Russell T Davies: "I'd long wanted to write a death that feels like a death"
Russell talks exclusively to Patrick Mulkern about violence on TV, the spooky return of Hazel from Queer as Folk and why there'll be no second series of Cucumber. Contains spoilers!
I needed a stiff drink after the latest Cucumber – Russell T Davies’s darkest and most disturbing drama to date. I previewed it for RT several weeks ago and it haunted me for days.
Episode six begins with the caption “Lance Edward Sullivan 1966–2015” – so we know where it’s heading for one of the central characters. The following 45 minutes then deftly encapsulate Lance’s life and loves, from his birth in the 1960s to a final, fateful encounter with Daniel.
I had a hunch it wouldn’t end well between these two. For weeks, Lance (Cyril Nri) has pursued his obsession with Daniel (James Murray), the highly sexed, supposedly straight diver – despite many danger signals. They’ve gone on blokey “dates” and last week had a sexual encounter of sorts. Now, in episode six (Channel 4, Thursday 26 February), they’ve gone a lot further...
In the final moments, the increasingly unhinged Daniel flips, becomes violent and thwacks Lance with a golf club. Just once. But the iron smashes into the side of his skull. Within seconds – as fragments of his life flash before his eyes – Lance is dead.
Harrowing material from the ebullient, big-hearted Russell T Davies, who is only too happy to discuss his latest work with Radio Times.com…
PM: This is very dark and disturbing territory, Russell. What compelled you to go there?
RTD: Thank you – I’m glad you liked it, and if you don’t mind my saying so, I’m glad it’s haunted you. But I was always heading here. About a year ago, Alison Graham wrote a powerful article in Radio Times, asking why darkness has to erupt in television series, and I’m still thinking of how to answer her. I was in the middle of writing this when she published that, and she stopped me in my tracks! But I kept going.
And I think that writers explore this stuff because that’s our job; that’s why we write in the first place, to test everything, to feel everything, to be as funny as possible and as dark as possible. Teenagers say these days, “It’s all about the feels!” But maybe they’re right. Simple as that.
So for a long time, I’d wanted to write a death that feels like a death. I’ve killed plenty of people as plot devices. And it’s always felt like it’s skimming the surface. I’ve been thinking for years that in order to tell a death, I’d have to tell the whole life. And devote a whole episode to it. So that at the end, I hope, it doesn’t just feel like someone’s dead, it actually feels like dying.
It took years to build up to it. I needed to summon a lot of nerve to find that golf club and use it – seriously, if you look at everything I’ve ever written, I almost never use physical violence. Lasers, fine. But actual physical violence, never. I think I threw a single, genuine punch in my entire history of Doctor Who. You try holding down a career as a writer without punches, it’s very hard to sustain. Every drama has a punch-up. But not mine. I’ve always thought there are better ways to write. So to build up to this – and it’s one swing, a single blow, when in reality that could have been a torrent of blows – needed me to grit my teeth. Maybe that’s answering Alison’s question, a bit. If a writer’s working hard to go further than they normally go, isn’t that good?
But that’s only one aspect. There are a thousand reasons for doing it. Another was, I was very aware from the start that this whole series amounted to basically first-world problems. Sex, family, love, money. No one’s in danger of starving! When actually, to live as a gay man in the world, even here in the west, means skirting round violence every day. Like it or not. That’s a fact. Its potential is always there. And just 3,000 miles away – that’s next door, it’s just next door to us – gay men in Syria are being thrown off rooftops. While Putin gathers power every day, what is his obsession with homosexuality? I mean, seriously, what is it?
So from the moment I began to think of Cucumber, a decade ago, I knew an act of violence would interrupt a comparatively cosy world. It’ll happen this weekend, to some man or some woman. A night out will end in harm, or HIV, or a terrible memory, and at its worst – a few times a year, all year round, every year – a night will end like Lance’s.
It’s important to include that world. The real world, intruding on fiction. And always mindful of Alison – I’m not kidding, I listen to her – I decided there would be no chance of a second series of Cucumber after she demolished the sheer existence of Homeland’s second season!
