My favourite piece of television this year to date has been, without a doubt, Russell T. Davies‘ Channel 4 series Cucumber (2015): a frank, bold series about modern gay life featuring an ensemble of sharply-drawn, vibrant characters. Its companion anthology series, Banana (2015), which expands the stories of Cucumber‘s peripheral characters in self-contained half-hour instalments, aired on affiliated channel E4 directly after each episode of its parent show.
The series’ sixth instalment follows Amy (played by the episode’s writer, Charlie Covell) who, in early sequences, is established as having a very anxious disposition. Before leaving her perfectly-ordered flat for work, Amy checks and double checks that electrical switches and gas outlets are all turned off. She leaves, gets a few hundred yards up the street… then panics that she’s left the toaster switched on, imagines the entire building burning to the ground, and therefore has to run back to make the same checks all over again.
Once on the bus, she can’t help but insist a fellow commuter ties his shoelaces there and then as she imagines him otherwise tripping into the road after he disembarks. And she only allows herself to accept an offer of a date she receives via a phone app if a woman sat opposite her on the bus looks up before they reach the next stop. Significantly, Amy then spends that time silently willing the woman to look up so that she can do just that. Here is a character whose anxiety leaves her so fearful that she feels unable to exert any personal agency over her day-to-day life.
The woman in question looks up in the nick of time, though, and so Amy accepts said date, and subsequently meets Kay (T’Nia Miller). After a series of false starts thanks to Amy’s social awkwardness and her confession to being “quite weird”, a supportive Kay coaxes Amy to open up about herself over a drink in this gently humorous exchange:
In a behind-the-scenes interview about her involvement in Banana, Covell talks about the nature of the series as well as its potential for a broad appeal:
One thing that Russell and (co-executive producer) Nicola (Shindler) were saying when we were talking about stories was that Banana in particular is about (what) they called the ‘hard stare’. So really looking at how people behave and relationships, and the truth in those. So showing ugly and difficult parts of people, and how they interact. All of the stories are set in the LGBT community, but that’s kind of incidental. They’re about people and relationships, and things people have difficulty with: falling in love, or going on a date, or dealing with a horrendous thing happening to you. These aren’t exclusive because they’re all human stories; they’re not exclusive to one group.”
What Covell says here about Banana featuring being human stories that are not exclusive to any one group is equally true of its approach to mental health. Amy’s behaviour might perhaps display signs of what is termed Generalised Anxiety Disorder, but at no stage during the episode is Amy tagged as suffering a mental health condition (to the extent that I feel bad for categorising this entry as I have, and which I do mostly for ease of reference and navigation).
Moreover, the way in which Amy’s behaviour is presented, and the inner voice that Covell portrays so effectively through both her script and performance, jointly serve to humanise and normalise both Amy and her state of mind. The characterisation of Amy achieves the dual success of being at once both very specific and utterly universal. I can personally relate very directly to some of her behavioural quirks. And we live in an anxious age. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, for example, suggests that anxiety affects up to one fifth of the US population.
Amy’s story comes to its climax as she walks Kay home at the end of their night out—to ensure she arrives safely rather than to be forward—and then agonises over whether or not to kiss her goodnight, willing a light to come on in a building opposite as a “sign” to her that she should do so. Ultimately, Kay seizes the initiative and—in a magical moment—lights start to come on in all the buildings up and down the street. Amy’s willingness to discuss her eccentricities so openly combined with Kay’s open-mindedness have sparked a connection between two people who were strangers just hours earlier. That makes the moment that they finally kiss a triumphant one, and I defy anyone watching not to be left with a warm glow and a sense of life’s possibilities as the credits roll.
All in all, I salute this episode’s ability to present mental health as a normal aspect of our lives that can and should be discussed openly and without judgment. Its efficiency in presenting characters with whom the audience quickly relate, and for whom they will therefore root not in spite of their “quirks” but because of them, is something of a masterclass and characteristic of Cucumber and Banana. Both series are still available to watch in their entirety courtesy of Channel 4’s website as well as via their All 4 catch-up service, plus are available to buy on DVD. And both get my highest recommendation.