SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first episode of “Years and Years.”
Russell T. Davies’ “Years and Years” begins with the members of a seemingly average family in the U.K. being drawn into a televised interview with entrepreneur Vivenne Rook (played by Emma Thompson) who admits she doesn’t “give a f—” about parts of the world such as Kiev or Yemen. Her words are obviously polarizing, but so is her passion: Some of the family members like the unabashed honesty, while others recognize how dangerous her viewpoints, if they had power behind them, would become. Although the show is set across the pond and debuted there first (the entire six-episode series has concluded on the BBC ahead of its HBO premiere), it is a tale that has become all-too-familiar to U.S. citizens.
“We’ve always had so much in common with America — the same language, the same culture. We’ve absorbed so much of your culture here with the food and television and cinema, and that’s the joy. And yet now we find ourselves in an extraordinary situation of being cowed with fear in regards to that country. It’s really, really strange,” Davies tells Variety.
As the title implies, the six-episode series spans decades to showcase not only Rook’s rise to power as a politician and the damage her policies cause, but also the trials and tribulations of the Lyons family, some caused by those greater policies and some that are caused by simpler tests of time and relationships.
“The paths that we go down in Episodes 4 and 5 are very dark and terrible things happen. That’s the nature of a family saga: You are going to have awful days that every family member will remember forever,” Davies says, “but in the long term, I don’t think there’s a point to writing the story if you’re just going to say we’re always in hell. I do think we’re in bad times right now, but there’s still hope; there’s still love; young people still have an enormous sense of imagination and joy; and it’s all going to happen in the end. I have to believe that, I absolutely have to.”
Here, Davies talks with Variety about structuring the show to start in our present day and flash into a potential future, balancing tales of personal family struggles with global politics, what he anticipates reaction to be from U.S. audiences, especially after already seeing the reaction in the U.K., and how losing his husband inspired pivotal moments in the show.
Where did you start with a story like “Years and Years”? Did the desire to write a multi-year spanning family drama come first, or were you more interested in looking at a global evolution and then decided it would be best to center that on a family?
I wanted for many years to write a drama about our civilization sliding — even before it began to slide. It’s been in my head for many, many years. And lo and behold, what we’ve seen for the past five or six or seven or eight years has been quite astonishing. There are many ways you can tell that story, but over time — over very many years — I realized the key to telling that story was through a family. You could write versions of this in which you are in the White House, in which you’re in China. “Winds of War” was a saga taking place over many years and saw the span of geography, as well as history. That’s one version; I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to seed it with something we all recognize: a family. We’re all from a family, even an invented family. And recently my niece had her 23rd birthday and we looked back at her 21st birthday — only two years ago — and you think of a family as a very solid, fixed thing, but in looking back only two years, in a photo of 12 people, one had died, one had divorced, one had been banished — I did the banishing. But in two years, in a very stable family, look what happened. So you get that realization that a family is a great arena for all the emotions and all the births, deaths, marriages — all those stories. It is trying to tell stories of seismic changes in society, but actually the family is a constant. This family can still turn up at Grandmother’s for dinner, for her birthday, for a barbecue. There is a consistency to it, and so I thought it just felt like a good way to experience a passage of time.
How did you determine how often you wanted to see Vivienne Rook in the story, given that she is not a member of the family but her actions have such a great impact on their lives?
When you cast Emma Thompson, you want her to be in every scene! It was really tempting to rewrite everything and make her their long-lost sister. But I had to take a deep breath and say, “How often does anyone meet the prime minister or the president?” Part of the point is, you experience people through television; you experience her public image and the lies she’s telling you and the truth she’s telling you. She lives in the media. So it’s very important, in certain moments, you don’t see the real person. In the second episode there is a moment where Rosie and Edith actually meet her, and there’s a very, very pivotal scene in the fifth episode where one of the family members accidentally meets her for real, and it’s not a very long scene, but it has great power because of the circumstances of who Vivienne is. I had to ration it. In the end, it’s not about the home life of Vivienne Rook. You don’t go home with her; you don’t meet her husband; you don’t see moments where she might gloat or she might weep. She very much is a public figure, because that’s how our life is: That’s how we’re experiencing Trump or Brexit or the new prime minister on the way, and God knows what madness we’re going to fall into, but that’s the modern world.
Did you model Rook’s personality or policies specifically after anyone from U.K. politics or Donald Trump?
I think we’re 99% certain to see Boris Johnson as prime minister and he does in this country exactly what Viv Rook does: He spent many years appearing on panel shows on television, on comedy shows, and saying outrageous things to get a laugh. There’s Nigel Farage over here, too. The truth about Vivienne Rook, though, is we could all point to Trump or we could all point to Boris Johnson, but actually, and the point of this gets revealed in the last episode, is she’s all of us. When too many of us reach for that hostile decision, that simple racism, that simple exclusion of the other, that cheap line that’s who we become. All the simple fury she whips up about, say, pornography or something, it’s kind of easy to look at Vivienne and say she’s one of these insane figures or extreme figures, but actually it’s about ourselves and how we allow these things — how we talk online. It’s not giving too much away to say in the last episode the grandmother Muriel has a monologue where she sits down the entire family and says, “It’s your fault. It’s the fault of every single person around this table. We did it. We made the world.” And you can’t blame history, you can’t blame the weather, it’s us.
Literally in that first episode, though, it appears like much of the blame is us, meaning the U.S. In writing a story in which Trump uses his final days in office to launch a missile, do you have different expectations or hopes for how your U.K. audience will relate and react versus the U.S. audience?
