Swansea-born writer and producer Russell T Davies, who splits his time between home country Wales and Manchester, the English city he has called home since his 20s, has been changing the way we look at queer characters on TV for decades now. He’s done so again brilliantly with quietly revolutionary hit show Years and Years.
Depicting the loves, laughs and losses of rambunctious Manchester family the Lyons, we follow them from now right through the next 15 years, as the world spirals out of control.
We see the fraught political divisions of our time blow up, with divisive issues like the refugee crisis amplified to nightmarishly dystopian levels. There’s a warmongering second term for US President Donald Trump, and Emma Thompson playing against type as Vivienne Rook, a disturbing, disruptive and dangerous Nigel Farage-like populist who rises to power by appealing to our basest instincts.
But as crazy as things get, including an episode one cliff-hanger that will leave you breathlessly distressed, life goes on. One of the absolute strengths of Davies, who successfully rebooted Doctor Who in 2005 after years of cancelled wasteland, is that he centres family in his stories, however fantastical they may be.
Russell Tovey (Looking) is the beating heart of this show that places homosexual love as a fact of life
Russell Tovey (Looking) is the beating heart of this show that places homosexual love as a fact of life, rather than a major plot point. He previously played a queer space pilot who hooks up with John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who, but here he comes back down to earth as housing officer Daniel Lyons.
While trying to deal humanely with an overrun refugee camp exacerbated by the effects of Brexit, the rollercoaster first ep sees him get married to his cute beefcake boyfriend Ralph. Played by Dino Fetscher, who starred in Davies’ intriguingly connected series Cucumber and Banana, their union is initially sweet. But, like many relationships, the hearts and flowers get a little lost in the hum-drum, inviting the creeping feeling they’re not all that alike.
Both out actors in an industry that perversely remains unwelcoming to open LGBTIQ+ stars, despite the proliferation of queer creatives, this realistic depiction of a recognisably mundane romance is quietly revolutionary in its own way.
It's further complicated by a frisson between Daniel and handsome Ukrainian refugee Viktor (Russian-British actor Maxim Baldry), fleeing persecution over his sexuality.
Tovey spoke to British website Metro.co.uk about his character Daniel, noting, “When it comes to how gay people are represented there’s been a complete shift from when I first started in this business. There’s more opportunity to show there are billions of different straight people – so why is there only one way to portray gay people?”
Davies, who nursed his long-term partner of 20 years Andrew Smith until he died of a brain tumour in 2018, has been at the forefront of shaking things up on the small screen, depicting queer lives that both joyously embrace the truth in stereotypes and cast them off.
It’s easy to focus on the shock and awe of Queer as Folk when Davies beamed gay and lesbian life loud and proud in all its messy glory onto screens globally in 1999. Drawing on his youthful adventures, while its depiction of shenanigans in a toilet cubicle between Charlie Hunnam’s underage Nathan and Aidan Gillen’s older Stuart shocked and outraged in some quarters, the show was just as much about coming out to biological family and creating a new queer one. It was a lifeline for many young LGBTIQ+ people who felt seen.
Just a few years earlier, Davies cast Sue Holderness as an Anglican Vicar, Joan, who came out as a lesbian in soap opera Revelations, a nuanced look at religion that was light on judgement. Bob & Rose depicted an odd couple ‘it’s complicated’ relationship between a gay man (comedian Alan Davies, no relation) and straight woman (Lesley Sharp), showing that coming out of the closet isn’t always an open and shut case.
And he’s not afraid to reveal the darker side of queer life. Recently he cast out actor Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott in the riveting A Very English Scandal. It relayed a sordid true episode of British politics in which a climate of persecution led to ugly blackmail, and then an attempted murder arranged by closeted MP Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant).
Years and Years explores how jealousy and infidelity can lead to catastrophe
For all the love displayed in Years and Years it, too, explores how jealousy and infidelity can lead to catastrophe. As he told Variety, “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.”
Once again with Years and Years, Davies has gifted us with a refreshing look at queer lives that are believably complex, tenderly depicted, but with all the prickles still attached. It’s magnificent, and magnificently unnerving, television.
Years and Years premieres Wednesday, 6 November at 8.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand with a double episode. Watch the trailer below: