Russell T Davies tells Ben Dowell how he was inspired to write his near-future dystopian drama, Years and Years
On the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, when Donald Trump was getting his first inkling that he would be elected to the world’s highest political office, Russell T Davies was texting the controller of BBC drama about an idea they had long been discussing. “I wrote to Piers Wenger and said, ‘If he wins tomorrow, it’s time I write this show now’ – and he said yes,” recalls Davies.
This project was the BBC One epic Years and Years. The series imagines a near-future, towards the end of Trump’s second term, when he is threatening war with China, people are means tested before they’re allowed to enter the affluent London quarter of Kensington and a ruthless populist called Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson) is riding to political prominence. Nearly as bad, the price of coffee, I noticed, is £12 a cup.
It’s told from the perspective of the Manchester-based Lyons family, a likeable bunch impacted by these and other seismic political and societal changes. They include Daniel (Russell Tovey), who works with refugees, his brother, Stephen (Rory Kinnear), and his wife, Celeste (T’Nia Miller), whose phone-obsessed teenage daughter, Bethany, wants to transition (a term which means something very different in Years and Years).
The show is packed with the kind of bold ambition we have come to expect from this whip-smart, jolly writer who has brought back both Jesus (The Second Coming) and Doctor Who, written the seminal drama depicting modern British gay life (Queer as Folk), and the story of a gay man who has a straight affair (Bob & Rose). But Davies insists that his new work’s geopolitical themes should not surprise us.
“I’m known as a science fiction writer and for Queer as Folk and stuff like that,” he says. “But, actually, I’m a very political writer. I always have been. Every single year, in Doctor Who, I either killed or deposed a prime minister. In series 1, I blew up Downing Street with a missile. Everyone sat there and laughed and thought what a really fun adventure. And I was, like, have you seen what I have just done on BBC One?
“And, actually, in something like Queer as Folk, if you’re writing about the lives of gay men, you’re actually making massive political statements. I kind of engage with [politics] by not writing crime – I don’t write crime – but I write about ordinary people engaging with the world. That’s a political act. That’s what politics is. This show is just putting it more centre stage than normal.”
And then he laughs that big laugh of his. “I’m always kicking up a fuss about something. It’s very rare to get a drama out of me that’s just two people having a nice time. It’s a long-winded way of me saying: I’m worried about the world. In a sense, I always have been.”
It would also not be surprising to find Davies feeling low for other, non-geopolitical reasons. We were speaking six months after the death of his husband, Andrew, after a long illness – something that he and I have discussed in private but which he now feels able to discuss publicly.
“I am all right,” he says with a deep sigh. “We’re just past the six-month mark, which is odd. It’s when everyone expects you to be all right and it’s not. What do you do? You just keep going. All you can do is keep on going and it’s exactly what he’d want me to do. Life is very strange. Every day.”
He and Andrew, he says, never discussed rearing children. Not because he wouldn’t want to bring infants into this terrible future he’s now imagining. It was simply to do with the fact that gay men raising children wasn’t an issue for men of his generation. “When we were 18, 19, 20, it wasn’t remotely possible… We did discuss it later but neither of us ever wanted it at all. You may as well ask me, ‘am I going to live on the moon?”, he says, chuckling again.But the family dynamic within Years and Years, and the jokes and kindnesses the Lyons clan show one another, are both warm and plausible, as well as being a crucial source of comfort in the piece. Does that point to a glimmer of optimism in the Davies world view?
“I could murder someone and my family would hide me,” he laughs again. “They would wrap me up in a carpet and take me to Anglesey. Husbands and wives, they split up and there are changes in their relationship. But families always stay together. In my conversations with the BBC, in advance, we agreed there was no point writing this if it was going to be bleak.
“The end of episode 1 is bleak. I loved to see the early reviews saying it’s ‘terrifying’. I have never had a drama described as terrifying before, that’s new.…”
For Davies, most terrifying of all are the imagined future events in Trump’s America. The need to keep up with events across the Atlantic necessitated speed during the production. He considered, then ruled out as implausible, writing in a third Trump term in the White House – only to later hear it being discussed. (“Only he would think of doing something that mad,” says Davies.)
“Drama is so slow,” mulls the writer. “It can take a year to write something, it can take a year to get made and sometimes they can sit on a shelf for a year. And so, by the time you get to the screen, there’s not much of the real world left in it. Even soap operas are sometimes six months behind in the plotting. That’s what I wanted to shift, to get ‘now’ on screen. We were working so fast. We stopped shooting in March and now we’re getting on air in May. That’s very fast.”
Given that there is little doubt about where he stands on the great political questions of our day, I wonder what he will say to those commentators who will inevitably complain that Years and Years comes from a typical left-leaning, liberal BBC perspective?
“I am absolutely happily left wing,” he says, “but it’s my job to write right-wing people well. I am not talking about Vivienne Rook – she’s an outlier, the worst of the left wing and the right wing put together.”
But where are the conservative voices in TV drama? Obviously, there’s nothing stopping people with other views getting their laptops out. But is enough effort being made so that they are heard in mainstream drama – or, indeed, comedy – where a liberal/left consensus also seems to reign?
“I think it’s very significant that right-wing voices, clearly, are not that creative,” he chortles. “They’re fundamentally fucked.…”
Davies is not keen on Twitter, either, which he believes has become “the dominant voice of Western society” and is accorded a misplaced sense of respect “simply because it is typed out”.
“Our brains and intelligence and communication were not designed for all information to be passed through the written word,” he says.
Perhaps he imagines himself like another Years and Years character, Fran Baxter, who makes a living telling verbal stories (literally) by a campfire, proselytising “the shape of stories and the need for them”. Is that him? Telling stories as the world burns?
He laughs, too modest to agree entirely, but conceding the point.
“One isn’t better than the other, I’m just saying that both exist,” he says before delivering that laugh again. “I love my job. Yes, budgets are hard and deadlines are hard.
“But here I am, telling stories for a living. It’s not easy to get anything made. How lucky am I? And I’m only just beginning.…”