Years and Years creator Russell T Davies: caring for my husband is the greatest work I'll ever do
Andrew Smith and Russell T Davies were together for 20 years before Andrew died of a brain tumour in 2018
Russell T Davies arrives slightly breathless and immediately friendly. He is tall (6ft 6in), dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and hiking boots with a rucksack slung over one shoulder. In a single bound, he enfolds me in the warmest of hugs and pours himself a cup of tea.
We’re in the boardroom of the company that’s publicising his new BBC1 drama, Years and Years, which starts next week – his last was A Very English Scandal, with Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe.
It’s intended to be set in a dystopian future but feels anxiously all too recognisably like today. Did he feel that he could write quickly enough about the future to be ahead of the material he was creating?
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“The world is now so mad that it’s faster than my imagination,” he says. “I mean, at no point could I have imagined Donald Trump standing in a gold room full of hamburgers. It’s impossible to predict.”
The six-part series, which spans 15 years from 2019, has a terrific roll call of British actors, including Anne Reid, Russell Tovey, Jessica Hynes, Rory Kinnear and, in a splendidly splenetic role, Emma Thompson.
With the exception of Thompson, who plays populist celebrity-turned-politician Vivienne Rook – think Katie Hopkins meets Nigel Farage – the others are members of the Lyons family who live in Manchester. It’s an epic drama, with a shocking finale in the first episode, but at its centre lie the ties and tensions of family life.
As Davies says, it’s quite tricky to describe, “which is almost a worry when you’re pitching and selling to people because I like a one-line pitch”. I say it’s Peter Watkins’s 1965 The War Game meets Davies’s own Queer as Folk meets Doctor Who… “meets Cold Feet,” he adds. “The nice Manchester happy people. I love Cold Feet. Please bring back Cold Feet. PLEASE! This year was SO brilliant. Do I write a letter? Do I join that bandwagon?”
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The futuristic elements in episode one of Years and Years are tweaks of what exists now. Mobile phones are not triangular or circular or crazily different, but you can just tap one to another and contacts are miraculously transferred. The family talks regularly to one another in a big simultaneous conversation, walking around the house – not trapped by a screen on their mobile phone – “It’s a conference call, in a sense, but an updated one.”
Vivienne Rook’s political rise comes on the back of her deliberate provocation on the panel of Question Time, where she uses a four-letter expletive to express her lack of concern about Israel and Palestine. “She’s very aware of what she’s doing. It’s that modern trickster who knows how to play the media machine – it’s Trump, it’s Johnson, it’s Farage.
“In fact, by the time this interview sees print, Boris Johnson might be Prime Minister. It’s absolutely possible. Why? Because he’s so entertaining, because he’s so funny. This is what Trump is. The whole world has been Apprentice-d.
“Anne Reid does a speech where she says, ‘Beware the tricksters. The clowns. They will laugh us into hell.’ ”
Davies wants to stress the warmth and strength of the family in his drama because “don’t we all turn on the news now and say, ‘Oh for God’s sake!’ and turn it off? I can’t bear hearing all those people – on all sides. And as for ‘You pass my deal and I will resign…’ The lack of sense in that makes my head boil.
“So, I don’t want to present this as a drama that will make your head boil. It’s about people dealing with those issues, but it’s not about the issues themselves. It’s about how to survive.”
Is it the Philip Larkin line about all that survives of us is love? “Oh yes, yes, yes! Wait till you see the ending. Yes!”
Although Davies is at his saddest when we meet – the week marking six months since his husband and partner of 20 years, Andrew Smith, died – he is like a geyser erupting with many wild bursts of laughter and hilarity. Just turned 56, he and his two sisters were born and brought up in Swansea by Vivian and Barbara, who were both classics teachers. He is curious and generous – with his time, with himself. His voice is extremely musical, tilting up and down like the hills and valleys of Wales, and he can talk at a gallop.
In the late 90s, after years of being frugal and saving (£20,000 by 1995: “because people said, ‘As a writer you’re going to be poor, you’re going to live in an attic and you’ll need money to fall back on’”), Davies – then in his mid-30s – had a party animal phase, which came to an abrupt end when he suffered an accidental overdose.
