As the world learned that a reality-TV star and millionaire businessman with zero political experience had been elected the leader of the free world, Russell T Davies (Doctor Who, Queer as Folk, A Very English Scandal) knew that he finally had to bring to fruition a long-gestating idea about following an everyday family living in turbulent times. The result is Years and Years, a BBC One, HBO and Canal+ limited series from RED Production Company, sold by STUDIOCANAL. It follows the Lyons family over a 15-year period, beginning in the present day and jumping forward to a world in which President Trump has earned a second term, relations between the U.S. and China are at a breaking point, technology is even more deeply integrated into our everyday lives, climate change is having devastating consequences and a brash, populist politician, played brilliantly by Emma Thompson, is coming to power in the U.K. Davies talks to TV Drama about the critically acclaimed series.
TV DRAMA: Was it the election of Donald Trump that inspired you to write Years and Years?
DAVIES: It was, you’re absolutely right. To be honest, it’s been ticking away in my head for a long time. It almost seems like common sense, really, to write a drama in which fictional characters are engaged with the real world and reacting to it. I’m surprised more dramas don’t do that. We’ve had a hell of a few years, with the banking crisis and then Brexit and then Trump’s election, which I think will be remembered in history as the most remarkable thing to happen in our lifetime. It’s insane. It’s incredible how we’re sort of used to it now. We’ve accepted it as the status quo. There’s no way this should be the status quo. So yes, it was that night. I sent an email to the BBC saying, If he gets in, that drama I’ve been talking about for years, I think I should start writing it straightaway. And lo and behold, that’s what happened. Here we are.
TV DRAMA: Did you have Emma Thompson in mind for the show as you were writing it?
DAVIES: No. I would never have dreamt of that. I wish I thought of such things! I don’t actually do that—I don’t think about them and then write for them. Otherwise, you’re limiting what the characters can do. You’ve made your mind up before you’ve even begun. You still want the capacity to take a character anywhere and do anything. Once written, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to even suggest her! Around the table, it was probably Nicola Shindler who piped up with the name, and I just laughed, thinking we’d never get her! [Emma Thompson] read it and she loved it, which is one of the greatest compliments of my entire career. How lucky am I? She’s amazing.
TV DRAMA: Why did you choose to unfold the story over a 15-year period?
DAVIES: After 15 years, you might have to change the lead actors and all the prosthetics would start to become heavy; too many wrinkles around the eyes! Also, in 15 years, life actually will truly start to change in a way that might affect the budget. In 15 years time, I think the climate will start to change. There’s a limit to how many scenes you can shoot on a street, for example, because cars will start to become expensively unrecognizable. I don’t mean flying cars; I mean new cars that a television budget couldn’t really afford to do. You’d have to have ten new models of different cars on an ordinary domestic street; that starts to stretch a normal television budget. Also, a child is born in the first episode, and that child is 16 by the time it’s done; that feels nice. You’ve seen a modern generation pass. It felt right. In the first episode, we start in May 2019, and then it rapidly leaps five years ahead. But then every episode moves a year or so into the future. Upstairs, Downstairs used to do that. Downton Abbey did that, too. It’s quite a classic structure. It’s just no one has ever used it to go forward [into the future] before. That’s the exciting thing about it.
TV DRAMA: Is your approach to making a limited series different from making something that has the potential to return?
DAVIES: It’s a slightly different mindset. You save things in a long-running series. If you’ve only got six episodes, you tend to just go for it. Ever since making Doctor Who, I’ve only really done one-off series. I’m not interested in long-runners at the moment. Doctor Who is the oldest long-runner in the world! I can do a one-off and invent a character like Daniel (played by Russell Tovey) for Years and Years and I will write everything I can possibly write for that character in those episodes. I really focus on him, instead of going, Next year maybe they can do this and the year after they can do that. It’s not the same for every writer. Lots of writers do brilliant stuff by working in other ways. But it suits me at this moment in my life.
TV DRAMA: I was struck by the tonal shifts in the first episode—it ranges from emotional family moments to comedy to abject terror by the end. How do you manage that?
DAVIES: I don’t think of them as tonal shifts at all. I simply write each scene as it should be written. I do think I’m a bold writer and I go for it. If it seems funny, I’ll make it very funny. If it seems scary, I’ll make it very scary. I don’t believe in hanging around in the margins. It’s done me in good stead over the years. And I think life is like that. Life isn’t meant to be a genre; you don’t say today is going to be tragic or funny. There are all these things happening at once. You could be at a funeral and someone will make a joke and you’ll laugh. Life follows no genre whatsoever. I like to do that in my writing. The audience happily follows that.
TV DRAMA: I was also totally invested in that family within the first ten minutes of the show.
DAVIES: When we pitched it to the BBC, we said this could be a difficult piece. It’s political, it has a complicated format, but if you cast this well, we promise you will love every single member of this family and people will come back to watch it. I honestly think we’ve done it. No matter how well the show goes down, you cannot deny that it is well cast. They are such splendid actors.
TV DRAMA: Tell us about your collaboration with Nicola at RED Production Company.
DAVIES: It’s second nature to me now. This is our ninth production together. We’re starting our tenth in the autumn. She is just extraordinary. And you’d be amazed how little we collaborate actually. We don’t sit down and put our heads together and say, What should I do next? I have an idea and I send it to her. I’ll write the script and off we go. We’ve had golden times together. She creates an atmosphere of trust where you can say anything. I find it’s harder to hand in a script to her than I do to anyone else; I work harder on them because once you get to know someone, letting them down is even worse. She never lets the standard drop.
TV DRAMA: What’s your writing process? Do you have a set schedule or do you wing it?
DAVIES: I kind of wing it to be honest! I leave it to the last possible minute and then frantically, desperately bash it all out. A writer is writing all the time. You might be on holiday, but actually, there’s dialog and characters and scenes racking through my head all the time. One of the endings is a colossal scene between Rory Kinnear [who plays Stephen Lyons] and T’Nia Miller [as Celeste Bisme-Lyons]. That’s been in my head for over 25 years. A scene between a husband and wife that’s been ticking around for a long time. Amazing, I finally get to write these things. I’m very lucky.
TV DRAMA: As the show progresses into the near future, we see the various ways that technology is changing our lives, whether it’s personal robots or physical Snapchat filters. How did you think about what tech is going to look like 5, 10, 15 years from now?
DAVIES: We didn’t kill ourselves over that, to be honest. Otherwise, you’d end up with very fancy devices that would upstage all the actors around them. If you imagine something like Cold Feet, you don’t have Adam walk into the room with his brand-new phone saying, “Look at my brand-new phone!” It’s not what it’s about. It’s all meant to be normal and relaxed. I was quite relieved when Netflix [rebooted] Lost in Space and it’s quite normal technology. There are spaceships flying around but their phones kind of look like mobile phones. They made a very wise decision of not getting hung up on it. You’re not distracting the viewer with the latest flashy technology. That was a decision, to not be very fancy with it. We really brought it down to earth. It’s not about [the technology]; it’s about who we are, as opposed to what we’re using.