If you’ve never paid attention to the work of Russell T. Davies, you’ve missed out on decades of groundbreaking television writing from the UK. The man who pioneered the portrayal of gay life on television with the original series “Queer as Folk,” and brought a human touch to reviving the sci-fi franchise “Doctor Who,” has been changing the game when it comes to how anyone — or everyone — might be portrayed on television.
This week, Logo premieres “Cucumber,” an hour-long drama series about an older gay man grappling with a mid-life crisis, and “Banana,” a half-hour companion series from the point-of-view of the younger folks who mix into his life. It’s a bold experiment with form, but that’s nothing new for Davies. Below, he tells Indiewire about the “idiot” who kept “Doctor Who” from being properly appreciated by potential fans and the origins of his new series (plural).
With television these days, it is a global empire, which is something you really have a unique perspective on — working as you have had the last 10, 15 years, and seeing your shows spread on an international level. I was wondering what your perspective was on that change?
Yeah, it’s interesting, I’ve been very lucky. Well I did “Queer As Folk,” which was picked up by Showtime and the original version ran for five years. It’s different, I choose to run my career differently. I don’t particularly like being on long runs. The only time I did a long run on a show was “Doctor Who.” I admire people who are empire builders in the sense of [Julian Fellowes], who give six years of his show. But I have the next two or three years planned: I have a one-off show the end of this year, a six episode show the year after that, a brand new six episode show the year after that. So it’s just different cultures. It’s the way I like to work. I like to move on.
In terms of seeing your show spread from the U.K. to the U.S., as we’re seeing with “Cucumber” and “Banana,” is there anything particular about the experience that you find really interesting? Especially compared to when “Doctor Who” first started out and the U.S. waited a year before it officially aired here.
Yes, yes, yes. The launch of “Doctor Who” in the US was a dreadful stumble; one of the great mistakes BBC Worldwide ever made. We launched “Doctor Who” 10 years to today, funnily enough. Ten years ago we launched “Doctor Who,” that was a very fine day. And so I thought it was a done deal that it would be broadcasted by BBC America.
But some idiot failed to do the deal, and it went to [Syfy]. They’re very, very nice, but it was never their show. It was just an import, just a purchase. The show did very well, but they never promoted it because they’re promoting their own shows, quite naturally. That idiot who failed to sell “Doctor Who” to BBC America was let go of her job very soon afterwards. What a fool. How could you get something that wrong? So, it’s complicated, but it’s gotten a lot better is what I’m saying.
Back in 2005, getting simultaneous distribution, getting simultaneous transmission on things was a nightmare. Everyone’s learned a lot in the past 10 years, so now — last year with “Doctor Who” and its 50-year anniversary — it had simultaneous transmission. It was even shown in cinemas worldwide. It was shown in American cinemas. It made a fortune, and it was shown in 28 countries simultaneously or something, so that goes to show how wide the whole industry gets. It was all-new territory for all of us 10 years ago. Now, there are a lot of people corralling these things into shape. And I like that. I think it all should have simultaneous transmission.
So, going to the origins of “Cucumber,” I remember hearing about the show when it was in development at Showtime years ago.
That’s right, yes it was. I’d been living in America between 2009 and 2011, and I was developing “Cucumber” for Showtime. I had a good working relationship with them after “Queer as Folk,” and the first episode of “Cucumber” was written for them and set in Seattle, but then my partner was diagnosed with brain cancer. You don’t want to be ill in a foreign country, so we moved back to Britain and it was a very serious two-and-a-half years off, but everything is all right now. And so a year or 18 months ago, I finally decided to get back into it, and a lot of lawyers worked very hard to release the script back to me, which I’m really grateful for. So it became a British show and it translated very easily to Manchester because men are men, certainly in the rest of the Western world, men are men wherever you go. So there were no great leaps between one or the other. So yeah it has quite a long and complicated history, but it got made in the end. Hooray!
Was the idea of also having “Banana” in conjunction with that initial pitch to Showtime, or did that come later?
You know, I can’t remember. I think it probably wouldn’t be. I don’t think it had reached that stage with Showtime, and yet it must have done. I was probably hoping to make “Banana” in some shape or form. I would always have done it.
But it came second in terms of the development process?
I think, but I don’t know. There was certainly no script ever, I recall. I think it must have been part of the pitch to Showtime, actually, but I can’t remember!
Well, you’ve had a pretty full plate.
What about having both perspectives, the old and the young, was key for you?
One loud response to “Queer as Folk” was that “we’re not included,” “we’re not part of this genre” — older people saying “we’re not part of it.” And I kind of realized that back then a minority would crave representation, and that’s absolutely fair enough to crave representation. But this time, when I came around to the same thing, 15 years later, I came a bit older, a bit wiser, a bit more sappy. The only way to write a good drama is [to] have a core subject and to focus on it, so I knew that I couldn’t just shove a few supporting gay characters in there to represent other aspects of our experiences.
But I kind of thought I could have this structure whereby you’re telling a novel, but you could tell short stories [and] get other voices in there. And that’s exactly what “Banana” is. There’s a 62-year-old lesbian. We have a 19-year-old lesbian. There’s a lesbian couple, there’s another lesbian couple, there’s a trans story, which is the first time in this country that a trans character has been played by a trans actor. It’s just more voices, and not only the characters, but also more writers. So through this show you get my point of view on gay life, whether you like it or not — but you might not. So I wanted to bring other voices, woman’s voices and new voices.
That’s great. In terms of creating the structure and making sure it’s interconnected, how tough was that to execute?
It was kind of easy. I’ve worked on numbers of very complicated shows; if you’ve worked on “Doctor Who” and you’re trying to shoot on the moon on a BBC budget, then coordinating two shows is relatively easy. I was writing each “Cucumber” script, so with each “Banana” script it was very easy for me to tie it together. We came up with an interesting proposition: the director of each version of that scene, rather than having to deal with continuity, making sure every light would go off and every cigarette and every collar. We did the opposite. Which is, let’s make this different, that make each scene from a completely different point of view.
In the British television industry, is it kind of remarkable to have this opportunity to bring in new voices?
It just depends. People would say, “Oh, you monsters, you can’t get onto television.” But I don’t think that’s true, I think it’s just they aren’t trying hard enough. And, frankly, I’ve always done that. The street is not paved with gold. There’s not unemployed brilliant writers just sitting on their doorstop. You’ve actually got to go out and find them. A lot of people think they are, but the talent is hard to find, you’ve got to put the hours in. I think it’s paying it forward, or paying it backwards is paying it forward. I think it’s all very important for the world, actually. It’s helping these people have a leg up on their career, just as people did for me…
When you work with young people, you actually get a spring in your step; you actually get the energy off them, you get a passion off them. You learn stuff. You learn stuff and hopefully you can teach them some stuff. So it’s a lovely venture, it’s kind of rejuvenating for everyone. And I hope that gets on the screen and affects the audience.
It seems like there’s a direct parallel between that and the first couple of episodes of “Cucumber.”
Oh, well yes, that’s interesting. A lot of the story is a generation gap — a middle-aged world colliding with the younger world. In the end, all we’re talking about is the state of the world [laughs]. That’s the whole world, in the end, is the young and the old clashing and finding all the connections.
What are you moving on to next, if you can say?
I’ve got a couple things lined up that have a rather good chance. I’ve got this BBC project that could be filming in October. I just think a one-off for that. You won’t hear the last of me.
Oh, I wasn’t worried about that.