“The point is you don’t need a revolution for a Viv Rook to take over,” declares Years And Years creator Russell T Davies of the populist uprising on the HBO dystopian family drama of the near future that literally and digitally ended tonight. “In fact, you almost never have a revolution,” the now Emmy nominated A Very English Scandal scribe adds. “You don’t have the military storming the gates. You don’t have rioting in the streets. These people creep up on us very, very slowly, and yet with increasing speed suddenly.”
In a nutshell that is what happened in the Emma Thompson starring six-parter that saw the “Erstwhile” concentration camps exposed by radioactive activist Edith Lyons (Jessica Hynes), her gate-crashing sister Rosie (Ruth Madeley) and other members of their extended family. The viral result sees UK Prime Minister Rook brought down and jailed for nearly 30 years – or is she?
Having played very close to the realities of our times, MBE Davies took viewers on both sides of the Atlantic on a wild ride culturally, politically and technologically through the next decade and a half with Years And Years. When it played over in the UK earlier this year, the 2029 set last episode took some by surprise and even shock as the dense show seemed to shift gears and tone towards science fiction out of hardened drama.
Already well on the way to his next project, Queer As Folk creator Davies spoke with me about that reaction to the end of Years And Years, the rise of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, and the looming catastrophe of Brexit. Touching on those Emmy nominations for the Hugh Grant starring AVES, Davies also divulged the future of the Thompson, Hynes, Madeley, Rory Kinnear, T’Nia Miller, Russell Tovey, and Anne Reid-led series and the inspiration behind a certain speech by a certain grandmother that has gone viral in the real world.
DEADLINE: Now it’s over, did the real Viv Rook go to jail or is Edith in digital pursuit?
DAVIES: Will we ever know? What’s the truth these days? That’s the whole point to that ending, what’s true, what’s false? Can we believe in anything?
We’re being given these fake videos with fake videos, fake people, fake news. I have no idea. At some point, I just stop owning these material and step back and say it’s yours. Make your own mind up. I like to think she was pursued to the grave by Edith Lyons. I think that’s a much nicer fate for her. Part of the reason I think that was actually going to jail simply wasn’t enough for these modern bastard demagogues.
DEADLINE: So, it sounds like you’re saying this isn’t the end of Years And Years, that’s the more to come in the pursuit of Rook and that truth?
DAVIES: No, I’m afraid that’s it. I mean, that’s such a perfect ending. It was always devised as a one-off for the BBC. It was originally pitched to them as just six episodes, and I always knew that we’d end on that question – “is that you?” I mean, doesn’t that sum up the whole of life? Is that you?
Those are the last words spoken and imagine if you answered that it would be so disappointing. As much as I would love to have a series about Edith, a digital ghost, swimming around the world killing all the pirates. Maybe I should have gone to Comic-Con and I should be pitching that.
DEADLINE: Exactly, you said it …
DAVIES: (LAUGHS) I’m going to change my mind. Dominic, you’ve changed my mind. I’m coming back.
DAVIES: Yeah, you’re right, we’ve moved on. And to be honest, it’s such a fantastic cast. We only got that cast under no options. British actors are quite different to American actors in accepting options, and all of those people wouldn’t have accepted a long-term option, and that’s how we got such a magnificent cast. All of them because it’s just come and do six hours with us in Manchester and be done.
DEADLINE: So, like I mentioned in my review, Years And Years is, in the end, very much in the Dennis Potter tradition of the writer driven limited series. How much of a role did that legacy play in the creation and development of Years And Years?
DAVIES: Well. That’s an enormous compliment because that’s exactly what I wanted. It’s funny because I am actually exhausted by Years and Years. It’s been months since we finished the last episode, and I do genuinely feel as though I’m still recovering.
DEADLINE: From what?
DAVIES: Truthfully, I felt as though I had to summon every power I had. I’ve done science fiction, I’ve done domestic dramas, I’ve done futuristic dramas, I’ve done intense personal dramas about gay men, and it’s like I opened up the entire attic of this and shone a light into every corner.
