On the night of Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, screenwriter Russell T Davies sent an email. “If he gets into power tomorrow,” Davies wrote to BBC drama commissioner Piers Wenger and long-time production collaborator Nicola Schindler, “I should write this now.”
“I’ve never been more sorry to be right!” Davies tells the crowd at the BFI & Radio Times Television Festival launch of Years And Years, the new drama written in the wake of that message.
The idea for the six-part series had occurred to Davies long before Trump’s arrival in the White House. There are documents about it in the Red Production Company offices, he says, going back at least ten years. Back then, it was a story about a housing officer dealing with an influx of new arrivals to the UK. “A housing officer and migration, how boring is that drama?!” says Davies. “You want to give it heart.”
Enter: the Lyons, aka heart. The Lyons are a generations-spanning pack that goes all the way from 90-year-old great-grandmother Muriel to new-born baby Lincoln, with brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons and daughters at every point in between. They’re a beautifully realised lot, vibrating with the hum of resentment, hostility, piss-taking and whomping, thumping love that comes with life in a big family.
“I thought writing a family was the key to it,” Davies says. Family sagas are some of his favourite TV shows (he calls Upstairs Downstairs “the finest drama ever made”). Producer Nicola Schindler, who has worked with Davies since Queer As Folk in 1999, brought up one of her early production gigs on Peter Flannery’s Our Friends In The North, which followed a group of friends from the 1960s to the 1990s.
“I wanted to take something like that,” says Davies, “but instead of taking it from World War II or the sixties, push it into the future to see where we’re going.”
That’s just what Years And Years does. Starting in the UK in 2019, it follows the Lyons over a decade into their future, gobbling up years in minutes. This isn’t Doctor Who-style time-travel. The only time machine is Davies’ unmatched ability to convey story and character at a pace that gallops where other dramatists saunter.
The above-average velocity of a Davies script has come in especially handy on this project, which has required nimble work to weave in and out of real-world relevance. “We are working so fast to get this transmitted, we are racing,” says Davies.
Daily, the news drops a slurry of stories that could change everything. Trump, technology, the royal family, Brexit … “Because it’s set five years in the future, I’ve referred to anything Brexit-y in the past tense,” he explains.
Years And Years is set in the future, but it’s about now, Davies tells the BFI crowd. “That’s what it’s really about: now. The world is getting madder and stranger and bubbling up and we’re all getting more politicised or more fed up with politics all the time.” It was commissioned 15 months ago. Even then, says Nicola Schindler, “the world wasn’t quite as crazy as it is now.”
Davies agrees. “Real life is far madder than anything you can imagine. I could have sat there at a laptop typing for a million years and I would never have come up with Donald Trump standing in a gold room with 1000 hamburgers. Life is far more insane than anything you can invent, so I just try. I just try, darling, to catch up!”
Reflecting the modern world takes a mirror of unusual size and shape, and that’s what Years And Years is. Davies has packed incident and ideas into six hours of drama like a magician packs a top hat, pulling out laughs and surprises in quick succession. The show imagines the technology of the near future, inspiring cast member Rory Kinnear’s description of it as “Our Friends In The North meets Black Mirror.”
It’s a savvy summary, especially as Years And Years also shares a director with Our Friends In The North in Simon Cellan Jones. He’s keen to downplay the future technology aspect. “It absolutely goes forward and there’s some technology changes but the world hasn’t changed that much in the last ten years,” says Jones. He calls it personal, rather than futuristic, hoping that the audience will watch it and think “that’s about my mum and my brother and my family and my job and my house.”
Nicola Schindler agrees, “Ultimately, it’s a story about family,” she says. “It isn’t political – it has politics around it but…” She’s interrupted by the event moderator. Come on, of course Years And Years is political. What about Viv Rook?
Politician Viv Rook is played by Emma Thompson. “It’s cast to death!” says Davies excitedly to the assembled cast including Anne Reid, Russell Tovey, Rory Kinnear, Ruth Madeley and T’Nia Miller. “I’d be happy with one of you lot in a drama, we’re got all of you.”
Rook is first seen as a panellist on the BBC’s Question Time. (Also look out for her in-show appearances on Have I Got News For You and Pointless.) She’s part of the zeitgeist, not based on any one person, says Davies, though “you might recognise some things about her.”
“She is using all those tricks that modern politicians do, there’s a bit of Johnson, there’s a bit of Farage in there …”
“[Rook] knows how to surf the 21st century. She knows how to talk nonsense. She knows when to tell the truth. She knows when to be popular. She knows how to get a vote. She’s looming over the whole thing,” Davies explains. “Our lives are full of those people now, full of them. They’re terrifying and fascinating at the same time. It was time to write that.”
And it was time to write Years And Years, a drama with a lot of fun, Davies promises but “oh my goodness, this family does go through hell. Some terrible things happen.”
After the episode one screening, that much is true. Actor Anne Reid, who plays Lyons family matriarch Muriel, gives the final word. “You ain’t seen nothing like this before have you?” she asks the crowd. “Ever, ever ever.”
Years And Years starts on Tuesday the 14th of May at 9pm on BBC One.