From the team behind Queer as Folk, Linda Green, Bob & Rose and Cucumber comes BBC drama Years and Years, in which the complex lives of one family are followed over the next decade and a half as Britain is rocked by unstable political, economic and technological advances.
Rory Kinnear plays Stephen Lyons, a financial advisor and the family’s peacekeeper who is married to Celeste (T’Nia Miller), an ambitious and opinionated accountant.
Russell Tovey is Daniel Lyons, a hard-working housing officer and Stephen’s brother. Their sisters are Edith (Jessica Hynes), radical, dangerous and calculating with a secret life, and Rosie (Ruth Madeley). Anne Reid presides over the family as Muriel, imperial grandmother to the Lyons.
Emma Thompson also stars as Vivienne Rook, an outspoken celebrity turned political figure whose controversial opinions divide the nation.
In this DQTV interview, writer Russell T Davies and executive producer Nicola Shindler look back at the origins of the project explain how they pulled together its “extraordinary” cast.
Davies also describes how he works with actors and why a family saga is a great foundation for television drama, while Shindler outlines the challenges of making the often horrifying future-gazing series that attempts to stay ahead of real-life events.
Years and Years is produced by Red Production Company for BBC1 in the UK, France’s Canal+ and US premium cablenet HBO, and is distributed by StudioCanal.
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.”
British novelist Patrick Gale is writing an original drama for BBC1. Produced by Endemol Shine-owned Kudos, Man in an Orange Shirt is a two-parter that will explore how a painting links two gay love stories told 60 years apart.
Commenting on the project, Gale said: “Man in an Orange Shirt is the most exciting screen project I’ve worked on to date: an original drama exploring strands of gay male experience since the 1940s. It has been such a privilege to be given such an open brief and then allowed to run with it.”
Gale says he doesn’t want to give too much away, “but after much experimenting, we’ve ended up with two hour-long films — one set in the 1940s and 50s and one set in the violently contrasted present; one depicting a love story made impossible by pressures from society, one a love story nearly derailed by the long-term fallout from the 1940s story.
“People who know my novels will be unsurprised to hear that the stories give equal focus to wives and mothers and are about tensions between family bonds, the need to be good and the urge to seize happiness. I hope they’ll appeal equally to straight and gay viewers, but also that they’ll leave either side feeling challenged about things they take for granted.”
Lucy Richer, BBC acting controller of drama commissioning and executive producer, added: “Patrick is an outstanding and bestselling novelist whose stories connect with readers worldwide. Distinctive, original voices are at the heart of BBC Drama and we are thrilled to be making his first original television drama for BBC1. Man in an Orange Shirt has all the hallmarks of a Patrick Gale novel: captivating stories with unforgettable characters who will strike a chord with us all.”
It isn’t uncommon for UK drama to include gay strands in stories. But a primarily gay-themed drama on mainstream British TV is still something of a novelty. The last high-profile example (2015) was Russell T Davies’ trilogy of dramas for Channel 4, entitled Cucumber, Tofu and Banana, each of which explored a different dimension of male gay culture in 21st century Britain.
Looking back over the last 25 years, the first landmark title in the LGBT canon was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a 1990 BBC series based on the novel by Jeanette Winterson – with Winterson adapting for TV.
Nine years later, Russell T Davies kicked the door down with his provocative debut series for Channel 4, Queer As Folk. Davies delivered another gay protagonist two years later in Bob & Rose, but it’s QAF that stands out as a landmark in the portrayal of contemporary gay Britain (or one subset of it).
While Davies is very much LGBT TV’s rock star, the last decade saw arrival of Sarah Waters on the scene, with adaptations of her lesbian protagonist novels Tipping the Velvet (2002), Fingersmith (2005) and The Night Watch (2011) – all for the BBC. If there’s a key difference, of course, it is that Davies has been writing original shows while Waters’ works were already acclaimed novels before being adapted for TV by Andrew Davies (Tipping the Velvet), Peter Ransley (Fingersmith) and Paula Milne (The Night Watch). Davies also does contemporary, while Waters favours historical.
