In Years and Years, Russell T Davies captures the fear and uncertainty running through a population sleep-walking into disaster and issues an unequivocal call to action, writes Sofie Mason
I have been meaning to write a review recommending Years and Years for months and months (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) and I am relieved it is still available for you to watch on BBC iPlayer. From the number of people still talking about it, it feels as if it was a slow burn with word of mouth increasing viewing figures dramatically after the series ended. So what’s the attraction?
Well, it starts a bit ‘soapey’ based around several generations of a family but – while a soap such as EastEnders can, in the midst of the usual silliness of family feuds and disastrous affairs, cut right through to the heart of a current problem only to veer away leaving it at the door of someone else somewhere else in a world of responsibility that is very much outside Albert Square and impossible to influence - Years and Years is all about responsibility and the power to influence. And maybe we should not be surprised that Russell T Davies (the writer of Queer as Folk, Doctor Who and A Very British Scandal) has finally taken current politics by the scruff of the neck and dramatized it.
The family in Years and Years is very firmly rooted in the world and their story over 6 episodes forms a fast-paced, entertaining and heartbreaking analysis of capitalism going to hell in a hand-cart. Despite spanning 15 years (2019 to 2034) it’s more or less a depiction of now and works by intensifying our current anxieties: financial crises, terrorist violence, drowning refugees, an incurable flu epidemic, the threat of nuclear war, cyber attacks, power cuts, housing crises, refugee camps turning into concentration camps, electric food, disastrous floods in Lincolnshire, robots taking over our jobs so that the skilled middle classes end up in the badly paid precarious gig economy, hoax videos engineered by AI software putting false words into the mouths of public figures, smartphones embedded in hands and eyes as teenagers turn themselves into walking laptops, politics taken over by crude populists, the rise of a far-right party gaslighting a whole country, journalists banned and denounced, the BBC’s charter revoked, gated communities forcibly excluding the poor and a cup of coffee costing £12 in London.
The plausible is brilliantly extrapolated and pushed just far enough. The family moves from smug complacency to an increasingly horrified sense of a whole civilisation unravelling. All the things that we rely on to feel stable and supported, disintegrate episode by episode. One son wonders whether the human race, having thought all the finest thoughts and reached a pinnacle of creativity, has now just gone into reverse. He concludes that being born in the 80s was being born in a lucky ‘pause’ in hostilities rather than as part of the inexorable ascent of mankind.
The prevailing ideas that emerge under the layers of narrative are twin track – one is simply in praise of love. These are flawed and floundering human beings who do bad things in anger and revenge (the failed banker’s attack on a Deliveroo worker is particularly despicable and what he does to his brother’s lover is unforgivable) and who make bad judgment calls (I thought it well-observed that the well-intentioned eco-warrior allows her disgust at the establishment to slide into sympathy for the way the Farage figure is “shaking up” the system without foreseeing the disastrous consequences of the Farage figure). But the story shows that people can learn and change and even die for the love of another which elevates humanity firmly above the grubby logic of greed that capitalism teaches us.
The second parallel track is a rallying cry to fight back before it’s too late. So often we are presented by a totally depoliticised picture in TV dramas with no characters who are political or left-wing or challenge anything. As John Molyneux argues in Will The Revolution Be Televised (p.47):
“The refusal to deal with politics is not politically neutral. What it does is leave existing politics, i.e. capitalist politics, completely unchallenged.…Of course there is the odd exception, but the rareness of the exception really does prove the rule”
Years and Years is the exception. Admittedly, we do not see trade unions in action or a People’s Assembly or a Stop The War campaign or any organised left. Throughout history, the real fight has been in the streets and the workplaces but there is none to be seen here except agitation in other countries, glimpsed briefly on news bulletins. But the grandmother does call her offspring to account and accuses them of wasting years blaming others and doing nothing, of seeing the check-out girl being replaced by the check out machine and walking on by, falling for the lie that the system cannot be changed and that capitalism is as natural as the weather. We are all responsible for the kind of society we live in, she warns: “Beware the tricksters. Beware the clowns. They will laugh us into hell.”
A fight-back does begin on many fronts in the thrilling final episode and I am not spoiling it by simply listing the spontaneous mass action in the streets in one case (entirely believable and one wonders why it hadn’t happened sooner), government data analysts seriously breaching their contracts in another (a lovely example of how the working class may be smaller but, in being more skilled, it can be just as powerful), one worker whistle-blowing to the police and a covert operation by a small group of activists exposing the true workings of the refugee camps with the help of rocket launchers and social media (a winning combination to bear in mind!).
Despite every leftie wondering whether the police would have lost the whistle-blowing evidence in one of those freak filing accidents we know so well and, more importantly, worrying how long the street protests can be sustained without a revolutionary party - this is nonetheless a very clear and exhilarating call to action rarely seen on TV. Confused but hopeful, this is telling the viewer they will be “laughed into hell” if they don’t get off the couch and challenge the clowns. To be fair, it’s historically rare for grandmothers to trigger a class uprising so I feel it falls to us to encourage our friends to watch the series soonest so that we can turn to them when they next say that they are ‘with us in spirit’ and tell them that police cameras don’t count spirits and if they are not actually there on the next demonstration then how happy will they be to shoulder responsibility for what happens next? We are all responsible. Not to act on your beliefs is a political act.
Sofie Mason is a political activist, arts campaigner, trade union official and occasionally works for all-female plumbing company Stopcocks.
More articles from this author
- A story of class-based, state-sponsored fakery - The Capture review
- “Life-long member of the non-pretty working classes” - All Woman review
- Keeping Faith - review
- A Marxist guide to crime drama
- Better to overthrow the system than try to outsmart it: review of ITV's Cleaning Up
- Luther – Marx’s theory of alienation or biblical redemption?
- EastEnders at Christmas