I think I was diligent, and paved the way for this in advance. There’s always been a darkness at the edges of Cucumber, which allows Daniel in. The series began with a suicide. And actually, Daniel radiates danger! The whole point of him, since his very first scene, has been to say he’s trouble. He’s so disturbed and conflicted, his every line unsettles me.
I wanted to do that specifically because when some violent act erupts, in life, it’s never out of nowhere. Most of us will never be violent. Most of us, thank God. But those who are... I think it can be visible. If we could only read the signs. People with a capacity for violence have gone very wrong, and that wrongness is shining out of them. So often, after some terrible act, you’ll see people saying, “He seemed so nice” or “He was such a nice man.” I don’t believe it. I bet there was always something visibly wrong. Just look! So that’s how Daniel was created. If you’re reading the series right, you’ll have been screaming at the screen for weeks now, telling Lance to get out. Too late!
By the way, if you watch this week’s Banana – which is a lovely, brittle, hilarious love story, written by and starring Charlie Covell – you’ll discover what Daniel did next. Fleetingly! Keep an ear open.
PM: Lance’s murder is clearly a pivotal moment in the series. You’ve killed off one of your central characters, nice guy Lance, who was decent, sensible, romantic. Now his ex-partner, the self-centred Henry, will have to deal with the horror and loss. How early in the writing process of the series did you decide that Lance was going to die? Is this always where you were heading with the story?
RTD: It’s funny, I could write 57 pages debating the notion of innocent Lance and self-centred Henry. I think it’s trickier than that! Henry hasn’t been truly self-centred since Episode 1 – since then, he’s realised how scared he is, that he’s scared of “the man” in Ep 3. He’s confessed to being scared of sex and youth and life and everything in Ep 4, and in Ep 5 he’s finally so selfless that he lets Lance go. Ironically! It’s his fault again! And in contrast, everyone sees Lance as the long-suffering innocent, but I’m not so sure – I think Lance plays the innocent, but that’s a different thing. We all do that, but it doesn’t make it true! Because it was Lance who brought that man home in Ep 1, deliberately, to provoke. And we might laugh at Henry for fancying Freddie, but Lance is equally star-struck, with a far worse man, a man who’s clearly been trouble since Episode 1.
But yes, this was always the plan. The first synopsis was written in early 2011, when I was living in LA, and Lance was a character who worked at the Seattle Aquarium. The casting notice always said he was only in it for six episodes. Actually, seven, and then I moved the death back by one episode because its consequences would be so huge. But the show needs it – without removing Lance, the series would have just become a will-he-won’t-he with Henry. By killing Lance, we leave Henry alone. That’s the real point. We’ve seen Henry lose everything. But now he’s really suffered a proper loss, and the series is an examination of that, of who Henry is, why he’s like he is, and whether he can change. This is his ultimate challenge. His safety net has gone. And he’s got a long way to fall.
PM: The final ten minutes is one uncompromisingly strong scene – in its depiction of sex between two men (clumsy and awkward but never too graphic), a sexual encounter going horribly wrong and ending in brutality. The writing, performances, direction and editing are all razor-sharp. I’m wondering how closely what you wrote in the script has translated to the screen. Were you shocked yourself when you saw it?
RTD: Well, bless that team, that’s word-for-word what’s in the script. Every pause, kiss and movement. It had to be written so carefully and precisely, to be absolutely strict about what each man is doing and thinking at every stage of that long, long scene. The episode has spent 40 minutes rattling through an entire life, so now we spend ten minutes focusing on every breath.
I was so lucky that Alice Troughton came in to direct this block. I’ve always been a bit experimental when Alice is around! We did that episode of Doctor Who together, Midnight , the one where David Tennant is trapped on board a space bus with Lesley Sharp, and all she can do is repeat his words. That was bold, that pushed us all, and that episode – unusually for a piece of sci-fi – ended up winning awards for sound and editing. So Alice always makes me push things further!
I knew she was on board before I even started writing this, so that gave me the freedom to fly. I knew she’d love it! Along the way we got the editor of the first four episodes of Banana involved, Paulo Pandolpho, because we’d loved his work, and that proved to be a great combination. He’s only in his 20s, he’s brilliant. He’s the voice that says “Banana!” over the opening titles.