In 2006 there was a BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s acclaimed gay-themed 1980s novel The Line of Beauty (starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). Again adapted by Andrew Davies, the show received mixed reviews. The Independent called it “intelligent properly grown-up drama” but The Guardian said it was a “creative flop” that “exposed how poorly the BBC serves gay viewers.”
On balance, it seems as though broadcasters pay slightly more attention to the lesbian experience than the male gay experience – at least in terms of TV dramas with LGBT protagonists.
In addition to the above-mentioned titles, for example, there has been Channel 4’s Sugar Rush, based on Julie Burchill’s novel of the same name. The story of a 15-year-old lesbian called Kim who moves from London to Brighton, Sugar Rush ran for 20 episodes in 2006 and was adapted for the screen by Katie Baxendale.
More recently, there has been Lip Service, about a group of lesbians living in Glasgow. There were two seasons from 2010-2012, created by Harriet Braun and produced (again) by Kudos for BBC3.
Other shows that fit within the broader LGBT theme include Vicious, the 14-episode sitcom starring Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a gay couple who have been together for 50 years. Backed once again by Kudos (and Brown Eyed Boy), this series (2013-2016) was unusual in that it aired on commercial network ITV, which shows that pulling power of McKellen in particular.
Vicious was created by Mark Ravenhill and Gary Janetti, though the latter wrote all of the episodes and specials. It is worth noting that Janetti is actually a US writer drafted in to give the comedy a bit of US sitcom pizzazz (he was executive producer on Will & Grace).
Every bit as ground-breaking as the new Patrick Gale drama is Boy Meets Girl, a BBC2 sitcom about the developing relationship between a 26-year-old man and a 40-year-old transgender woman (played by transgender actor Rebecca Root). Although there have been mixed reviews of the quality of the comedy (also true of ITV’s Vicious), there’s no question that Boy Meets Girl – which is currently in its second season – is an example of the BBC trying its hardest to do diversity properly.
The genesis of Boy Meets Girl was a Trans Camp event organised by All About Trans, the purpose of which was to explore media portrayal of the trans community. From this, the BBC ran a talent search called the Trans Comedy Award, which offered writers up to £5,000 for scripts with positive portrayals of transgender characters.
One of the winners was Elliott Kerrigan for Boy Meets Girl. The show was commissioned on the basis of a pilot and Kerrigan was paired with Simon Carlyle and Andrew Mettam to write a series. The Tiger Aspect Production was then renewed.
If there’s a difference between the US and UK approach to LGBT inclusiveness at present, it is that the US is further down the road in portraying LGBT characters and stories as a part of the day-to-day tapestry of life, as regular people who aren’t overly focused on the politics of their sexual orientation.
US organisation GLAAD, which monitors LGBT portrayal in US TV and film, makes this point neatly when it counsels producers against using characters that “are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”
It will be interesting to see how Gale manages to address this in the context of a mainstream channel audience with Man in an Orange Shirt.
There is an inexorability about the way the TV drama business is heading. From the viewer’s perspective, the emergence of large-screen HD/4K TVs, combined with high subscription fees, creates an expectation that broadcasters and platforms will deliver great shows.
For those broadcasters and platforms, this puts a stronger emphasis than ever on the pursuit of high-profile and high-quality writing, acting and producing talent. But securing that kind of talent costs a lot of money, which means subscription fees need to rise.
And so the creative arms race escalates, with the companies in charge of content delivery forced to make bolder and bolder decisions. In a way, it’s similar to what has happened with sports rights.
While the big draw with any drama is its cast, it’s noticeable that the track record of writers is also becoming more important – not just in satisfying commissioning editors, but also as a way of appealing to audiences.
This is why novelists like Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly and Jo Nesbø have become such a focal point. While most TV writers don’t have a public profile (because of the collaborative nature of the TV process), novelists are often respected brands – with loyal fans who follow their every move.
Against that backdrop, this week saw AT&T-backed SVoD platform Fullscreen unveil a raft of new content including a show directed and written by Bret Easton Ellis – the enfant terrible of contemporary fiction, known for cult novels like Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction and, most famously, American Psycho.
The new show, called The Deleted, focuses on the disappearance of three seemingly unconnected people from LA. The occurrence triggers a collective paranoia among a group of young people, all of whom escaped from a cult several years previously.
