Russell T Davies on the family-shattering twist in Years and Years episode four
The BBC1 drama's creator talks exclusively to Radio Times about a shocking death in episode four, the rise of a political monster – and what's coming next (WARNING: SPOILERS)
**WARNING: SPOILERS FOR YEARS AND YEARS EPISODE 4**
Set years in the future, in a world of strengthened borders and increasingly desperate refugees, Years and Years took a dramatic turn in its fourth episode. Viewers have been following the plight of Viktor (Maxim Baldry), boyfriend of Russell Tovey's Daniel Lyons, and the fallout to his deportation back to his home country, Ukraine.
Much of the series has followed the couple’s attempts to reunite – a mission that ended in tragedy at the end of episode four as the pair boarded an ill-fated boat in a bid to cross the English Channel. The closing minutes delivered an almighty shock, as Daniel was shown drowned on a south coast beach, while a shell-shocked Viktor returned to his flat in Manchester and informed his family.
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To mark the dramatic twist – and with just two episodes left to go – Radio Times’ Patrick Mulkern caught up with Years and Years creator Russell T Davies for his views on the series’ bleak turn of events – and to hear what’s next for the futuristic family drama...
Patrick Mulkern: The shock in tonight’s episode is the death of Daniel Lyons (Russell Tovey). It’s striking how across four episodes he has transformed from a housing officer indifferent in his dealings with asylum seekers (until he falls for Ukrainian Viktor) into a man who loses everything – his money, his passport, his identity, his life – as he himself becomes a refugee on a flimsy dinghy washed up dead on the south coast. It’s a dark and clever irony. Tell us more about Daniel’s development.
Russell T Davies: Well, this is the heart of the whole show. This terrible death. What Years and Years really sets out to do – and we couldn’t talk about this much when we launched the show, because we didn’t want this story to be spoiled – is to show how those events we think of as far-away, as other, as foreign, are closer than we think.
We imagine that drowning in an escape from one country to another is something that happens to other people. It could never happen here. When that toddler, Alan Kurdi, was washed up on a Greek beach, we all wept and said things must change. We must change. The world must change. Nothing changed. The problem gets worse and worse. And closer and closer.
When I wrote episode four, last summer, there hadn’t been any word of refugees crossing the English Channel. By Christmas, it was in the news every day. I didn’t show any particular foresight in writing about that, it’s bloody obvious. This has been heading our way a long, long time, and will not stop. And the proximity is actually irrelevant – it doesn’t matter where this happens, it matters that it happens at all.
It was such a difficult decision, to kill Daniel. When I pitched the show to the BBC, it was Viktor (Maxim Baldry) who died. But before I wrote episode four, I realised I’d got it wrong, that it should be Daniel who died, and I discussed it with Nicola Shindler, my executive producer.
“Write what you think is best,” she said. But I stuck to what I’d promised – I think I chickened out of the enormity of it – and wrote the first draft with Viktor dying. But it wasn’t as good. The series is about the Lyons family, and a disaster on this scale, which changes the entire show, has to happen to a Lyons. It’s about them. It happens to them. It changes them. In a series about a family experiencing the march of history, history has to stamp on them.
So then I wrote a second draft, with Daniel dying. And finally, it worked. We still hesitated – decisions are easy with hindsight, but at the time, we still weren’t sure. We weighed both scripts. Got people to read them. Re-read them. But in the end, we knew. I was just delaying really, but I was certain.
Daniel’s death has the most impact, so there’s no contest. Because you’re right, this has been Daniel’s development since episode one. An ordinary man in an unsatisfactory marriage. Becoming a better man, and through love, becoming aware of the plight of refugees across Europe. And then fighting for that. Until he gives his life for the man he loves. He’s travelled the entire road and his story is done.
Trouble is, realising this about Daniel was slap-bang in the middle of contracting Russell Tovey for all six episodes! I then had to phone him up, to run the story past him, and to see if he’d mind being killed off. While also keeping it secret! He does a good anecdote about that phone call, in which I sound like Noël Coward. “I’m killing you off, dear boy, it’s going to be wonderful!” And then Russell read the script and loved it. Thank God!
