Russell T Davies’s Years and Years is bold and brilliant

What audacity is here. What heart, what freedom, and what brilliance.

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Russell T Davies has said that his new series, Years and Years, is hard to describe succinctly, and that this is a worry to him because “I like a one-line pitch”. I like one-line pitches, too – I didn’t spend my twenties writing headlines for nothing – but having devoted a couple of days to this conundrum, I think he’s right. For a while, I was quite keen on “Last Tango in Halifax meets Black Mirror”, but since hardly anyone seems to love the former even half so much as me, and I often loathe the latter, I had to discard that one. Perhaps I’d better just give up. All I can tell you is that Years and Years speaks of, and to, everything that’s happening in our lives, and in the wider world, and though it really shouldn’t work – in other hands, it would be dramatic box-checking of the worst order – somehow it does. What audacity is here. What heart, what freedom, and what brilliance.

It’s set in the near future – the year is 2024 – where things are pretty much the same as now only… worse. The Queen has died. Trump is shortly to leave office and will be replaced by his puppet, Mike Pence. Britain has seen a huge influx of Ukrainian refugees following a war with Russia, and populism and intolerance is still on the rise. A ghastly entrepreneur called Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson) has formed a new political party with a focus on bin collections and rounding up the tech barons who facilitate porn sites. In London, a cup of coffee is £12 and those entering Kensington are means-tested. People are more addicted to their phones than ever (the technology can now be embedded beneath your skin, thus turning your hand into your handset), and while this sometimes brings them together, more often it means they exist in isolated bubbles, sexless and lonely and apt to believe whatever conspiracy theory (germs don’t exist!) happens to be up next.

All this might sound unsubtle on the page, but on screen it’s the opposite. There are several reasons for this. One is that while some of the dystopian stuff is clearly the object of satire, Davies treats most of it in a quotidian, naturalistic way, barely nodding in its direction. Mostly, though, it’s because his framework isn’t the situation –the rise and rise of China; the prospect that Trump might say goodbye to the White House by sending up some fireworks in the form of a nuclear missile – but a single, loving (Mancunian) family. Davies has always had soapy Dickensian impulses – if he loves David Copperfield, he adores Coronation Street – and these are brought to bear on his characters here in the most full and tender way. They are, as human beings tend to be, funny and kind and randy (Davies is not one to ignore a person’s sex drive, a fact that has always bound me to him). And sometimes, too, they are angry and bewildered and frightened.

Who do we care about most? Is it Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey), a housing officer who has grown a bit bored with his husband? Or is it his brother Stephen (Rory Kinnear), a financial adviser whose daughter wants to be trans (in her case, this means trans-human, not transgender). Anne Reid puts in a delicious performance as their martyr of a grandmother, Muriel, as do Ruth Madeley and Jessica Hynes as their sisters, Rosie, a disabled single-parent, and Edith, an eco-warrior with an international reputation. (Yes, what a cast.) They’re all so finely drawn: their wit, their warmth, their unexpectedness. You recognise them, but you want to know them better; to have Davies crack open their hearts for you, like silver lockets.

Throughout his career – Queer as Folk, Dr Who, A Very English Scandal – Davies has always innovated, fighting for his scripts, refusing to run with the crowd and yet, refusing, too, to be some ridiculous auteur. He loves television and he knows what other people love about it, too. He wants to be watched; he wants his audience to be entertained. But he also pushes us to consider new ideas, even new realms. No one else could have written this series – and in 2024, and perhaps far beyond, people will still remember it and smile and think of it fondly. 

Years and Years
BBC One

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 17 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question