Russell T. Davies and Lynn Hunter talk about tonight’s episode on Banana at 10PM

It’s a two-hander, but it’s not a normal one, is it?
No, it’s not. I like Banana to change and to keep people on their toes and surprise people. And E4 is all about risk – and Banana takes all sorts of risks. Every episode is different – there’s drama, tragedy, romantic comedy, and then this.
This being a two-hander where one of the characters basically doesn’t speak English!
Yes, that’s right. Pretty much every word uttered by Zara is in Yoruba [a Nigerian dialect]. She’s not understood, which isn’t unusual for her, because she’s never understood or listened to. She just comes in and cleans and goes away again, unnoticed. She’s part of the underclass that exists, however much we might not like to think about it. I liked the fact that the last episode of Banana, after all of the dramas about the gays and their lives and loves and disappointments, was about the women who clean for them. It got us wondering, on the set, who cleans up after us?

Did you spend as long on Zara’s dialogue as on Vanessa’s?
Yes, I did, actually. I wrote the script, and then it was translated into Yoruba. And we thought about whether to have an English translation of the script on set, and decided not to. But for the extremely small minority of viewers who can speak Yoruba, there are lots of jokes in there, because Vanessa’s opening up about her life and her lesbian relationships, and thinks they’re becoming friends, and Zara is actually disgusted by what she’s hearing and really doesn’t approve of it.

For the viewer, in effect, Vanessa’s just delivering a whole series of soliloquys, isn’t she?
Yes, it becomes almost a monologue, even though the person who’s crying out for attention is sitting there – which is very true of life, I think. I actually created Vanessa for Lynn [Hunter], because I’d worked with her before, and loved her. She was in a supporting role when I worked with her on an ITV drama called Mine, All Mine. I was always thinking Cucumber was lacking something, and about two years ago I was in a Cardiff café one Sunday morning, and Lynn walked in and I just went “That’s it! That’s the woman! That’s her!” And I went and wrote the part for her. And it’s the first time, in all her acting life, that she’s had a big, strong, leading role in something, and I think she’s magnificent. And I love the fact that Channel 4 is so bold. E4 is meant to be a youth channel, and Zara is young, but Vanessa – well, Lynn would happily tell you herself, she’s 62 years old. And there she is, being absolutely magnificent in this lead role. I love this episode, I think it’s a mad, strange episode, and I’m very proud of it.

Lynn Hunter on Banana ep 8
How did you end up landing the role of Vanessa? Had you worked with Russell before?
Yes. I did a series ten years ago of Russell’s called Mine, All Mine. It was about Swansea, really, which is where Russell’s from. It was an eight or ten part series, and I met him then, and we became friends, in a way. And when I went up for the part of Vanessa in Banana and Cucumber, I went to meet the director, David, and the producer, Matt, and I spoke to Russell afterwards and he said that he’d actually written episode 8 of Banana for me. I was incredibly moved by that, really – it’s a massive, massive honour and privilege to have someone like Russell actually writing an episode for me. I was blown away by that. I didn’t know any of this when I went up for it, but I found out afterwards.

Explain a little bit about Vanessa. What’s her story?
On the surface of it she’s a really tough cookie. She’s worked hard, she’s built up her own business, she’s brought up a daughter on her own. She’s always known she’s gay, she had her daughter knowing that. But while she’s a tough cookie on the face of it, she’s a real salt-of-the-earth woman. If Vanessa was your mate, you’d be well-covered. She’s really there for you if she’s your friend. That’s why she can’t turn her back on people who need her help, as we discover in her episode. She’s very much a woman who wants to make people’s lives better. She’s an incredibly caring woman. And she’s also got a secret that’s been eating away at her for many years. And she only tells the girl in the episode because she knows she can’t understand a word of what she’s saying. Vanessa lifts the lid and it all comes pouring out, years and years of this guilt that she’s lived with.

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You mentioned that the other character in the episode doesn’t speak English. That must have been quite a bizarre acting experience.
Yes, it was. Strangely enough, I made a conscious decision not to find out what it was she was saying. They offered me the chance to have a translation of her script, and I said “No, I don’t.” Vanessa doesn’t understand what she’s saying, so it was good for me to be in the same situation. I had no idea what she was saying. That made it really difficult to learn cues, for example. But it was really helpful not to have the translation. Apparently some of what she is saying makes the scene very funny, because I totally misinterpret what she says. Apparently it’ll be a very funny scene for the tiny minority of people who speak both English and Yoruba. To this day I’ve not read the translation, so I’ve no idea what she said.

How does it feel to have someone like Russell come along and write a whole episode for you? Where does that stand, for you, in the grand scheme of your career?
In the 35 years of my career, no-one has ever invested that amount of faith in me, as a performer. I am totally overwhelmed and humbled by that. I don’t have the words to say to Russell what this means to me. I’ve tried to tell him. When I got the script originally, I could not believe it. It’s virtually a monologue. I’ve done a lot of television in my time, but never anything as big as this. Even in the big series’, the very well-known actors rarely get that amount of exposure or airtime. When I got the script, it was totally terrifying. With that level of faith invested in me comes a level of responsibility, though. It’s the most incredible thing that’s happened.