DAVIES: Because I knew I was going to use every device, every hope, every ambition, every trick, every insight that I’ve ever had to make this work. Its such a big idea to say let’s go find a six episode seven-year feature. I couldn’t begin it by taking it easy. I couldn’t relax. I literally had to use every single power I ever had, and I’m properly tired by it, but I’m properly delighted by it as well.
DEADLINE: For all the acclaim the series received over in the UK, one of the main magnets to American audiences was having Emma Thompson in it as the venal Vivienne Rook, shattering the political and social discourse and rising with secret backers to power and becoming Prime Minister.
Yet, you played that out with stealth, which was unusual, especially for a limited series where you have to get stuff moving. You don’t put her in the center seat of power right away. She loses a by-election, she takes some time to get to power, she utilizes her own television network to get around electioneering rules and even once she’s in power, she doesn’t seem to really be the one pulling the strings. Why did you decide to pace this out the way you did in your move to get her to Number 10?
DAVIES: I literally thought it’s a little bit easy to come on Big Brother once Big Brother is already in place, because it’s watching you, and 1984 and everyone’s terrified. It’s not on Page 1 but I wanted to show how it creeps up on us while ordinary life goes on.
So, I wanted to show every single stage that is happening around us now, in real life and in the story. The Brexit Channel has done similar things post-referendum here, this is becoming the darkest time in this country. What a ridiculous parade of clowns that is that the Brexit Channel now exists, and these tricks are being pulled on us all over the world.
Look at Trump, or Boris Johnson now over here. That is the greatest lying clown I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s terrifying, and all over the world. We’re living in some extraordinary times.
The point is you don’t need a revolution for a Viv Rook to take over. In fact, you almost never have a revolution. You don’t have the military storming the gates. You don’t have rioting in the streets. These people creep up on us very, very slowly, and yet with increasing speed suddenly.
DEADLINE: Which begs the inevitable, can it happen here question …
DAVIES: You can’t quite do it in the Americas because you found your own party; you just take one over like Trump did. Here in the UK, that’s what the Brexit Party is. You can found your own party, and make it very powerful. I mean, I couldn’t write it fast enough. I couldn’t write it fast enough honestly, it’s happening in front of us, now.
Look, for instance, in America, I think it’s quite a straightforward prediction that Trump will win his second term. I think his attacks on the squad and others at the moment are very clearly and brilliantly campaigning to win his next election.
DEADLINE: So he’s on script for you?
DAVIES: (LAUGHS) Yes and I will say, the one thing I didn’t have the nerve to do was to say that he changed the laws to invent a third term succession and I kind of wish I had now. I mean, I researched all that and that’s pretty hard to do, except everything you think that is impossible for Trump he then turns around and does.
DEADLINE: Is that why you don’t have fictional Presidents and fictional PMs, why you have Trump re-elected in 2020, Pence elected in 2024 …
DAVIES: We had a long debate at the beginning of should it be a fictional American president, should we have a fictional prime minister. I’ve watched those dramas that do that and they don’t feel real. I wanted it to feel like it’s saying something about the real world, and I thought an invented President Able March or Prime Minister Able March, it wouldn’t have felt like it was existing here and now, which it had to.
DEADLINE: Speaking of the here and now, that monologue you wrote for Anne Reid as Lyons matriarch and grandmother Muriel was quite the scathing tour de force. But, with all that we had seen before, Danny’s death, the hard foot of populism and nationalism and economic decline, why did you think you needed it in the finale?
DAVIES: Well, I think it is very important to the episode, and, let’s be honest, it wasn’t likely that Muriel could be storming the barricades and pulling down fences and saving refugees physically. So, knowing all that was to come, and knowing that revolution was come I had to give her the verbal revolution. I had to give her the words, I had to give her the speech, and then you sit back, and she delivered it. You go.
I wasn’t there that day, but I can remember getting the rushes and just going wow, that’s it. That’s it. Well done, Anne. Glorious woman.
