Queer as Folk creator and former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T. Davies wanted to write Years and Years for, well, years and years. “Twenty years ago, I was talking about a drama like this,” he tells The Verge, “a drama that engaged with the modern world, that engaged what was happening, but in an ordinary domestic context so you felt the changes.”
But Davies didn’t officially move forward with his plans until 2016 when he was inspired by two seismic political moments: Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit vote. The family drama, which arrived on HBO on June 24th, begins in 2019, then leaps forward to reveal how relevant current issues like extremist politics, climate change, and new technological advancements combine to affect one British family.
That family, played by a robust ensemble cast, including Anne Reid, Jessica Hynes, Rory Kinnear, Russell Tovey, Ruth Madeley, T’Nia Miller, and Lydia West, is diverse in many ways, from race to sexual preference to gender identity to physical impairments. Davies says that was very much by design: “I’m a great believer in quotas. I think that’s how it works. I think if you don’t follow a quota, you do nothing.”
Davies’ characters, including Emma Thompson as rising politician Vivian Rook, are prone to making big speeches about the current state of the world, a narrative choice that Davies wrote into the show deliberately. “Some people watching it could discern that maybe it’s a bit grandstanding at times, that maybe people preach sometimes. But actually, that’s exactly what people are doing now,” he said. “Start me on the subject of Brexit, and I will give you a 25-minute monologue. So will anyone I know, which is a very different world. Twenty-five years ago, I don’t know anyone who could’ve done that about Northern Ireland.”
To some degree, Years and Years is another Davies polemic that is full of opinions about where the future is taking us. I talked to him recently about his commitment to diversity, how his own family’s use of technology affected his approach to the series, and whether the bleak future he predicts in Years and Years represents his own beliefs about what’s coming next.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you find a balance in the show between exploring technological changes and political changes?
My rule about going 15 years into the future in total is keeping it believable, so they’re not surrounded by holograms and things like that. We took a lot from that recent Netflix version of Lost in Space where there’s a futuristic drama. It’s obviously science fiction, but they all walk along with quite recognizable mobile phones. [The Lost in Space creators] made some very good decisions, in that your basic mobile phone can’t really be bettered.
We had early meetings to discuss, “Should we reinvent the mobile phone? Should we make it circular? Should we make it transparent? Should we pop it into people’s foreheads?” And in the end, you just sort of go, “That’s so distracting.” You want it to feel like the ordinary world with ordinary people in it. There are advances in technology that are talked about quite a lot, but in terms of design and the visual impact of stuff, we really tried to be quite sober with it.
The greatest flourish is that Snapchat filter mask that is worn in the first episode. But that’s not how the whole drama sustains itself. The thing is, technology is just slightly forward. Slightly advanced.
The whole family setting was inspired by things like WhatsApp groups because my family is now in a WhatsApp group. Most people’s families are in a WhatsApp group, I think. And that’s reinvented my family. It’s a good type of technology. In the past, a few years ago, if you’d ask me how often I spoke to my nieces — they’re all young women in their 20s — I would’ve texted them twice a year: “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Christmas.” That would have been it.
Now, we have this funny little thing in the family where we all send each other photos of our tea every single night. We text 10 or 20 times a day. I know everything they do. I know where they are now. I know what they’re up to tonight, who they’re going out with, who their friends are. Technology has revamped my family. So that’s at the heart of Years and Years.
Did you talk to futurists or people in tech?
No. To that effect, I relied on my own imagination. I did a lot of reading, and I did a lot of research myself. I wanted to get the balance right between a world that says there are cures for cancer coming your way — there is stem research that will alter your genetic code, there are solutions to all these problems — and yet, in your country, people can’t afford health care, and in my country, the waiting lists are three years long.
So I didn’t want to get carried away with the advances. I trusted myself to put a filter on the whole thing. To pull it back. You know, we all have opened up a newspaper that says, “A brand-new cure for cancer will be available in 10 years.” And that was 20 years ago. But these things take a long, long time to filter through into civilization.