But that’s ignoring the most obvious thing. Our secret weapons. Cyril and James. And they’re just amazing, aren’t they? I can ramble on about stories and ambitions and scripts, but you’re nothing without the cast. And those two went into it whole-heartedly. They rehearsed with Alice intensely. And we scheduled two whole days for the big scene – that’s a long time, in TV. But the whole team wanted to get it right. I think they’re just note-perfect, those two actors.
I wasn’t exactly shocked when I first saw it. Well, truth is, I couldn’t stay away from that edit! Because Alice, Paulo and I, and Matt Strevens, the producer, we all talked a lot about that final sequence, the inside of Lance’s mind as he dies. Again, it was written in detail, every image, every flashback, but that comes alive in the edit, and changes. We had versions that were too long, too short. Too noisy, too quiet. We almost lost the copyright on that Eurovision song [Spain’s 1968 winner La, La, La] – we so needed it, it’s the most sinister tune in the world – until Matt wrestled the lawyers to the floor.
So we worked on it a lot. I wasn’t sure whether it worked until we first played it to [executive producer] Nicola Shindler. And she burst into tears! Job done, we thought. Although of course, she had notes. But we simply kept refining until we were happy. I’m only sad about one thing – one image flashing through his head was meant to be full-frame footage of Benny Hill’s Ernie. Echoing from his childhood, that sinister bit about the ghostly gold tops, cos that always chilled me as a kid. But we only had permission to play that video within a TV screen, during Lance’s childhood, and not full-frame. Damn!
PM: When did the actors Cyril Nri and James Murray know where the story was heading for their characters? Right from the start?
RTD: Oh, from the moment they were booked. By the time Cyril was cast, and we went for a nice little lunch in Manchester to discuss everything, I’d already given him Ep 6. So no one was under any illusions! We did ask the cast not to tweet anything about it, or the scenes in Ep 7, which would give away the future of the plot, just in case. But I think Cyril was just excited! Let’s be honest, what actor doesn’t want a good death scene?
PM: I adore the way you’ve brought Denise Black into the episode. She was so wonderful in Queer as Folk as Hazel Tyler, Vince’s clued-up, very accepting mum. I remember the scene where she held a conference with the other, less liberal-minded mums and said, “Try not to think about the arse thing and you’ll be fine.” I read that when you halted Queer as Folk after ten episodes, you considered a solo show for Hazel. How much in love with Hazel are you and why?
RTD: It’s hard to say who I love best, Hazel or Denise! So many people have such a tremendous affection for them both. When this series was first commissioned, I said to Piers Wenger, the Head of Drama at Channel 4, “I don’t suppose you’d mind Hazel Tyler walking round the corner at some point?” and he said “Oh yes please!” When the man who’s paying for the series says that, you listen! But Queer As Folk was a very special time, for Denise and me and an awful lot of us. It’s carved on my gravestone, frankly. And Denise assumed quite a role within the gay community too – people love Hazel, so Denise is often asked to attend charity functions, and Aids memorials, to his day. And she always turns up, she’s a proper trouper.
So this whole thing felt right. I knew I’d never be coming back to this world, so this was one final hurrah. Mind you, I wrote her into this without even asking her, and then had a nasty moment of wondering, “What if she says no?” But she leapt on it! She was out in Spain, filming Benidorm, so we emailed the script to her, and within five minutes she was on the phone, planning her hair and costume. And actually, genuinely delighted to be back, bless her.
PM: It’s hugely poignant that Hazel reappears 15 years later in Cucumber as a kind of Fairy Godmother of Canal Street. She sidles up to Lance on a bridge and seems to be warning him. “Is it worth it in the end? Really? … You’ve taken a wrong turn but you could still turn back. Now listen to me and go home.” Then she tells Lance that she’s actually dead. “Good old Hazel. Now I walk up and down this street. Me and the boys and the water.” It works beautifully and is such a touching pay-off for Queer as Folk fans – but it’s bold to add this element of fantasy, of the supernatural, to a dead serious drama. How did you develop this section?
RTD: Yeah. I needed the story to rise, to lift, to become bigger, to reach into areas and styles of storytelling that you wouldn’t normally use, because the approaching death was so huge. Bear in mind, you’ve been told since Scene 1 that Lance is going to die. You see the dates of his birth and death, 30 seconds in. So the closer it gets… the walls need to break down, the drama needs to stretch further, and snap open, because that’s the size of what’s coming, and this is the only chance I’ll get.