Were you actually close to death? “I think it was pretty bad. Yes.” Were you taken to hospital? “No, so it wasn’t that bad, obviously. But if I’d gone a bit further… Anyway, it was an exaggerated version of the moment everybody realises, ‘Time to stop going out now and settle down.’ ”
Davies then set out to find The Boyfriend: “I thought, ‘I’m going to go out and if I sleep with a hundred men, one of them will do.’ I went out ferociously – five nights a week, looking for the one. And it worked. Andrew was number 35. I’m going to write a self-help book about this one day.”
Andrew and Russell met in a club “at ten to two in the morning”, Davies recalls to the minute. What initially attracted you to him? “Handsome. He was so handsome. Across the club I could not believe that there was this handsome man and he was looking at me. I literally did this [swivels around assuming it must be someone behind him]. All the time I was going out with him, I thought, ‘How did I get such a handsome man?’ ”
In his communicative way, Davies searches for a photograph of his late husband on his phone and presents an old picture of a dreamy-eyed Adonis in a black leather jacket. But, as he says, for the long term it’s got to be about more than the good looks, so what qualities was he looking for in The Boyfriend? “Well, you don’t know till you find him. Someone to have a laugh with, someone to be relaxed with – that’s all.
“Because my job is high-pressured. It’s tough. I have to have opinions and express what I want and be prepared to fight for that all day long. We both loved television and watched it all the time and we properly laughed. We used to laugh night and day.”
It helped that Andrew worked in a completely different world as a customs officer: “He had no idea that people wrote things. He said, ‘What do you mean, you write?’ ”
When the men met, Davies was already successful, working on Queer as Folk, which was to be his ground-breaking series for Channel 4. This preceded his even bigger hit, the revival of Doctor Who (a passion since childhood) into the must-watch Saturday-evening family show.
Back in 2011, the couple were living in Los Angeles, where Davies was in discussions about a television version of Star Wars, when Andrew was diagnosed with a brain tumour and given only a three per cent chance of recovery.
They returned to Manchester and Davies took two and a half years off work to care for his partner. “I was surprised by the number of people who were surprised that I did that, yes,” he says. That was his rainy day. All his years of putting aside his earnings went on caring for Andrew.
“I had the money saved up so nothing was a worry. We had seven years of that illness together, and it’s lovely to come and talk about my shows, but that’s the greatest work I’ll ever do on this Earth.”
I remind Davies that he once said, early on, that if Andrew had a heart attack, he would probably walk over his body to write his script. “All nonsense. I surprised myself because I thought my work was more important to me. I thought I’d have got a nurse in – I would never, ever have done that. He was a bit disabled but quite able-bodied so I didn’t have to do the dirty end of caring, but nonetheless I was there. He wasn’t steady on the stairs, so I was with him night and day to help him and get every meal ready.
“I was surprised by my patience and I’m surprised by how much I miss it. I knew I would miss him. I knew I would miss the love. But, actually, I loved caring for someone. There’s not enough written about carers. I never resented it but you would think, ‘Well, if this is over one day, I’ll be free.’ I imagined there would be a great freedom. I imagined I would run off to New York, but I’m here because I only want to go to New York with him, really. All that freedom that I imagined would exist means nothing.
“It’s six months this week. All the widows warned me that six months was hard, and it is hard. I expected to miss him but we knew he would die one day. We had 13 years before he was ill but it’s hard to remember that at the moment. I’m stuck in the last four weeks of him dying.
“Little by little, I know it will pass. I knew I would miss loving him, but what I didn’t know I would miss is being loved. That’s quite hard. That’s hideous, actually. No one warns you about that. I didn’t expect that to vanish but it’s just gone.”
Apart from his home in Manchester, the city he’s lived in since he was 24, Davies still has a house in Mumbles, Swansea, and he gets out his phone again to show the view across the whole bay, the curve of sand and sea, from his kitchen window. His sisters, both teachers like their parents, live there and he considers it to be his home also.