I guess talking about this in advance of transmission, some viewers might be upset by what happens. I’d guess we might get some anger from those complaining about the Bury Your Gays trope, when the gay characters are first to die, as if they’re more disposable.
I think the anger at that trope is a fine thing, I’ve certainly seen shows that have riled me. But for me, my passion for this story is about moving gay characters firmly centre stage. To become lead roles. Once you’re the lead, you’re subject to any and every plot. And if that means you die, then you die like a central character must, regardless of identity.
Jed Mercurio seems to have a passion for episode four deaths – Stephen Graham dies in Line of Duty episode four, Keeley Hawes was killed off in Bodyguard episode four. I love Jed’s work so much, I must have absorbed his structure!
But the point is, you wouldn’t categorise those as heterosexual deaths. So I don’t think of Danny’s death as gay. It’s the central plot of the whole show, it’s the hero’s journey, and his little glimpses of vanity in that episode are the hero’s crucial flaw. I love Daniel Lyons. I’ll miss him. That’s exactly the emotion I want to create.
I think the anger about dead gay characters also comes from the fact that, once dead, the rest of the drama then straightens around them. But that doesn’t happen here. Viktor is still very much alive, and the battle to save him on Daniel’s behalf becomes the spine of the rest of the show. And for a couple of weeks, we’ve had hints of a relationship between Edith (Jessica Hynes) and Fran (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). They take centre stage now and become a couple. The climax of the whole show in episode six is in their hands as they go to war against Viv Rook.
As well as them, we’ve got Bethany’s unresolved, undefined sexuality – her sister referred to her in Jamaican patois as a sodomite this week, which Bethany took with glee. And there’s a transexual character quietly and happily unfolding on screen right in front of your eyes. So we’ve still got a good mix. All without Daniel Lyons, of course, but his presence is massive – it’s a family at war, from now on, as they try to make things right.
Funny thing, but Mike Bartlett’s Press had a character on BBC1 called Danny Lyons. He died too! I emailed Mike saying “Unlucky name!”
PM: There’s a strong theme of betrayal in Years and Years. Another big moment in episode four is when Celeste finally, majestically, exposes Stephen’s affair with Elaine to the entire Lyons family. Much to their disapproval. How come, as mentioned in the episode, Daniel got off more lightly when he abandoned his husband and rushed to Viktor when the bomb went off in episode one?
RTD: Well, not all affairs are equal. Daniel was married to man who lived on his phone, thought that germs didn’t exist and was fascinated by a Flat Earth. And when Daniel did sleep with someone else, he didn’t exactly hide it. It was tough, but he very honestly left his husband.
Stephen, on the other hand, is so broken and beaten, he conducts a long, secretive affair over a long time while his wife works day and night to hold the family together. Neither Daniel nor Stephen gets it right, but I can sympathise with one more than the other.
And yes, by the way, isn’t Celeste majestic? It’s such a joy to see T’Nia Miller grabbing that part and running with it. She was in an episode of Banana [E4 2015], and I resolved then to work with her again. I think this whole cast is exceptional. Put together by Andy Pryor. There are no mainstream awards for Casting Director, there should be!
But the bigger point is, yes, the show sees relationships rise and fall, and even repeat to rise and fall again. But there’s a specific point to that, to show the passage of time. I was thinking about my niece, who had her 23rd birthday recently. And we looked at a photo of her 21st. Now, I think of my family as straightforward and settled. And yet, out of a photo of 12 people, within two years, one had died, one divorced, one dumped, and one…well, I can only describe it as banished. Long story. But she deserved it. And that’s an ordinary family. Life moves on.
PM: The ghastly Vivienne Rook (Emma Thompson) has finally become Prime Minister with her Four Star Party. Most of the Lyons family clocked her as a monster right from the start, but her rise has been inexorable and even the rebellious Edith appeared to be won over. Who did you have in mind when you developed Vivienne and how do you feel about the type of public figure she represents?
RTD: Oh, she’s the terror of the modern age. I think we can all point at her and say Boris or Trump or Farage or whoever this week’s monster is.
