Last January, a strange litany that one could easily mistake for a grocery list appeared on British television screens as well as Twitter. Had Channel 4 launched a new cooking show?
In reality, Cucumber, Banana and Tofu are the names given to the new transmedia creation signed by Russel T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk and Torchwood and Doctor Who’s showrunner from 2005 to 2010. Three series distributed through three different channels to tell a single and same story—so to speak.
A transmedia story
My first is Cucumber, a one-hour drama series that airs on Channel 4. My second is Banana, a 26-minute sitcom that airs the same evening on E4 (another of the group’s channels). My third is Tofu, an 11 minutes documentary webseries uploaded to 4oD, the group’s VOD platform.
My whole is the unstated sequel to Queer as Folk, the 1999 series that contributed to mainstreaming the issue of homosexuality through its gay heroes set in Manchester. The series’ three declinations explore in the space of eight episodes as many couples and sexual variations in our era of social networks and dating apps.
Cucumber begins by following Henry and Lance, a couple in their forties who live together. They appear happy but their story will crumble following an unfortunate combination of circumstances: the worst date night in history.
Banana places the emphasis on younger characters, starting with Dean and Freddie, Henry’s new cotenants. Cucumber’s main character returns with a certain freshness—as do the viewers—along with these young adults. The series quickly focuses on other characters who become episodic heroes.
Finally, in Tofu, the general public and the series’ actors testify one after the other in front of the camera and share their views on love, sex and their own intimacy.
During eight weeks, viewers of Channel 4’s platforms are thus provided with the opportunity to dive into a soap opera (in the case of Cucumber and sometimes, Banana), an anthology of gay stories (Banana) and a collection of straightforward testimonies on modern (homo)sexual practices (Tofu).
The culinary metaphor used to name the three series results from a scientific study aimed at categorizing the firmness of an erection—from tofu to cucumber. This immediately inspired Russel T. Davies to divide the story into three distinct series, as he explained in the press release published at the time of the launch: “Right there and then, I knew I had my drama.”
A reinvented threesome
Based on the definition of transmedia in the strictest sense of the term, i.e., a story told on several platforms in a coordinated and aligned manner, Russel T. Davies is a transmedia architect who doesn’t know it.
There are explicit links between the two fictions that are Cucumber and Banana. Between the two, characters—and occasionally scenes and intrigues—are constantly being exchanged. It must be fascinating work for the script writer and producer to orchestrate. Thus, a scene in Cucumber may be reproduced in Banana but with a totally different rhythm or viewpoint.
Cucumber focuses on the attaching Henry who is catapulted into a whole new life through his contact with his young cotenants, Freddie and Dean. These two characters are more flexible and appear in both Cucumber and Banana. Their friendships and sentimental (mis)adventures often represent the starting points of the independent intrigues showcased in Banana.
These links are obvious to anyone who watches both series, but each series can be viewed on its own without leaving the viewer with the impression that he missed out on something. This is crucial for the artistic value of the whole and each of its parts.
Fifty shades of gay
Tofu is in a slightly different league: the webseries is produced by Benjamin Cook, a young journalist known namely for having published his expansive correspondence with Russel T. Davies during the Doctor Who era and who made a name for himself by producing a twelve-episode documentary series titled Becoming YouTube and devoted to British YouTubers.
Described by Channel 4 as an “anarchic and entertaining look at sex,” Tofu explores on a weekly basis a theme covered by one of the two aired series from the viewpoint of anonymous witnesses of different ages and settings as well as from that of the series’ comedians or gay porno actors.
“While Cucumber and Banana are fictional, we know that often the sweetest, most heart-warming, most tragic and most heartbreaking stories are real life tales,” explains Russel T. Davies regarding the testimonies compiled in Tofu.
The testimonies are collected as part of an online call by which volunteers are asked to describe their finest “sexcapade.” This all gives way to a rather heteroclite, dense and very rhythmic result that also includes—at least in the case of the first two episodes—futuristic scenes of fiction that showcase the technological evolution of sexual relations in a rather explicit reference to Channel 4’s Black Mirror miniseries.
A well-orchestrated distribution strategy
Beyond the story, the distribution was coordinated between the different platforms.
Cucumber, the engine that drives the whole, airs on the group’s main channel (Channel 4) every Thursday evening starting at 9:00 p.m. Banana follows immediately after at 10:00 p.m. on E4. Tofu is online a half-hour later, i.e., at 10:30 p.m. Together, the three shows present during a same evening close to 135 minutes of related content.
Channel 4 is the only private channel that has public service obligations. At the time, it was launched to put an end to the BBC-ITV duopoly. It is known for having aired various different and bold series targeting young audiences: Queer as Folk, Skins, Black Mirror, Utopia and Misfitsto name a few, many of which were adapted for this side of the Atlantic. Launched in 2011, E4 targets a younger audience (15-35 year-olds) that devours American series.
The Cucumber Banana Tofu trilogy was therefore thought up as part of a global differentiation strategy in terms of targets and formats, which is a rather rare phenomenon when it comes to transmedia. Here, the focus is placed first and foremost on television. Therefore, it is not surprising that the programming is designed to meet a carefully defined target.
Nevertheless, the categorization is more flexible than it appears and, just as Dean and Freddie appear in both Cucumber and Banana, TV viewers of all ages and sexual orientations have the liberty of browsing through all three series’ episodes.
Waging battle against BBC1’s highly popular Death in Paradise series, also airing Thursday evenings, Cucumber has not achieved the usual audience ratings expected from Channel 4, whereas Banana exceeded E4 averages. However, both series have received rave reviews from British critics.
Russel T. Davies and Channel 4 also make a statement with this transgender creation. For example, by staging the transsexual stand-up comedian Bethany Black or by devoting an episode of Tofu to the issue of one’s coming-out, the triple series promotes the representation of minorities that are generally underrepresented on the small screen and of whom Channel 4 wants to be the flag bearer.