A lot of what Years and Years showcases doesn’t seem like the future. It’s already arrived; it just isn’t necessarily accessible to the mainstream.
Yeah. The first episode whizzing five years into the future is kind of a metaphor. Everyone’s reaction has been very much, “Oh, that’s now. That’s today.” The device of going into the future is a dramatic device to say, “This is what life is like now,” much more clearly than a drama that’s set now.
All dramas, police dramas, medical dramas, they’re all set now, but it’s very hard for characters to walk into Grey’s Anatomy and discuss the fate of relationships with China. And the drama can’t bear that kind of strain because it’s not created for that. So you have to create a drama that allows that sort of device. Being in the future does that, but it’s very, very much discussing what we’re going to do now. And that’s why I’ve been keen and careful to never wander from that.
What was key in terms of creating your central family and figuring out what each character would bring to the narrative?
I wanted the generations. I wanted the diverse family. I mean, I think television — full-stop — should be diverse, no matter what I’ve been writing. If I’d been writing a comedy set in a Scottish nightclub, it still would be a cast as diverse as this one because I think you’re old if you’re not like that.
But also, within that classic family, it’s really interesting, I think, to take out the middle generation. You’ve got the grandmother and her four grandchildren, that was rather an interesting thing to do there. It kind of meant the grandmother and grandchildren were closer than they would be normally. Normally, there’s a bit of distance between three sets of generations. Remove the middle generation, and the family’s lacking something, which meant they felt closer, which meant they talk to each other more than perhaps a normal family does. And that’s nice. I like that effect. That was one of the fundamental tenets that I thought essential: how connected they are.
Was Ruth Madeley’s character Rosie always written as a wheelchair-user?
No, she wasn’t written as that at all. [Executive producer Nicola Shindler] had a word with me about how we do nothing to cast disabled people. Shame on us for being so able-bodied and ignorant. So we set out to cast someone disabled. It could have been anything. One of the characters could have been blind. One of the characters could have been deaf. But the moment we got introduced to Ruth Madeley, it all became very simple. It was like, “Wow. That is someone I want to work with immediately.” For the rest of my life. So obviously, she fit Rosie best, and that’s how that became.
Have many people brought up Black Mirror as a comparison point for this show?
Oh, quite a few, yes. That’s a lovely, huge, popular show, so if anyone wants to make that comparison, I am very glad to be in that company. It’s a great compliment, and I think Charlie Brooker’s an absolute genius. I love him. But [in Years and Years], there are only a couple of nods in that direction, with the technology. Charlie Brooker doesn’t own the future, bless him.
In this show, the future is so rooted in the family and their story. It adds an emotional component to each new change in society.
Yeah. It’s a look at the future, but you feel it. It could be sterile or it could be angry or it could be preachy or it could be cold, but this is how we all experience it. We’re all experiencing Trump. This is how we’re all experiencing Brexit, here. It’s via your family and your friends and the chats you have. This is the experience of history.
I haven’t invented that, you know. You look around for dramas that have moved forward year after year with a family at the heart of it — there’s Downton Abbey. [The British drama begins in 1912, eventually reaching the year 1925 by its end.] There’s the greatest drama ever made, Upstairs Downstairs. [The original 1970s series stretched from 1903-1930.] It’s actually quite the tried-and-trusted formula. I just spun it into the future.
Is Years and Years what you truly think the next 15 years will look like?
I have to hope it won’t be that bad. I always have hope. I think we’re a creative species. The climate worries me enormously. Never mind the politics. Never mind what our prime ministers or presidents say. Never mind what missiles are being fired. My goodness, what’s happening to the ozone and the ice caps? I think that horrifies me more than anything.
But I think we’re immensely clever, and once we reassess these issues, we might devote ourselves to finding our way out of it. There might be huge, vast changes. I think to write the drama that’s a hundred years in the future might be a huge act of the imagination, and maybe I’ll do that one day. But I think our lives will significantly change, what with the movement of populations and the weather. I think vast changes are coming.
Years and Years airs on Mondays at 9PM ET on HBO.