinking 'Oh, that will see me through till 2006' (Davies finally handed over the reins of the show to Steven Moffat in 2010). However, he says artistic ambition is not to breathe new life into sci-fi classics but to chronicle the modern gay experience. "I think I should start planning the one about 70-year-old gay men because that's probably what I'll do next," he says. "That's singularly my life's work… I'm not kidding saying that. It literally is what I do."

The original series of Queer as Folk came out right at the start of the new golden age of television, along with shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, although Davies thinks it gets rather overlooked now in histories of the TV revolution. "When you read articles about British shows in America they never mention Queer as Folk – [the US re-make of] Queer as Folk ran for five years over there… five years. It's never mentioned. We're kind of niched… it's seen as a gay drama and not as a drama.

"But who cares about America? I hope this travels to Russia. That's where I would like it to be seen. And you know what, it will be; it will be downloaded, it will be bootlegged… it'll be found. Gay minds find gay material everywhere however dark the world they live in. Welcome Russia… enjoy!"

'Cucumber' begins on 22 January at 9pm on Channel 4, and 'Banana' on 22 January at 10pm on E4

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