This post contains spoilers for the first episode of the BBC’s Years And Years.
If I was to talk about Russell T Davies haven’t written a very political series for BBC One, you’d probably assume I was talking about last year’s A Very English Scandal. After all, that’s got all the elements of a political drama, hasn’t it? Lots of establishing shots of the Palace of Westminster, people giving speeches and getting elected, a noted actor (Hugh Grant) providing a memorable performance as an important politician (the former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe) and lots of lots of scandal.
Except that’s not the series I’m talking about. Think of it this way: where did actual politics and policy have a part in A Very English Scandal? Beyond acknowledging he was the Liberal leader, what part did Thorpe’s politics play in the drama itself? It was a political drama in the sense it was a drama about a politician, but the actual politics played next to no role in the drama itself.
No, the drama I’m talking about is Years And Years, the first episode of which arrived on our screens this week. It’s not promoted as being a political drama with only one of the main cast (Emma Thompson’s Vivienne Rook) even partially a politician — and she doesn’t even interact with the main characters during the first episode, spending her time as a person on the news or a background billboard instead.
This, though, is the key to understanding Years And Years as a political drama — it’s politics as most people experience it. There’s a disconnect in media depictions of politics and what we deem as “political” which sees most of it as what’s essentially an elite activity. The West Wing is perhaps the best-known example of this form of political drama with long tracking shots of big and important conversations between big and important men as they walk through the actual corridors of power. The consequences of any policies they enact are usually seen solely through the effect they have on their career, or on figures that they quote to each other. We rarely, if ever, get to see what effect these key plot decisions have on the people they’re supposedly governing.
On the other side, when politics affects “non-political” drama, it’s normally presented as a monolithic force: “the government” or “the council” have done something, usually completely out of the blue. Elections only feature rarely and then usually only if there’s a subplot going on where one of the regular characters has been persuaded to stand for election (with little or no mention of any party involvement). You rarely see characters talking about politics in the same way they might discuss sport or films or books.
But, the latter experience is the one that’s much closer to people’s experience of politics. It’s not something that intrudes on their daily lives, they don’t discuss it often, and they probably couldn’t name many, or perhaps even any, of the people who walk up and down having big and important conversations in the real world. (One televisual way to understand most people’s lack of interest in or knowledge of politics is to watch a politics round on Pointless and see how low every answer usually scores)
This is why Years And Years is interesting as a political drama as it makes an attempt to link those two different types of drama. The focus is primarily on the Lyons family and their lives, but we as viewers get to see the larger narrative being played out in snippets of news as the time passes by and also how those bigger forces affect the characters’ lives, and that’s what builds us up to the finale of the episode that pushes that theme to the forefront.
We’ve already seen how the Ukrainian crisis has had effects on Danny’s life, and had frequent mentions of the fourth Lyons sibling, Edith the globe-trotting political activist. Now, as Edith Skypes the family from a beach in Vietnam, another crisis we’ve had flashes of on the news escalates to critical levels. Sirens start blaring as the news comes out that the US, supported by Britain has launched a nuclear missile at an alleged Chinese military base on an artificial island and we realise that all the characters we’ve been focusing on have very little awareness of what’s going on and how the crisis has come to this point. They don’t suddenly reveal expert knowledge on the situation, allowing Davies to use their conversation to enlighten us on the situation. Instead, they’re panicked and confused, desperately trying to work out what the snippets of information they have might mean and how they might connect to what’s going on. As viewers, we’ve had the chain of events that lead to this laid out for us over the previous fifty minutes, but it’s a reminder that the characters haven’t had a writer and editor pulling out the information that will be relevant later for them.
This is why Years And Years is important as a political drama, because it captures the experience most people have of politics where something suddenly becomes an issue and you’re expected to have opinions on it. People aren’t studiously watching every development as it goes on, and adding new information to their mental filing cabinet, reassessing their whole suite of opinions in the light of new data. We’re chaotic, and choose to pick up, remember and prioritise information based on what can be purely arbitrary reasons, then when we need to have an opinion on it, we ransack our memory, trying to work out just what that is based on whatever’s floating nearest the surface at the time. This is a drama that’s not just about how big political events affect people, but how we come to understand and process them when they happen. It’s political drama but in a bold and different way that doesn’t take the characters’ knowledge of politics for granted and looks like it’s going to take us with them on their journey as their world becomes one where ignorance isn’t possible anymore.