The project is a new departure for Ellis. Although he has tried his hand at screenwriting movies, such as The Canyons and The Informers, this is his first gig as a director. “It’s going push some boundaries and it’s definitely going to be the darkest of our original shows,” said Fullscreen CEO George Strompolos.
“We created a new kind of entertainment experience which merges the things we love about premium content and social media. We’re building it for an audience we know and love – a social-first, mobile-first generation. The future of media is going to look more like what we’re doing than what we’ve seen over the past several decades.”
Writers celebrating this week include Russell T Davies, who has just won the Bafta TV Craft Drama Writer Award for his 2015 drama serial Cucumber. Davies edged out a formidable line-up of rivals to secure the award, including Mike Bartlett (Doctor Foster), Peter Straughan (Wolf Hall) and Neil Cross (Luther).
Cucumber was part of a trilogy of dramas for Channel 4 that also included Tofu and Banana. Loosely described as a sequel to Davies’ iconic 1999 series Queer as Folk, it focused on a middle-aged gay man (Henry) who has to adapt to sudden change after a disastrous date night with his boyfriend of nine years.
Although the emphasis of the story was on the social and emotional challenges faced by gay men, critic Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, said the show had a more universal theme: “The broader genre of respectability meltdown, as Henry (the central character) is accelerated from smug dullness to scenes featuring police intervention, furious colleagues and social humiliation.”
Other Bafta winners included Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan for their hit comedy Catastrophe (Channel 4). There was also a breakthrough award for actor/writer Michaela Coel, creator of fellow Channel 4 sitcom Chewing Gum. All in all, that made it a good night for Channel 4 in terms of its writing credentials.
Other writers in the news include Scott Shepherd, who has been signed up by Televisa US to pen a 10-part sci-fi thriller. The Seventh Day is the Mexican media group’s second foray into English-language content after Duality, starring Dougray Scott.
The series is based on Shepherd’s serialised novel of the same name. Treading a well-worn furrow, it centres on one of the few people left unharmed when most of humanity is wiped out.
Shepherd, who is actually a writer/producer, has a shopping list of writing credits that date back to Murder She Wrote and Miami Vice in the 1980s and 1990s. More recently, he executive produced Haven and The Dead Zone – while also contributing to the writing efforts.
For The Seventh Day, he will share writing and showrunning duties with Cindy McCreery, who also wrote on Haven. Commenting on the new project, which will be shot in Mexico, Televisa USA head of production and distribution Chris Philip said: “Scott and Cindy are once again weaving gripping stories into compelling TV. Their masterful tales fit perfectly with the wide array of sets and terrain that Televisa has to offer in Mexico, where we plan to shoot all of the series we greenlight with our pioneering production and distribution venture.”
As the expansion of Televisa illustrates, one of the most exciting developments in the international drama business is the formation of new alliances. Another interesting example of this is the Russian drama Mata Hari, based on the life of the famous female spy/courtesan. The show has been produced by Star Media in Russia and will be distributed internationally by Red Arrow International, starting at Mipcom in October.
Red Arrow International MD Henrik Pabst said: “The scale and quality of this ambitious new drama is truly impressive and marks a real step change in the international ambitions of the Russian production sector.”
Red Arrow will distribute an English-language version of the show, which stars the likes of Christopher Lambert (Highlander), John Corbett (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Rade Serbedzija (X-Men: First Class) and Rutger Hauer (Batman Begins, Blade Runner), plus French actress Vahina Giocante (The Libertine) in the title role.
The series, which is directed by Dennis Berry (Highlander, Stargate SG-1) and Julius Berg, recently completed filming in Lisbon and St Petersburg, and will air on Russian state network Channel One and Ukraine’s Inter later this year.
It has been written by Igor Ter-Karapetov and Oleg Kirillov. Of the two, Ter-Karapetov appears to have the more established track record, having penned numerous series and miniseries over the last few years. Credits include spy thriller Smert shpionam, Udarnaya volna and Ubit Stalina, a Second World War drama about a plot by the Germans to kill Joseph Stalin. The latter also contains a spy component, which suggest Ter-Karapetov is the perfect writer to tackle another period espionage story.