DEADLINE: That speech sparked quite the reaction when the series played in the UK earlier this year. I mean everyone loves a good barn buster but this was very much in the tone of Years And Years’ finale literally and figuratively. As the author of the condemning remarks, why do you think Muriel’s speech has resonated so deeply?
DAVIES: Well, the reaction, it was astonishing. I mean, everyone clings to something going viral, and the last time I looked I think that had eight million hits just on its Facebook page, never mind Twitter. On the BBC Facebook page, I’ve had eight million hits, so it’s just extraordinary.
You dream of that happening, and but I think it’s almost nothing I did.
It’s the mood we’re in. We’re angry and we’re looking for a future. We’re looking for someone to blame, and I do, I agree with every single word she says in that, which is that everyone is blaming everyone at the moment. The left blames the right, and the right blames the left and they never talk to each other, and the way that labor and conservative will never even have a conversation in the way that Republicans and Democrats will never even have a conversation means that we’re doomed.
DEADLINE: That viral reaction appears to be very much fueled by a younger demographic is you look at the data. Which is, let’s be honest, not the audience that generally watches shows such as Years And Years on either side of the Atlantic, is it?
DAVIES: That’s an interesting thing because of I went into transmission thinking we don’t really tell stories about the young in this. It’s going to skip young viewers, but actually, the opposite has happened. If anyone loves grand speeches it’s younger viewers, where the BBCs got data, phenomenal amounts of viewers who are 15, 16, 17 years old, 20, 21 years old loving that speech and downloading it, and watching the series. So yes, accidentally it seems to have worked, even though I worried very much that we’d skipped that generation, in terms of storytelling, but I’ll come back to the story in some other form. Don’t worry.
DEADLINE: Copy that, but to shift story telling gears a bit – A Very English Scandal received a quartet of nominations two weeks ago, including one for you for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Dramatic Special. How does that feel and where does that fit into where Russell T. Davies is headed at this point in his career?
DAVIES: That’s an excellent question, Dominic. Thank you. No one’s ever asked me that. It’s very nice to be…it’s lovely, those Emmy nominations. To be in the company of Chernobyl, and to be in the company of When They See Us, which is the most devastating piece of work, that’s enough. Honestly, one is honored to be in company like that. That is breathtaking and I hope I get to be in the same room as the people who made those shows so I can go and embrace them, but it’s simply lovely.
The truth of it is, Dominic, I’ve thought of something new, and although this is lovely, and I love talking about Years and Years, and it’s still carrying a huge residence in my head, I’m actually working on the next project. We’ve just cast someone, who I can’t tell you about, who’s the most exciting actor in the world, so I’ve ruthlessly move on,
DEADLINE: Ruthless in that respect, but clearly the Years And Years finale was a beam of optimism, at least for a moment, a feeling that people can make a difference if they want to engage, to put it lightly. Is that where your heart truly lies?
DAVIES: I think it has to. I think there is a version of Years and Years that ended in dystopia. A version that ended in death, that ended in exile and seclusion, and actually, I find that very easy to write. That wouldn’t have pushed me, to be honest. A lot of writers can bash that out.
I think there’s no such thing as a happy ending in life. We all die. You can show me the happiest married couple in the world, one of them dies first. So, I think sometimes the whole point of fiction is to give things a happy ending. It’s the one thing we can do.
DEADLINE: Sounds so simple …
DAVIES: Perhaps, I’ve liked that since I was a child and I like it now. That’s why I was such a good fit for Doctor Who in many ways.
DEADLINE: How so?
DAVIES: Because Doctor Who is a fundamentally young and optimistic show, so I was happy to bring those principles to bear on this. It was the same as how I pitched it to the BBC in the first place. You will have terrible deaths and awful things happening within society, but I have to end it with hope. We have to transmit an optimism at the end or what’s the point, really?
I think there has to be a lift up towards the end.
I think that lift up is controversial with Edith, with the revolution. I think some people jumped ship there and didn’t quite believe it. That’s fine. I’ll park the car, you get out. Thanks for coming this far. Everyone else come have a great time with me, but I do think it’s a lovely ending. I’m very proud of it.