But she’s us as well, she’s every venal, selfish thought we’ve ever had, made flesh. She’s that voice, the online howl, she’s a crude thought expressed with comedy and vigour and venom. We wonder why these huge, populist figures rise up in society, but it’s because of us. All of us. We’re doing this. Not some other. It’s us.
That’s why, sometimes, I’ve had to make Viv say stuff I absolutely agree with. Her episode two speech about children’s access to porn via mobile phones is absolutely right. That’s terrifying. I saw a writer say recently that it wasn’t such a problem, because kids get bored of it after ten minutes. That’s not a solution, that just shows the problem darkening!
So, yes, Viv uses every platform, every notion, every craze to be heard. But we all do that, these days.
PM: Years and Years anticipates a near future many of us dread. As the series progresses, we see the collapse of world order, with the Lyons family lamenting the fall of western liberal democracies and the rise of extremism, be it far right or far left. You’ve always seemed a very cheerful and optimistic man. Have you changed and how closely does this series reflect your own anxieties?
RTD: I haven’t changed particularly, I don’t think anyone is only optimistic, or only pessimistic. Especially in my job. I’m employed to write something happy one day, tragic the next, a rom-com on a Wednesday and an apocalypse on a Friday afternoon.
That said, the world does seem to be extraordinary at the moment. I never thought I’d see the President of the United States keeping company with anti-vaxxers. Or people openly and seriously expressing Flat Earth theories. Or a government minister saying, “People in this country have had enough of experts.” So I suppose I feel more alarmed, these days. And these patterns seem to be so vast, I can see them going on long after I’m dead. I think this rollercoaster has got a long way to go.
But I’ve always worried about this stuff! I’ve thought, for decades, that gay rights are paper-thin, that the slightest switch in the vote could eradicate all that we’ve gained, in no time at all. I can see that possibility getting closer and closer, every year. And never mind gay rights, look what’s happening to women in the US. What a world.
So Years and Years isn’t a sudden reaction to life in Britain these days, it’s been building in me for decades. I’ve always had these worries.
It’s funny, I often think I’m influenced by the fact that my parents were classics teachers, and the house was full of books about Greek and Roman myths. I loved that stuff. So I’ve always been surrounded by stories about the collapse of civilisations. These books were about golden ages, now gone. There’s a story from Plutarch about the death of the Great God Pan. The actual death of a god is announced, and it echoes through the land, I’ve never forgotten that. So blame my mum and dad, I’m steeped in it.
That said, I think the one place we can have a happy ending is in fiction. And I have tried to show hope and resilience and triumph in Years and Years. Maybe the comedy is a bit dark – I’m in Wales at the moment and people keep telling me how funny the show is, which I quite agree with, so maybe it’s a Welsh sense of humour. Maybe it’s too Welsh! It’s not often you can say that. But honestly, I promise you, stick with it to the very end, and you’ll be rewarded. There is hope, and there is joy. It’s just quite a journey getting there.
PM: You’re not only having to keep one step ahead of the mad world of politics, you’re also imagining advancements in science and technology, such as phones grafted into users’ hands, trans-humans (people turning themselves into pure data), or the Blink, Vivienne Rook’s pen-like device that takes out every online device in the vicinity. What concerns do you have about the rapid pace of the technology – and shouldn’t you have patented some of these innovations?
RTD: Hah, I wish I could invent and patent that filter mask. Incidentally, that was meant to feature a lot more… but we’ve only got a decent TV budget, and that was an expensive FX shot, so the masks vanish after episode one! I almost put in a line about how they were discovered to be carcinogenic.
As for the Blink, that’s not very inventive. I think the very first episode of The Good Wife had a device like that being operated within a school. If I’ve remembered that right. I’ll nick from the best! But it’s easy to be cynical about technology at my age. When I was young, it was said that watching too much TV would stunt our brains, but I did all right. (OK, hold the comments.)
