Russell T Davies on Years and Years’ diversity: “I know what it’s like to be not seen”

Alexia Skinitis talks to Russell T Davies and Ruth Madeley ahead of the BAFTAs.

Russell T Davies (GETTY)

This interview is part of our BAFTA 2020 special for more visit The Big Interview hub.

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“My acting career is a total accident!” says Ruth Madeley, who starred in Russell T Davies’s 2019 drama Years and Years, which gave us a glimpse of an all too terrifying future that seems ever more real. “I wanted to be in the industry, so I studied scriptwriting. I would have loved to have grown up seeing people with disabilities on television, but I never saw myself, so I’m passionate about changing disability representation in the media. And I thought scriptwriting was the way to do that.

“But the universe had other plans. I was doing a work placement at the BBC, and a producer told me about this CBBC production that needed a wheelchair user. Then a BBC3 drama called Don’t Take My Baby by Jack Thorne [for which Madeley got a BAFTA nomination] changed everything.”

“Let’s be honest,” says Davies, “it wasn’t like we discovered Ruth underneath a mulberry bush. She was becoming very well known, and while her role in Years and Years was simply written as Rosie Lyons, the daughter of the family, we met her for an audition. Casting her after that was simple.

Russell T Davies with Ruth Madeley by Mark Harrison
Russell T Davies with Ruth Madeley (Mark Harrison)

“We talked through her physical life,” adds the writer, ”and what problems present themselves, and what opportunities, just in case it brought the script to life — or was stopping bringing the script to life. But nothing changed really. Nothing at all.”

Madeley confirms that. “The casting process for Years and Years felt very different to anything I’d done before. I think it was more because the script didn’t change, whether Rosie, my character, was black, white, blind, deaf, a wheelchair user…

“I still feel there’s much further to go regarding disability on screen, but to showcase what I can do as an actor, in a story with such a high-class cast, where my disability wasn’t even relevant, changed a lot. I sincerely hope it did, anyway.”

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It certainly changed Davies’s outlook on casting. “People call it diversity, I just call it inclusivity,” he explains. “As a gay man watching TV in the 60s, I felt completely excluded from what was going on. So I know what it’s like to be not seen — but nowhere near to the extent of Ruth.

“And having worked with her so successfully, it’s now a policy for me to cast inclusively. I know for a fact what makes people worry is the extra time, therefore extra money. Anything that might cause you five extra minutes looks like a problem because filming is all time and money. Having worked with Ruth, I know it doesn’t cost a penny.”

Madeley couldn’t be more thrilled that her work with Davies has made such an impact. She’s keen, however, to see more stories addressing disability on screen. “It’s really important to remember that there are stories, specifically about disability, that also need to be told by people who have disabilities.

“I will write again. And there are things bubbling away, but I’m not putting any pressure on myself because, having worked with Russell, you realise, ‘Wow, my writing is terrible!’”

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