Primarily I do think of the U.K. audience because I am a British writer and because this was put out by the BBC first. And I really can’t second-guess what an American audience would think any more than I can second-guess what a British audience would think, but I was aware that I had incredible support from HBO. I have felt quite emboldened to say things like what Daniel says in the first episode that he never thought he’d be scared of America. But actually, that is how some of us feel now. It’s not a matter of a man or a woman on the street, but Trump and the religious right and what’s happening with abortion over there, we are staggered and horrified and reeling. Certainly it seems so foreign.
The show starts in the present but then moves into a near future, declaring things such as Trump getting elected for a second term and setting up a story about an influx of Syrian refugees to the U.K. after LGBTQ laws get worse. How did you decide what and how many years you wanted to explore?
I actually toyed with a third term for Trump and I looked into the laws that are currently in place to stop that from happening, and I thought that could be going too far. But actually, “The Good Fight” beat me to it. I love that show — I think it’s absolutely brilliant — and they started a dialogue about what if he changed the law to have a third term. As a British person, I didn’t have the nerve to do that, but I love the fact that Americans went in that direction.
And beyond the political, for the family, what went into when you chose to speed through time versus linger in certain years and moments in their lives?
It was very specifically 15 years because that way you don’t have to change the cast and you don’t have to lean on prosthetics. They get older, but they don’t age very much; Steven’s hairline alters slightly, but that’s about it. We didn’t put lots of gray hair on people. I feel the same as I did when I was 30, and I’m 56 now, and so although you see the passage of time, we wanted the characters to all feel the same. And also within 15 years, you don’t have to change every car on the street. It’s not particularly science fiction, but by the very end, it’s starting to dip its toe into that — in a very delicate and careful and joyous way, but that’s as far as I wanted to go, and if we pushed 20 years, who knows how it would go?
Speaking to the technology of the world, you start with devices not dissimilar to things we have now, such as virtual assistants, but you quickly take it a step farther, with the character of Bethany wanting to upload herself to the cloud to live forever. How rooted in research did that part of the story have to be versus just a young person’s dream?
Bethany is so young in that first episode, but actually you and I also know the speed at which technology can accelerate, so we do pick up on that, and the idea of downloading yourself does come back. I like the tech — I like “Black Mirror” — and as we proceed in the 21st Century, our relationship with technology is one of our defining factors. Every single character in this show is standing around their phones all of the time, which doesn’t happen as often as it should on TV. That’s how we live now. But also, it’s fun. It gives us the visuals — the Snapchat filter. It’s not the most important thing in the show, but it’s fun. And also the children will be proven to be right. The whole point when Bethany says she’s trans is she’s got lovely parents — they’re really dutifully prepared for their daughter to be trans[gender]. But actually, she’s the next phase. Some might be quite taken aback by when Bethany says she’s transhuman, but I think it’s quite interesting watching people who worked hard and begged for acceptance all of their life be thrown by the next level of acceptance. The next generation will want something even more liberating, and which may actually shake you to your core. I love that. Many of us in the West are joyous advocates of trans people, and yet there will be changes to come that will shake us even further. And by the end of the series, she’s the most accomplished and happy character of all. So yeah, it’s more that the children will always be right, and the parents will always be confounded by their children.
Bethany certainly starts off as one of the characters struggling the most in the beginning of the show, but in saying she will be one of the happiest ones by the end, did that come out of a responsibility you felt to seed an optimism throughout the show, despite the very dark realities?
It’s very easy to be dreadful and create something about those whose lives just went to hell. It’s very easy to write dystopia — it’s very easy to write tragedy — but there’s no point to just that. I am a big believer in happy endings. I do worry about the world these days, but I don’t think we’re sliding into hell yet. I think it’s possible, and I think those decisions are made by whose power is far beyond mine, but equally I have great hope for the future as well, especially when you look at all of the movements that are happening now [such as] the school strikes to protest about climate change. There are bursts of genius popping up all over the world at all times. But in terms of the pilot, everyone’s expecting the worst, most apocalyptic ending, and genuinely, it’s full of joy. We left the audience surprised and delighted, and in the U.K. there were people genuinely astonished by how much joy was in it. But I think you have to be rewarded for watching something for six hours.
Having seen such reactions from the U.K. audience, do you feel inspired to return to the world of the show beyond the six episodes you always intended this story to be?
No, I knew I had six hours, and I put everything I had into six hours. If they drove to my house with a truck of gold to do more episodes, I would just say no. I’ve moved on, and I am working on a new job for next year. And we only got that cast because they came onboard for six episodes with none of them optioned right from the start. That’s how we got them, to be honest. Each one of them — Rory [Kinnear], Russell [Tovey], Jessica [Hynes] — they could all lead shows in their own rights, so to get all of them on the same show was extraordinary, but that was all because they came onboard just to do six episodes.
And similar to Rook being influenced by real-world politicians, in what characters or moments did you find yourself drawing on your own life and relationships for the story?
There’s parts of me in every character that I write, but I had to write the last episode after my husband had died. He was very ill for many years, but to have to write the finale two weeks after he died means the final episode was imbued with more of my thoughts about life and death possibly than it would have been anyway. And actually I think it’s a lovely testament to him. It’s richer and deeper and more profound than it would have been than if I hadn’t been writing it under those circumstances. Maybe that’s when you’re writing at your best. So it’s a lovely tribute to him, Andrew Smith, bless him.
“Years and Years” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on HBO.