To go into detail – and you don’t have to pay any attention to this, think what you want! – but once you’ve been told that Lance is dead, in Scene 1, then all rules are off. And you could argue that the entire episode is his death, that from Scene 2, by seeing his birth, we’re actually experiencing the inside of his head after the golf club. We are literally seeing his life pass before his eyes.
So while I wanted to lift the story up, to give it a supernatural terror, the point is, did he see Hazel at all? Did he really see a ghost? Really?! Because right at the end, in the final images, you see an old woman, in Hazel’s clothes, standing where Hazel stood. And she’s raving, she’s drunk, she’s mad. While Hazel gently told Lance to go home, the old woman is screaming “Go home!” at him as racial abuse.
Maybe, just maybe, Lance took that image from his last night on Earth, and in dying, tidied it up. He corrected it. Made it prettier, and deeper, and he even included foreshadowing. Either his mind replaced the old woman with a woman from one of his favourite TV shows, or, if you want QAF to be in the same canon as Cucumber, then he replaced the old woman with someone he used to see from afar on Canal Street, a really funny woman who he wishes he’d known.
Maybe that’s true. But equally, maybe it is Hazel. Maybe this death is so awful and so important that the barriers between worlds come down, and the barriers between stories. Lance’s death is so huge that a character from another fiction can step into his story to give him a warning about the next page. I really believe that too. Honestly, I believe that equally.
Her appearance is given huge weight by her invisible chorus of the boys in the water; and they’re real, those boys, the boys who drown every year. I wrote that line long before the recent scandal over exactly how many boys regularly disappear into Manchester’s canals. It’s shocking. I wouldn’t include that lightly. Part of me wishes that someone like Hazel would stand guard over them. While knowing that life, nor death, would never be that kind. You see? It goes back to my first answer, it goes back to the feels! I think Hazel’s presence lifts things, stirs your soul, in a way that normal events could not. That’s what the supernatural is for, that’s why we invented it. To feel something greater than ourselves.
Blimey. Thank you for giving me the chance to say that!
PM: Maybe I’ve missed them but, given Cucumber’s setting on the Manchester gay scene, were you tempted to make any other allusions to Queer as Folk?
RTD: I don’t think there’s anything else! The club that Henry and Lance go to in Ep 1 is called Babylon, and had the exact neon sign from QAF recreated by the art department. But I’m not sure you ever saw that on screen. Of course, Henry works for HC Clements, who were Donna Noble’s employers in Doctor Who, but that’s not an intentional link – it’s simply that I knew the name was fictional and would therefore be copyright-cleared!
PM: What do you hope viewers, in particular gay men, will take away from this episode? Is it a cautionary tale?
RTD: Oh God, yes, I hope so. I keep writing that in dramas, that One Bad Night. The night that goes wrong. I think it’s a very gay experience, every gay man out there has had a night like this, in potential, or could have a night like this at any time. I shouldn’t claim it as gay – anyone can walk down that path. Just a step too far, just a drink too much, in the city, at night, and you’re in trouble. Though I do think this territory belongs to women and gay men in particular, to be honest.
And while that’s very generalised, then specifically, men like Daniel exist in this exact detail. And once or twice a year, you’ll see some story, some man with another man, and a lashing out, and a death, at the end of a long, dark night. And sometimes, that death will be called Gay Panic. Look it up, that’s about to become part of the plot of Eps 7 and 8. While it has no legal standing any more, in this country, the implication of gay panic, that a straight man is allowed to lash out if a gay man makes a pass at him, is as vile and pernicious as ever. These nights happen. They will happen this weekend. Be careful.
But it’s not just about the death. It’s about the life. That’s the real point of the whole episode, to see the hugeness of Lance’s well-lived life. In the passing of the years, you see fathers forgive, you see losses overcome, and you see love. In the end, I hope, in dying, Lance can be seen as wonderful. Like anyone.
Phew. Blimey. Thank you! On that note, good night.
PM: On behalf of Radio Times and Cucumber fans, thank you, Russell.
Cucumber continues on Thursdays on Channel 4 at 9pm