Of course, there wouldn’t be a series if it wasn’t for our main protagonist, 46-year-old Henry Best. Played by the truly brilliant Vincent Franklin – probably best-known as Tory spin doctor Stewart Pearson in The Thick of It – Henry is the kind of guy you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement with one minute, and shouting furiously at your TV screens the next. Either way, he may be one of Russell T Davies’ finest-ever creations...
Vincent, looking back, how was it starring in Russell T Davies’ first gay drama in 16 years? It was extraordinary. I discovered only at the very end, talking to Russell, that my very last line in the show was one that he wrote about ten years ago, and he’s always wanted to put it in. So working with somebody who spent ten years plotting and planning all of this stuff is very exciting. And his writing is extraordinary. What’s great about this is anyone who’s watching this will be dragged along by the amazing human story that’s sometimes hysterical, sometimes shocking and sometimes very emotional. People who spend the full eight hours with us will come out the end pretty wrecked – in a good way. Or maybe wrecked in every sense of the word. Every single word Russell has written has a reason for being there and it’s driven by these extraordinary character’s he’s created. Like Henry. Sometimes you’ll hate Henry and you’ll think he’s the most ridiculous man you’ve ever met, but then there’ll be other times where you say, “God, I wish he was my friend.” So let’s talk about Henry, who could very well be one of the most complex and interesting characters Russell has ever created... Henry is someone who’s life has become comfortable and, rather like a little boy who hasn’t been forced to grow up, he likes to push at life. He likes to light little fires to see what happens. As we know from episode one, he lights a little fire that night, he pushes things a little bit in a way that means his entire house of cards collapses and, as the series goes on, he’s forced to come to terms with who he is. What he does is something we all do – if we’re unhappy with something about ourselves, we think about changing external things. Whether it’s going out and buying a new car or whether it’s finding a new partner. Painting over the cracks in your life. And then, what Henry sort of realises – partly because he’s a gay man and partly because he’s a man in his late 40s – is that he doesn’t know what’s expected of him. It’s not clear. So he goes to live in a warehouse with these boys, where he doesn’t know what the rules of life are. By episode eight, he sort of comes to terms and realises what he’s about. So it’s about a man growing up really and, like lots of men, he’s waited a long time to do it. But the best thing about Henry is that he’s always right – and what he slowly learns is, it’s not always good to be always right. You must be getting asked a lot about being a straight man playing a gay character? People are asking me all the time and I say, well, you know, it’s really important that straight actors do keep playing gay characters, and vice versa, until that question doesn’t need to be asked anymore. When I played a Tory in The Thick of It, no one ever asked me, “So, are you really a Tory?” “What’s it like being a Tory?” It’s probably a lot harder these days to come out as Tory these days than gay. God, absolutely. The day there’s a Tory Times and I’m being interviewed for it will be a sad day. What’s interesting is, I’m not playing some ‘every man’ gay character. I’m playing, quite specifically, Henry Best who works in insurance – and that’s just as important about him as well as everything else. My worry is that people might pigeonhole Cucumber or diminish it by saying, “It’s just a gay drama, it’s a programme for people who are concerned about these issues.” But actually, this is a show that absolutely celebrates sexuality, it absolutely celebrates and explores gay life in middle age, but anybody watching it will see it really explores relationships, sex and being middle-aged. Being a middle-aged straight man starring in a show like this must’ve opened you up to some new terminology and, shall we say, attitudes towards sex? Absolutely. There were quite a few actors who were quite sexually out there, who loved to use bits of terminology. And I’ll tell you what – there’s a moment of joy and disappointment for me in the new way that people hook up. I’m of a generation that Henry is, where you met people and it took you a long time to read the signals before the first time you went out, the first time you snogged and the first time you shagged. There’s something amazing about being able to use technology that says 50 yards away from where I’m standing now is a man that I think I might fancy, and I can hit this thing here and before I know it, we’re hooked up. You’re never alone with this technology and the idea you could be sitting in your bed at university going, “Is there anybody else here who’s going through what I’m going through?” And you look at an app on your phone that tells you: “Yes, there are other people in the flat below.” Just go knock on the door and you’re fine. That’s fantastic, because loneliness is a terrible thing. But at the same time, it’s fucking brutal as well, in the way it goes, “Yeah, reject you, don’t like you, don’t like you.” I know we’ve all done that but, please, I don’t necessarily need to see it on my phone. I don’t think I need to get told by my phone that I’m deeply unattractive! At a time when the government is becoming increasingly under pressure for not educating enough on issues like sexuality and sexual health, do you think shows like Cucumber are taking on a bit of a social responsibility? I’m sure that’s right, but I think if you said to Russell, “You’re taking on a social responsibility,” he’d probably laugh and punch you in the face. What’s great about Russell is that he takes great responsibility as a writer, but he’s true to his characters and the world he creates. He deals with social issues because that’s what his characters are dealing with. I don’t think he sits there and thought of it in that soap sort of way, like, “Oh, we should have a mental health storyline.” He’s dealing with people who’re completely real and vulnerable. Lots of people have been saying that this series is a bit shocking, and I think it WILL be shocking because the truth can shock us. But it can also, at times, make us laugh hysterically, make us smile and make us cry. Nothing has been put in there to shock – it’s there because Russell is more honest than any other writer I know about himself, and he allows his characters to do awful things. But we understand why. It’s something that makes his writing special.