When he was growing up, the television was always on. “My parents were war children so it was almost like an extension of the radio that you kept on during the war.” In the 70s living room, all brown furnishings and art works made of string, the family would watch shows like I Claudius. “I was about 12 and it was full of orgies and stuff. The first men I saw kissing were on I Claudius.
“My mother was always in the kitchen and she was a phenomenal cook: she would do osso bucco and make real rum babas. They travelled a lot. On the day she died, the oven broke.”
From the age of 11, he knew how he felt about boys. You weren’t the only gay in the village, so to speak? “You were at that age, yes,” he says, “in the 60s.” John Inman and Frankie Howerd were on the telly… “You didn’t discuss them being gay – they were just ‘elaborate’.”
His father was a keen rugby player who came close to being capped for Wales and was chairman of Swansea Rugby Club for many years. Kingsley Amis, who wrote Lucky Jim when he was a junior lecturer at Swansea University and later The Old Devils, could have been writing about Davies’s parents since they were in the same set of friends.
“When it was on television, people were phoning me up and saying: ‘That’s your mum and dad on television!’ All those drunk people having gin and tonics, pissing in the garden and the women clinging to each other with laughter.”
Davies didn’t share his father’s enthusiasm for rugby and when a PE teacher at his vast school (with some 2,000 pupils, from which he got a place at Oxford) insisted that he play because he was “Viv’s son”, his father intervened. He picked his 11-year-old son up from school and they went for a walk. “He gave me the most fantastic little speech saying, ‘I do not expect you to love rugby. I see fathers bringing up their sons, making them play rugby and I think it’s wrong – you do whatever you want to do.’
“Little did he know! I took that to heart! HA-HA-HA-HAH. But what a wise thing for him to say. He was a good person and brought me up properly.”
He came out as gay to his parents when he was a punk in his teens. “You rehearse it but it doesn’t come out exactly as you imagine it,” he says. “I did my mum first and my dad second. My dad’s was like a rollercoaster of a sentence. I started over there [pointing to the right] – talking about France, and this sentence literally went up and down, over the hills and over the dales, and came back round through the corkscrew to say, ‘…and by the way, I’m gay.’
“Dad was very relaxed and said, ‘I thought so.’ Same with my mother. Because they watch you night and day. And you never stop coming out, do you? I come out every day.”
Davies didn’t talk about his job with Andrew, but his husband always watched his programmes on transmission. “That’s why I’m quite sad about this one. As he was dying, he said: ‘I’ll never get to see Years and Years now.’ And I said: ‘Oh, don’t worry, it’s rubbish.’ I thought it might make him feel a bit better. That’s terrible, isn’t it? Bless him.”
There is no comfort for him in the hope of rejoining him in the afterlife: “I don’t believe in it for a second, I’m afraid. My sister was with me as Andrew died and she said, ‘He’s here now. He’s looking down at us,’ and I said, ‘Stop. Stop now. Don’t do that.’ It was really nice of her, but it’s just not true. She said it for the loveliest reasons.”
Davies, like the writers he admires, is able to create worlds for everyone from children to knowing adults; fantasy to gritty reality and sometimes where they overlap. He holds no truck with the idea that you can conjure a way of being only if you have been that way yourself.
He quotes the example of Ricky Gervais’s Netflix series After Life, in which he plays a man dealing – badly – with life after the death of his wife. “It’s a fantastic piece of work and, as far as I know, Ricky Gervais has not experienced that sort of grief, and I have. I watch it thinking, ‘You have imagined this perfectly.’ His insight into your life alone once your partner is gone is horrifying and I think he has imagined it. Well done.”
Davies says that something may have been experienced but that doesn’t mean that it has merit if the person expressing it can’t write. “A sentence that has sustained me through all my writing is: ‘A moment’s imagination is worth a lifetime’s experience.’”
Years and Years begins on BBC1 on Tuesday 14 May
Russell T Davies portrait exclusively photographed for Radio Times by Ray Burmiston