Emma Thompson leads an all-star cast in BBC family saga Years and Years. Writer Russell T Davies and exec producer Nicola Shindler reveal why it was finally time to make the ‘state of the nation’ series and take on the challenge of making a political drama in the age of Trump and Brexit.
Former Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies and British producer Nicola Shindler have proven to be formidable partners over the years, teaming up together on series such as the seminal Queer as Folk as well as Bob & Rose, The Second Coming, Casanova and Channel 4 trilogy Cucumber, Banana and Tofu, which explored gay life in Manchester as a drama, youth spin-off and short film collection respectively.
Their latest project together, Years and Years, is, in fact, their ninth collaboration in the past two decades, and this state of-the-nation piece promises to be just as relevant, timely and emotionally charged as those earlier series.
Emma Thompson heads the star-studded cast of this unique and ambitious six-parter, which follows one family over the course of 15 years. As Britain is rocked by unstable political, economic and technological advances, viewers will follow the Lyons family as their complex lives converge on one crucial night in 2019. The twists and turns of the family’s everyday life are then explored over the next decade-and-a-half.
“It’s about those clowns and jokers and monsters rising to power. It’s the story of where we’re going – the thing that worries us all day long is, ‘Where are we going?’ We’re more politicised than ever,” says Davies, speaking at Content London late last year. “That’s a very hard thing to look at in terms of a drama, so what it does is go on to an intimate level and tell the story of a family. We all love a family saga, those sagas that take place over decades.”
The writer points to series such as Upstairs Downstairs, Winds of War, Poldark and the “very beautiful” Our Friends in the North, Peter Flannery’s acclaimed drama that followed four friends over 30 years, as inspirations for Years and Years.
“What I wanted to do was take that family saga over decades and push it into the future, so this starts now and goes forward – every week another year, another year, another year. Eventually, we’re 15 years into the future with a family, two brothers, two sisters, their grandmother, their kids, falling in love, falling out of love, falling out of money, forming new families, finding joy, finding heartache. It has all those great stories of family sagas but, in the background, this world of terror is building and building. When do you turn around and do something about it?”
Davies decided the time had come to write Years and Years on the night of the 2016 US presidential election that sent Donald Trump to the White House. “I emailed Nicola and the head of drama at the BBC, Piers Wenger, because I’d been talking about this drama for 10 years, and I said, ‘If ever I’m about to write this drama, if he’s elected tomorrow, I should do it now.’ And so it came to pass. It’s a reaction to that. It’s a very necessary reaction to that.”
Shindler confirms the long gestation of the series, which is produced by her firm Red Production Company, revealing she has seen an outline from the story that Davies wrote 10 years ago. It was first pitched to Wenger when he first arrived at the broadcaster from Channel 4 earlier in the autumn of 2016, and once it was written and greenlit, financing was pulled together with coproducers Canal+ in France and HBO in the US. Studiocanal is the international distributor.
“It’s a nightmare, it’s always hard,” she says of piecing together the financial puzzle behind a high-end television drama. “Even with scripts as extraordinary as Russell had written, it’s hard to get people to buy into a vision that’s so unusual. This isn’t sci-fi but it goes into the future, so it’s people getting their head around that. Each episode also jumps time, yet you’re telling very intimate stories about family, so you have to trust Russell’s writing and that the love for his characters is going to carry you through.”
Creator and writer Davies is also an executive producer on the series, alongside Shindler, Red’s Michaela Fereday, the BBC’s Lucy Richer and Simon Cellan Jones (Our Friends in the North), who also directs.
Thompson (The Children Act) plays Vivienne Rook, an outspoken celebrity turned political figure whose controversial opinions divide the nation. She’s described as a new breed of politician – an entertainer, a rebel and a trickster – and her rise to power leads to an unknown future.
Rory Kinnear (Spectre) is Stephen Lyons, a financial advisor and the family peacekeeper, who is married to Celeste (T’Nia Miller), an ambitious and opinionated accountant. Daniel Lyons, played by Russell Tovey (The History Boys), is a hard-working housing officer and Stephen’s brother. Their sister Edith (Jessica Hynes, W1A) is radical, dangerous and calculating, with a secret life. Ruth Madelely completes the siblings as Rosie, while Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax) is Muriel, imperial grandmother of the Lyons.
Davies says casting was crucial, as viewers need to love the family at the heart of the drama for them to follow their exploits over the series. And with the right actors in place, he’s satisfied viewers will follow them into the future.
“It’s not a future of jetpacks and monorails,” the writer points out. “If you looked at us 10 years ago, we’d be exactly the same, only our phones would be different. So it’s not about the science-fiction of it. It does engage with stuff like that, but there is also historical research because what we’re seeing now are the waves of history repeating themselves in terrifying fashion and, weirdly, at the beginning there’s tensions between Russia and the Ukraine, which was just in the newspapers. You can’t write this fast enough, because everything we’re writing is happening.”
Shindler picks up: “Virtually everything Russell’s writing, which is made up, has happened since we started filming, so everything looks like we’re behind.”
However, while Davies jokes that “the real world is madder than you can ever imagine,” he admits some scenes in Years and Years were toned down to ensure the series felt realistic. Maintaining a grounded tone was also important to giving the show a sense of intimacy and relatability, he adds. “There are no scenes, for example, in Downing Street or the White House. There are very good dramas that could do that, but [regular people] don’t experience politics that way. We’re not experiencing elections that way, we’re not experiencing the rise of these people that way. It’s also very funny. There’s a scene in which an MP is decapitated by a drone. It’s hilarious!”
The tone of the scripts bleeds into every element of the series. “We’ve sat down with makeup and costume for a long time, saying, ‘Let’s just calm it down.’ We’re not going to start wearing diagonal jumpsuits,” he says of the show’s drive into the future. “So it’s based in Manchester, based on ordinary people. They’re not particularly rich. So in 10 years, they’ll still be wearing shirts and jeans.”
Shindler says that when it comes to tone, Davies knows exactly what it should be, and that is clearly communicated to the rest of the crew. “And as ever with Russell, it’s in the scripts,” she says. “They come in at what other people would consider a fifth or sixth draft because he works so hard and there’s nothing out of place. There’s never anything wrong. But sometimes there are notes – we’ve had big changes, but they have come about from discussion.”
What’s important is that discussion doesn’t compromise the integrity of the show, Shindler adds, particularly when international partners come on board. “But it costs money to do things set in the future, even though we don’t go hugely futuristic. There are props, there are cars, there are all sorts of things, so we needed input from people other than the BBC, and we were lucky to get two partners who totally bought into the vision.”