It’s important to point out that we witness the technology through Bethany, and she’s a lonely girl growing up on screen. So she gets it wrong. At first, it’s not the technology being evil, it’s just Bethany being young. But she grows up – Lydia West does the most extraordinary job at showing us Bethany growing into a woman – and by the end, she understands the technology, and the technology finally fits her. She’s in control of it, she’s an adult. It’s not giving too much away to say there’s a truly happy ending for Bethany. Trans-humanism isn’t about death and darkness; it’s about a new world that we’re taking a while to understand.
PM: What was the initial spark that drove you to write Years and Years?
RTD: It was Donald Trump’s election. That seems to be the pivot, the event around which our world turns. God knows where it’s heading, and God knows where it came from. We’re still working that out. Even Donald Trump doesn’t have an answer to that. But that’s what galvanised me – Years and Years had been sitting in my head for very many years, but that night made me open up a file and start writing.
PM: Doctor Who fans with good memories may recall that 11 years ago you created another Vivien Rook, a Mirror journalist played by Nichola McAuliffe and bumped off by John Simm as the Master. Why did you reuse that name?
RTD: Ah, just a great name. I used to love reading Jean Rook in the Daily Express when I was a kid. The first person I ever read criticising the royal family. The First Lady of Fleet Street, she called herself. She’s probably a great drama waiting be made!
PM: A friend said that episode one reminded her of your brand of Doctor Who, “only this hasn’t got the Doctor in it”. Aspects of Years and Years remind me of your brilliant 2008 episode Turn Left, where the world goes to pot after the Time Lord is killed. How much do you think your past work informs new projects as you develop as a writer?
RTD: Oh, sometimes I think I’m writing one long script. I think every show I’ve ever written fits into one big world. Bob & Rose could bump into Harold Saxon any day. I’m not just being glib – I kind of think about the things I write about all day long. That’s nothing unique, we all have stuff that we dwell on for the whole of our lives. So, yes, something I wrote ten years ago might surface in Scene 67 tomorrow. But it wasn’t ten years ago for me; it was always there.
PM: It’s a shame that Years and Years hasn’t quite taken off in the ratings, but those who are keeping with it seem to love it. How do you feel about the reception the series has received and that it isn’t reaching more people?
RTD: Ah, clearly I haven’t absorbed enough Jed Mercurio, he gets the ratings! I’m always torn between two extremes – I can’t believe anyone actually watches anything I write, while simultaneously believing that five billion people should be watching.
The insecurity and arrogance of writing go hand-in-hand. But still, I had a handwritten card from Alan Bleasdale saying how much he loved it. What a compliment, what an honour! That’ll do me. And we all hope an audience will come to find the show on iPlayer, so fingers crossed. We always knew, at every level, that this was a risky commission – how could it not be? So thank God for a BBC1 that takes risks.
PM: You told me that Years and Years gets “madder and wilder”. What can we expect in the final two episodes…?
RTD: Oh it’s heading for all-out war! It’s a tricky show to balance, because the Lyons family are completely ordinary – they’re not king-makers or millionaires; history happens to them, rather than them making it happen. That’s how Daniel dies, as a tiny figure in huge, terrible events sweeping across Europe.
But that’s all very well, in theory. Drama has other rules. Drama demands that characters can’t just sit back. So that’s the revolution, slowly in episode five and then hugely in episode six – motivated by Danny’s death – as the family finally stands up for itself. Just as the whole country is sliding into hell as Viv Rook reveals her final hand.
And the Lyons are not united, it’s a war of brother against sister, young versus old, family against the state. Explosions, riots, and some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen – there’s a terrifying showdown between Stephen and Celeste, which is truly devastating. You’ll see Jessica Hynes at her finest and bravest. A five-page speech from Anne Reid [as the Lyons’ gran Muriel], which is a simply an acting masterclass. Oh yes, I’m very happy with this show. I hope you enjoy it.
PM: How are things progressing with your next big project, The Boys (a series about the 1980s Aids crisis)?
RTD: Ah, it’s moving forwards with Channel 4. Faster and faster. It’s very exciting! Filming in the second half of this year. Though I get superstitious about talking too much in advance. I’m certain we’ll have to change its name because another show called The Boys exists, based on a long-standing comics title. So suggestions on postcard please!
Years and Years continues on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC1